In the 2004 film “Mean Girls” we watched a group of high schoolers maneuver the delicate dance of adolescence. The film shed a comical light on the social hierarchies women navigate when competing for the prizes of patriarchy, that would be men, and no one was a bigger competitor than Regina George. Mean girl extraordinaire, Regina, and her crew of “plastics”, brought down a reign of teen terror all in the hopes of winning back the ultimate prize, a boy. But as competition intensified, everyone would soon realize that there was no victory to be had, especially Regina. The film unintentionally highlighted that amongst women living under gendered oppression, the victor, the villain, and the victim are often one and the same. Although a villain in her social circle, Regina George was no less a victim, albeit an unsympathetic one. And the same can be said for any young woman who believes that her feminine power rests solely in her ability to maneuver men. But we can’t blame young girls like Regina, we all learn fairly early on that boys can either make life heaven or hell for us. And when you ingrain young girls with the belief that the quality of their life is predicated on their ability to be selected by men, other girls stop being advocates and start being adversaries.
What happens when a woman devotes her energy to chasing the spoils of patriarchy? She becomes a mean girl. She becomes the woman who only befriends men because “other women can’t be trusted”, but the reality is that she struggles to decipher potential collaborators from competitors. The movie “Mean Girls” may have used adolescent voices to tell its story but there’s little question that some of the meanest girls around are adult women. And because patriarchy wouldn’t function if it were any other way, these competitive instincts we see exhibited amongst women are arguably patriarchy’s saving grace. How so? Well, let’s unpack the pieces. Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power and dominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of the property. Patriarchy is marked by the legal dependence of women and children and the recognition of descent and inheritance through the male line. It is rooted in gender-based violence and fundamentally influences power relations between men and women, as well as men and other men. And although that tends to be where the conversation fades, a lesser discussed relationship that suffers under the weight of gendered oppression is the relationship between women and other women.
Let’s look at Chimpanzees for a moment, who are notoriously patriarchal. Males utilize aggression, violence, and intimidation to establish rank amongst one another for the purpose of securing resources, land, food, etc. These same tactics are then utilized by males to access and control their female counterparts. They commonly exhibit acts of sexual aggression towards female chimps during monthly swelling, which indicates peak fertility, punish them for interacting with other males within the community and ostracize them for fraternizing with male chimps outside of the clan, essentially using intimidation to hoard mating opportunities. Male chimps steal food, commit infanticide, and aggressively engage female chimps at their whim, establishing a dangerous dominance hierarchy within the species that mirrors the one we see in humans.
A dominance hierarchy is formed when an animal repeatedly receives a submissive or compliant response from another animal in aggressive encounters. This submissive response reinforces the aggressive behavior and from there, a social ranking system is formed. This ranking system creates the appearance of order by reducing conflict and averting most violent encounters, simply because each party knows their role. Dominance hierarchies aren’t about satisfaction or suitability, they’re about survival. The dominant party uses whatever methods accessible to them, including intimidation and violence, to secure resources, ie, currency, food, land, influence, etc. and the submissive party appeases the dominant one in exchange for access to those resources and safety, either of which can be retracted at any time. In order to maintain this hierarchy, which almost solely benefits the dominant party, both roles must be filled, and the way the submissive party is kept in submission is by being convinced that that role is the safest, most foolproof option for them. Unfortunately, science says that’s not true.
Not only does science say the submissive role is the least desirable one in society, it also says it’s the most dangerous. In adaptation to their staunchly patriarchal environment, female chimpanzees have mastered submissive posturing when it comes to dealing with male chimps. But their frustrations can easily be seen in the way they interact with one another. Female chimps compete for food, territory, and male attention, often attacking female chimps from neighboring communities and sometimes killing their offspring. With little to no direct paternal care in chimp communities, female chimpanzees focus their efforts on decreasing competition which often equates to greater access to resources. And as evidenced by a documented correlation between population density and acts of aggression, the more competition that exists for males, the more aggressive the female chimps became with each other.
In contrast, female Bonobos, a relative of the Chimpanzee, demonstrate how friendship and collaboration can form a direct counterattack to male dominance. Female bonobos form treaties with one another, always defend one another in conflict against male bonobos, and hoard food for one another. Female bonobos discovered that upon prioritizing the long term health of the whole group over the temporary contentment of the individual, they all faired better, essentially stripping male bonobos of their ability to leverage resources for control. What female bonobos prove is that the most effective way for women to counter the effects of patriarchy would be to behave amongst unrelated women as though they were related, but that’s hard to do when you see all women as a threat, even kin. In a male-dominated society, women are never truly safe, not around men, and often times not around one other. Patriarchy isn’t just a bunch of humans behaving like primates because nature says so. It’s the systemic sanction for one group and orchestrated oppression for another. And when oppression turns your collaborators into competitors, your progress becomes a lot less plausible.
Patriarchy has played us all. As it pertains to our struggle against gendered oppression, patriarchy has monopolized our efforts by allowing men to centralize themselves in this discussion, just as patriarchy would have them do. But a major component of patriarchy has to do with how we interface with one other when men aren’t present. And countless women-led organizations established for the purpose of opposing gendered oppression have demonstrated that it's not enough to be anti-patriarchy if you’re not pro womanhood in all its’ forms. We cannot be for women and against women who “women differently” than us. Simply put, conditional feminism is just as productive as no feminism at all, and how much more evidence do we need to acknowledge that we get nowhere when we behave like men towards one another. This doesn’t mean we overlook destructive behavior and toxic thought processes, but it does mean that we learn to correct one another in love and in patience. It does mean that we recognize one another’s victimhood, even if it presents differently than our own. And it does mean that we give each other space and the support necessary to become former misogynists because we all had things we had to unlearn. Patriarchy’s secret weapon is our disjointedness, but the keyword in that is “our”. It’s time we took that back.