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Girl On Girl Hate: On Gossip, Trashing and Socialised Behaviour

Margaret Atwood, the omniscient Goddess of our times, once wrote, “The world is full of women/who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself/ if they had the chance.” In spite of my blind faith in Ms. Atwood’s extraordinary gifts, I was quite unsettled by this singular statement when I first encountered it, mainly because it was the most insightful thing I’d ever come across in my entire fifteen years of existence. It was unnerving by virtue of its simplicity: nobody had put it quite so matter-of-factly before. I didn’t need corroboration; I could feel it in my bones. Suddenly, every hushed conversation in the school corridor seemed sinister.

It’s a conversation I’ve had practically every day, for the past two years or so of my life. Teenage girl or not, we’re all guilty of “discussing” other individuals from afar, and we are not obligated to be objective when we do so. The degree of intimacy between “us” and “them” is of no consequence. If you’re remotely interesting, you’re a person of interest, whether you like it or not. I have had a relatively modest experience in navigating the minefield that is Girl World, but it is fairly obvious to a novice such as myself that these conversations are weapons in a seemingly infinite war called Girl Hate. It is easy to undermine the after-effects of an unconsciously malicious exchange of words regarding another woman/girl by attributing them to plain gossip, but bad things happen when the petty crosses over to the unintentionally vindictive. People get hurt. Hatred becomes internalised. This is my reality, the reality of girls and women everywhere, and it might not be such a bad idea to lay down our weapons now.

I cannot quite recall my first brush with Girl Hate. It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of something which just floats in the air, like a potent idea which was always, “there”.I am constantly reminded of the numerous formulaic female rivalries that were/are/will be played out on screen. It seems to me that a good portion of a typical Indian soap opera, where two women hate each other, focuses on the hatred and the ensuing conflict. Comparatively, an insignificant portion of screen time is dedicated to establishing why it is imperative that one woman should despise the other. As an impressionable young girl, I absorbed the well-marked distinctions between the two stereotypes- the all-good, all-pious, virgin heroine, and her skimpily clad, garish, arch-enemy with terrible hair. In most Hollywood High School themed cinematic endeavours, the reasons behind girl vs girl drama are limited edition and priceless (the hot guy in school trope; the hot dress at the mall trope; the I’m-the-nerdy-ugly-duckling-turned-smart-swan-hence-I-have-a-greater-claim-on-world-hotness trope etc). But a consistent diet of similar and worse mainstream cultural fixtures numbs that small voice within us which says, “You know this is bullshit, you know it is.”So, even though you know that the lyrics to a popular song are offensive to women everywhere, you can’t help but sing along because it’s “kinda fun” and “catchy”. Suddenly, it’s okay to address to your female friend with a very colourful epithet because it’s the rage, and nobody seems to mind. It’s okay to call a girl a “slut” because her dress is too short/tight/ostentatious/perfect on her perfect body and because she prefers her male friends. It’s okay to sneer in her direction because she invites criticism, because she is an “attention whore”, and because she is asking for it.

And let’s not forget those who deprive the population of some healthy viewing time by covering up more than they should- there’ll always be that knowledgeable faction lamenting her lack of imagination and curves alike.

 A girl who doesn’t  clear the parameters of proper attire is an easy target, and the keyword here is “easy”. It’s easier to see things in black and white, once your eyes adjust to either, than it is to accept the complexities of the shades of grey. There is an inherent need to box up and categorise things. But human beings are messy, their individuality spilling over well-defined borders far too often for comfort, and the struggle to keep them confined is impossible. Therefore, somebody somewhere came up with the genius of “isolation based on appearance, and other superficial bullshit factors”. This is not only a powerful labelling instrument, but it is also a means of objectification. The former process enables haters to justify their hatred. A girl might be envious of certain aspects of another girl (this is a natural product of personal insecurities), but once she has a “name” for her, and she has “legitimate” reasons for not liking her. The burden of insecurities is a terrible one and the effort to overthrow it can kill, so we direct the effort in a direction away from ourselves: standing in the line of fire are our persons of interest. Now, I fully comprehend the implications of the phrase “bringing her down”.

The  process of objectification is a tricky one. A sensible person would blast me for thinking that Girl World is perpetually in a state of civil war, and that Girl Hate is merely a Girl-related phenomenon. Girl World cannot thrive in a bubble-like existence; it is influenced in equal parts by both outside forces and internal unrest, the culmination of which is in-fighting. The propaganda involved in the Goebbelsian campaign to objectify, trivialise, and reduce to extremes of sexuality and prudence a woman and her body, to dictate to her what is right and what isn’t, and to implicitly/explicitly urge that she should be punished if she deviates from norm is everywhere. You only need to look out of your window to spot that big, damning billboard of lies.

The need to objectify has become an internalised weapon, over the years. We use it all the time to dehumanise other women, to consider them wholly separate and somehow lesser than ourselves, because the same principles do not apply to the both of us. The double standards at work here are simple. It’s relatively harmless if I call her a “bitch” behind her back, but all hell will break loose if she calls me a “slut” to my face. Ms. Atwood wrote in another moment of clarity for me,“The rest of them would like to watch me/and feel nothing. Reduce me to components/as in a clock factory or abattoir.” This feeling of “nothing” is crucial if we are to absolve ourselves. And we virtually do feel nothing if we humiliate meat suits, don’t we?

  Now, let’s take women out of the equation- who concocts these lies? A patriarchy threatened by women? Corporations which need to sell women things they do not need? The Taliban? God? These prejudices are not natural, they are artifices disguised as standards. Women have allowed these ideas to overpower them. It is one thing to be the victims of these ideas and it is quite another to be the facilitators of their infliction.

I would be oversimplifying the crisis if I state that women are unconscious vehicles of patriarchy, because I would essentially be doing to women what I accuse the propaganda of doing to them- I would be dehumanising them. Women are not inanimate receptacles of nonsense. Let’s consider the other bank of the river too- this world is full of women who’d tell me I should be proud of myself, if they had the chance to. In our constant efforts to compete with and pull down each other, we girls forget a basic fact : We’re not all that different from each other. I would like to believe that Atwood’s Torch Song is about every person, every girl  who has, by virtue of his/her very existence, the capacity to stun. We belong here, we’re fighting in the same war, and we’ve all scarred and been scarred in return. We hurt as best as we heal. Shouldn’t the recognition of familiarity be reason enough to abandon this futile bloodshed then? It is a thing of infinite difficulty, this wrapping of our heads around the concept that another woman can have the same complexities, contradictions, insecurities, shames, joys, hopes, and desires, as us. Other women are not the real enemy. They’ve been through much of what we have- perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less.

I used to have this rustic theory which I’ve come to disown due to the frequency of Girl World- related heartbreaks. But I guess there is more to it than I ever believed possible. Women, biologically and psychologically, have a great capacity for endurance. History reeks of dark stories of how the female figure has been suppressed, oppressed, deprived, exploited, turned out, torn apart, flung and thrown and beaten and pushed and disregarded in a patriarchal world. Some accounts have gone so far as to state that women existed only because a) somebody had to go about the unpleasant business of bearing children b) somebody had to be at the receiving end of heterosexual male romanticisms and sexual urges c) Domestic balance and masculinity are two mutually exclusive things. This implies that women needed permission to exist.

Women have risen from the aftermaths of their humiliations because they wanted to, and because they had to. They braved life again and again and again because they found something to live for every time they were hunted down. They found in themselves- and others like and unlike themselves- the desire to continue. It takes every nerve and every drop of blood to console a racing heart after it has been dragged back to life from the jaws of death by saying, “It’s okay, it’s fucking okay.” But this isn’t a solitary, rare miracle. Women. Do. It. All. The. Time. They live more, more than they die.

Injustice isn’t done away with overnight, but survival would be easier if a woman identified herself in other women and allowed them in return to find in herself their own selves. The prevailing belief seems to be that the labelling and singling out of one aberration is an effective measure to keep the others in check. So the next time you hear of a girl being ridiculed for the clothes she wears, be aware of the fact that it is an insult to you too, by extension- you become as vulnerable a target as she is. You are not protected because you didn’t wear the clothes she did- you are now more exposed than ever just because you were born a woman. It can be said that logically we are most acutely aware of our own humanities, and we might succeed in recognising the humanity in others if we persevere to identify them, not as enemies, but as comrades who have a bit of ourselves in them. This is the opposite of the act of de-humanising. We are acknowledging the mortality and the reality of other women who are no longer amalgamations of outstanding parts which can be disassembled easily.

I might sound didactic when I say this, but I believe that for now, this is the only way to go: Love yourself, not only in your own body, but also love the you in other women. She is not a somebody who has nothing to do with you. She is you, and you are her. And that little bit of love will do you both some good.

Article by Priyanka Sen
Edited by Manisha

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