Women can critique each other without a catfight

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
The Punch /
March 1, 2011 /

Link to original unavailable /

From the very second those stolen/borrowed nudie rompin’ footballer photos were released, the “St Kilda schoolgirl story” has had me biting my tongue.

I bit down through the girl’s distribution of those handwritten “Women’s Rights” and “Fight the Power” flyers at the training session. Bit down a little more watching her YouTube testimonials. And while reading her Tweets. And her blog. And I bit down a whole lot more through her drip-drip video releases.

I bit down because biting down is exactly what’s expected of me. Women just aren’t supposed to criticise other women. Least of all not 17-year-old girls.

This article isn’t really about the St Kilda debacle. It’s precisely not about the scandal because stronger than my compulsion to write about it is the pressure I feel to zip my lips. Instead, this article is about the silence that many women – many feminists – feel we need to uphold when it comes to the curious behaviour of our sisters.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about what I considered to be the PM’s parliamentary crocodile tears. Among the reader comments were digs about catfights. About women apparently revelling in the opportunity to slag each other off. Strange comments about the addiction we all apparently have to bitching. To mocking. To showing scorn.

Evidently, there’s only one possible reading of one woman criticising another and that’s the catfight angle. A narrative we’re all too familiar with.

Women are continually told that we’re our own worst enemy. In my private life men have repeatedly dared suggest to me – completely unsolicited – that only women care about skinniness. That only women remember what anyone’s wearing. That only women call each other sluts.

This kind of rubbish, this kind of hideous perpetuation of the worst gender stereotypes, works to serve one very insidious agenda. One that involves silencing women, one that involves punishing them for expressing an opinion and one which works to reduce women’s commentary to schoolyard dribble.

As I expressed in a dozen or so media interviews back in June, I am thoroughly delighted that we have a female PM. But. Our PM’s gender doesn’t dilute the fact that I’m a media commentator. Her gender doesn’t make me less of a writer, less of a political scientist, less readily inclined to criticise her manipulation by image consultants. Even when we both possess a vagina.

Not everything is a gender issue. Not every criticism made by a woman is grounded in bitchiness, jealousy or vitriol. Not every comment is motivated by an innate need to jump into a vat of jelly and wrestle until we’re spent.

As the St Kilda schoolgirl story unfolds, I’ve been biting my tongue and cringing and watching coverage through slightly parted fingers.

My behaviour is underpinned by being all too aware that the very second I dare speculate on motives, dare use words like entrapment or media pimps or men’s magazine covers that I know exactly the direction that reader criticism will head.

Even if I’d just be saying what a good lot of us are thinking.

So instead, I play a different game. One that involves reminding myself that the St Kilda schoolgirl is only 17. Reminding myself that she probably was screwed over by some halfwit players. I keep reminding myself that wanting a cover shoot with Ralph for one’s 18th birthday is as legitimate an aspiration as any other. I keep reminding myself that feminists fought for her right to make her own choices. I keep telling myself live and let live.

Sending myself such memos is no easy feat.

The same Zeigeist that encourages detractors to pounce on any woman daring to criticise another is the very same one that dictates that today choice reigns supreme. That to dare suggest some choices might be a little dodgy is nothing short of wowserism.

I say this precisely because I am exactly the kind of female writer who constantly advocates choice, even those choices which conflict with my values and politics and sense of taste.

My criticisms of the PM’s waterworks were underpinned by my own distaste for orchestrated emotion. It wasn’t a gender issue.

The St Kilda scandal is a gender issue. A gender issue just as much as it is a junk news issue, a new technology issue and a spurned love issue. I’ll just need a little longer before I can brave the wrath and the anti-feminist clichés that will follow any critique I dare write.

© Lauren Rosewarne