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Why Do We Continue To Glorify Female Rivalry?

Female rivalry is a tale as old as time, with literature, films and television often pitting women against one another for entertainment purposes. 

The idea of female rivalry has spanned centuries and mediums, from history (Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth), literature (Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield), fashion (Donatella Versace vs. almost every female designer), film (Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield), sports (Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan) and “reality”, just take your pick of which The Real Housewives. The perceived tension between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie has undoubtedly sold thousands of tabloid magazines since 2005, and the not-so-alleged rift between Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian resulted in the record-breaking release of album Reputation, and no doubt higher ratings for Keeping Up With The Kardashians. 

But why do we, still in 2019, continue to capitalise on the theme of female rivalry? 

A fair bit of research has been done on female competition, with two main theories emerging. 

When it comes to why women tend to compete against one another, two main theories emerge. Evolutionary psychology, which uses natural selection to explain our modern behaviours, says that women need to protect themselves from physical harm, and thus their ability to produce a child.

"When we look at evolutionary psychology, we can look at natural selection and women’s need to protect themselves from harm and make themselves attractive to the opposite sex," Lysn psychologist Noosha Anzab says. "In the 1850s Charles Darwin established the dominant theory surrounding intra-sexual competition, which states that members of a certain sex are vying for members of the opposite sex for ‘reproductive rights’. Darwin’s theory was largely focused on males battling for females, however as the theory of evolutionary biology progresses, women have been incorporated into the intra-sexual competition fray. Competition between females can be seen as a battle between each other with the result of wanting to be prized by men.

"Sounds awfully archaic, however, it stems back to the theory that because men can impregnate women, we associate our value to them and therefore turn on each other in competition for that prize. Additionally, women tend to turn to competition to criticise and compare the character, appearance, age and capacity of their competition in order to promote their own attractiveness and youth for the same reason."

Feminist psychology suggests that indirect aggression to internalising societal values. Research tells us that women are compelled to level the playing field by any means necessary to make sure we have access to the best genetic material, but since these are not real concerns in our modern lives, our competitiveness becomes something a bit more private and understandable. 

While female rivalry is often confined to distant stories and fantasy, one recent example has hit home on our Australian screens. 

The ongoing spats between Married At First Sight's Martha and Cyrell, and consequently the co-stars on 'their sides', has begged the question while we're so obsessed with still seeing this storyline play out in front of us. Does it appeal to our desire to be better than our female friends and co-workers? Does it fuel our incessant need to be better than those around us? 

Why are women so interested in watching female competition play out on screen?

"Besides being a source of entertainment, the reasons for this can be varied depending on the individual," Anzab says. "For some women, watching competition allows them to get a glimpse of an openly shared version of sharing their own natural competitive spirit by watching it play out on the screen instead. For others, on-screen competition could be a safer way to explore competition without delving into their own feelings and insecurities. Other interests stem back to deeper psychological reasons, often with the female being completely unaware of why they take enjoyment out of it. It’s deep in their subconscious stemming back to evolutionary psychology - watching other females competition can simply promote their sense of self, whilst hindering the worth of the rival instead."

Is female rivalry hurting us in the long run?

"Yes, it certainly is – both short term and long term," Anzab explains. "Any actions where we compete and undermine each other is never a positive thing. These types of behaviours are often driven by insecurity, where we don’t believe in our own abilities to get us ahead. So then we compete because we see others as a potential threat to our own success. Women should be able to share their accomplishments with each other and encourage other women to succeed and really embrace each other's capabilities."