[blogathon] Female Bullying, Internalized Misogyny, and Challenging Cognitive Bias

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I’ve seen a lot of great articles lately about women who don’t like women and don’t have female friends. One starts out:

For as long as I can remember, there’s been this sub-breed of girls and women who seem to think that not having female friends is a noteworthy, noble way to live. “Guys don’t cause drama,” they say. “Girls are catty/ jealous of me/ the devil,” they say. To those girls, I have a response: the problem is you, not every other woman in the universe.


Coed friendships are great, I’m not knocking them. What I’m knocking is the idea that females are incapable of providing someone with the same support a male friend can provide. What I’m knocking is this notion that treating women like a bunch of catty chickenheads somehow makes you the one and only non-catty, non-chickenhead. Not every woman is dramatic. Not every woman is jealous. To say otherwise is to put yourself on a pedestal where you are the one true goddess, the one woman who “gets it,” the one woman who is unique and special and one of the guys and something no other woman can be. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t live up to that fucking standard. You couldn’t pay me to try.

I’ve heard this sort of stuff a lot, too, and I used to say it myself. Women are jealous. Women gossip. Women are boring. Women just don’t get it.

Of course, I was wrong. But I do think that these articles largely fail to explain the proximal cause of this distrust of fellow women (the distal cause being socially-sanctioned misogyny and devaluation of women’s friendships): bullying.

Most people are unwilling to express vulnerability in front of others. So I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these women who say stuff like “I just don’t trust women” and “Women will just stab you in the back” might be speaking from personal experience. A comment that puts it much more strongly than I would:

I think the article would have been much more honest if you could have conceded that these women might have at some point, been victims of “mean girls.” You just vilify a group of women who have most likely come up with this sad mantra as a coping mechanism because they’ve been rejected by women, and you don’t go into the potential causes of their attitude. You just paint them as two dimensional women-haters when that is most likely not the case. Most women who feel alienated from other women have mother-issues- their moms refused to bond with them or even were abusive, and may have treated them as “competition” as they got older; and/or they were subjected to “mean girl” treatment; targeted and bullied by a group of women at work or in school. This is phenomenon that has been well-documented, and unlike you, scholarly studies rarely point the finger at the victim.

I don’t agree with all of this comment and I think the part about “mother-issues” is a huge presumption. But there’s some truth in it, I think.

Of course, bullying isn’t limited to any gender. However, the type of bullying that seems to cause the most lasting insecurity when it comes to friendship is relational bullying, which (according to some of these “scholarly studies”) is more common among women. Relational bullying relies on psychological manipulation, which often requires close ties like friendship. (A lot of my perspectives on this are informed by Rachel Simmons’ book Odd Girl Out.)

However, consider the difference between women claiming to dislike other women and women claiming to dislike men.

Despite the fact that many women have been hurt by men–in many cases to a greater extent than they’ve been hurt by other women–it’s not acceptable in our culture to declare, as a woman, that you “just don’t trust men” or that you “just can’t get along with men.”

You might argue that this is because women are expected to want/be able to date men, but it’s not even okay to say that as a lesbian. In fact, some people still think that lesbians are just straight women who hate men and decided to play for the other team.

On the contrary, men who have been hurt by women face few social repercussions for claiming that all women are bitches, that you can’t trust a woman, and so on.

So I do think that sexism is at play. If it’s more acceptable to make generalizations about all women after being hurt by a few women than it is to make generalizations about all men after being hurt by a few men, it’s more difficult to let women off the hook when they claim that women just can’t be trusted.

On a psychological level, though, it makes sense. Gender is a very salient category for people and they can’t avoid perceiving it and thinking about it (as much as we may wish that they could). Sometimes when you get hurt by someone whom you have placed into a category that’s salient for you, you end up reflexively terrified or distrustful of others in that category. To make an overly simplistic analogy, if you encounter an angry dog that bites you, you might be scared of all dogs afterwards.

Is this rational? Of course not! But that’s how our brains are set up to work. And I think it’s absolutely vital to be mindful of this and to work to correct our biases, but I also think that this means we might want to be a bit more gentle with people who are stuck in this frame of thinking.

That’s why, as much as it bothers me to hear women say things like “I just don’t trust women,” I realize that it might be coming from a place of unresolved pain and unchallenged cognitive biases. As someone who is both a skeptic, a feminist, and a person who cares about helping people feel better, I think a bit of sensitivity is warranted–even if we acknowledge that statements like these are misogynistic at face value.


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[blogathon] Female Bullying, Internalized Misogyny, and Challenging Cognitive Bias
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30 thoughts on “[blogathon] Female Bullying, Internalized Misogyny, and Challenging Cognitive Bias

  1. 1

    I was wondering when someone besides me would get around to noticing this. I’ve seen the kind of bullying – relational aggression and gender-policing and gender policing and gender policing – that many, many women, not just a few easily identified “mean girls” subject each other to. It’s basically the flip side of the reasons I don’t like to hang out in groups of other males, and it’s always struck me as sickeningly wrong that women who get sick of this kind of dynamic and avoid the opportunity for it (and/or who happen to prefer more traditionally “male” interests and modes of expression, hence the gender policing) are treated as though they’re traitors somehow* – I know if I identified as a woman I damn well would.

    *Come to think of it, this “traitors” thing is almost like another form of the same dynamic, isn’t it?

    1. 1.1


      I think you have the key to this thing right fucking there. Or, rather, gender policing + [especially internalized] misogyny.

      As a girl who isn’t particularly good at “girly things”–I can’t do makeup worth a damn, it took me a very long time to learn to manage my not-actually-all-that-difficult wavy hair, I still can’t paint my own nails without making a fucking mess, as a young girl/teen I failed to develop crushes on guys and therefore had no interest in talking about said crushes, the list goes on–there was certainly a point at which I found that I enjoyed the company of boys more than the company of most girls. And the girls who I DID hang with? Tended to be girls who also “didn’t like other girls.” Why?

      Because when I failed at adequately performing femininity around other women, I stood the risk of being mocked, condescended to, pitied. On the other hand, my LACK of overt femininity (and my somewhat-consequentially low level of caring about doing “girl things” versus “boy things”) was frequently REWARDED by the men in my life– “You aren’t like those OTHER girls”, “You’re almost like one of the guys”. Of course, I was only able to regard those as uncomplicated compliments because of my own internalized misogyny that said girliness = bad… but doing so was also rather self-serving. I wasn’t good at many aspects of girliness, so of course it felt good to put down the girls who were, to frame it as an asset rather than a defect.

      Of course, me being bad at makeup and dressing up and being bisexual-leaning-slightly-more-towards-women and all those other things that made me one of “those” girls that claimed to prefer men…. are not good or bad things. They just are. There is no inherent moral value to make-up skills or boy-crushing.

      It’s fucked that we live in a context that makes us feel we need to take some kind of moral stance on femininity vs masculinity and then defend the position we stake out. My choice to perform femininity at the level I do (which is to say, somewhat, but not a lot) does not make me better or worse than women who make other choices. And now I get that.

      I think the issue here is that separating out “some people tend to make me feel shitty about my general life choices and particularly how I express my gender” and “historically, the people who have tended to do this to me have been women, particularly those who are more feminine/girly than me” instead of declaring “I dislike most women”… that took some time and thought and active consideration of feminist arguments.

      Frankly, I am still wary of hanging out in large groups of ONLY women, because there is still lingering anxiety there, tied to a still very strong memory of a crippling sense of inadequacy that I often felt in those groups when I was younger. On the other hand, I no longer get any particular pleasure from being “one of the guys”, because now the misogyny inherent in that statement is clear to me, and it stings. In general, I now am most comfortable in mixed-gender groups when socializing with people I don’t know very well, because it feels the least risky. But mostly, I just try to chose really awesome people to hang with who I can trust to not make me feel judged from either direction.

  2. 2

    We had a conversation once where you were talking about CBT and you used an analogy to a form of fallacious thinking – I forget what it was called – that was something like “Looking where the light shines.” I think you were talking about excitement about the success of CBT based on research being partially because it’s one of the more easily researchable techniques. This type of stereotyping feels similar to what we were talking about. Gender is easy to see. It’s, in a metaphorical sense, somewhere there is always light shining.


  3. 3

    When I was growing up I had very much internalized the attitude of “I’m not like those other stupid girls,” even though most of my friends were female – smart, capable, talented girls. Cognitive dissonance on my part. I participated in some activities and subcultures that were pretty male-dominated, and I heard from my (fewer) male friends “You’re not like other girls” and “You’re practically one of the guys” and similar things. I thought those were compliments – that’s how much misogyny I had internalized. It even led me to excuse and minimize bad behavior on the part of the guys I hung out with, because if I didn’t let on that it bothered me, it wasn’t a big deal. Therefore any girl who did say that it bothered her was “over-reacting.” I did view other girls (and, as I got older, other women) as rivals. And though most of the bullies who interacted with me were girls, I cannot honestly lay the blame for my attitude on those experiences, as painful as they were.

    Even with example after example of wonderful, intelligent women in my daily life, my internalized misogyny didn’t allow me to recognize the dissonance until I did some growing up, and a hell of a lot of reading. Sometimes conflict with other women (at work, in social settings, etc.) still stirs up that reaction in me, and I have to consciously quash it. It’s a work in progress.

  4. 4

    Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye is a wonderful fictional treatment of girl-on-girl bullying and its effect on the victim’s future relationships with women.

  5. 5

    I’m really, really, REALLY old, and all my life I’ve trusted women more than men (and I’m hetero – 2 great-grandchildren). But then, early on, I read “Against Our Will” and the one by Simone Beauvoir (sp?) “The Feminine Mistique” and my personal observation is: Think of the most awful things in the world today – chances are they’re all caused by MEN. And I don’t really “hate” men, but I DO hate their attitudes, assumptions, expectations,and sense of entitlement.

  6. 6

    Great post!

    I like your points about female-on-female bullying, as well as the double standard that makes “I hate women” an admissible statement while “I hate men” is over the line.

    The part about mother issues rang very true for me; I’ve never really felt like I couldn’t be friends with other girls, and have always had girl friends as well as boy friends, but I have had problems with women in authority at various points in my life. (Many of them overlapped with my problems with *any and all* authority, but there was definitely some that was directed at women only, that I now recognize as sexist.) Those periods were when my relationship with my mom (which was never bad, but even good relationships aren’t always good all the time) was most strained. I’m sure I was projecting my resentment of her onto other female authority figures.

    (I will admit to a certain impatience with the recent focus on relational bullying in girls, even though I know it’s a big deal and it hurts, because I’ve noticed it’s changed people’s conception of what bullying is. On some levels, this is good: it reflects people’s knowledge that verbal abuse and emotional abuse matter too, but I also think it might give people the idea that girls are never bullied physically, or by gangs of boys.)

  7. 7

    Well, girls are complicated.
    Much more so than boys.
    How do I kow? Well, dozens of other parents told me so.
    Really, it’s not like children are individuals. And those attitudes get handed down to their sons AND daughters. And they get stereotyped as such.
    You can spend a day with other parents at the zoo and see their sons behave in very similar ways to my daughters, and hear them complain about very similar problems that I have and including some problems that I fucking don’t have and they will still insist that raising boys is so much easier than raising girls, even though five minutes ago they told you how they’re barely coping.
    I think that both ways, the girly-girl way and the “one of the boys” way are attempts at scoring points with the dominant group.

    1. Sim

      I take some umbrage with a couple of your points, namely that children aren’t individuals.
      Why do you think that?
      And girls are more complicated than boys?
      Again, why do you think that? What evidence to you have that that is true, how do you measure ‘complicatedness?
      I don’t particularly like the undertone of simple = stupid, in the statement ‘girls are complicated, boys are simple.’ (Not exactly made by you, but often bandied around and implied in your statement).
      I think a woman trying to raise one or more boys on her own will discover that boys can be very complicated to handle as well.

  8. 8

    Anecdata: I was one of those women-who-don’t-like-women until a few years after uni.

    Because I was bullied like freaking whoa in school. And most of my bullies were girls. It was a girl who faked being my friend so she could get me to trust her so that she could then steal my diary and read it aloud to the class. It was another girl who faked being my friend so she could go to my house, steal from my family and make fun of my chemistry set to the class. It was an adult woman teacher who was the ringleader of the bullies from third grade through seventh – who, among other things, gave kids who were mean to me (hitting, calling names, etc) rewards and ensured I was punished for lying or being a tattle tale whenever I told. With only one exception, it was girls who called me names, girls who betrayed me, girls who played malicious tricks on me, and girls who beat me up.

    So that definitely caused wariness on my part. And even now, I’m prejudiced against women who look and act like the girls I was bullied by. I know it’s prejudice – I’m sure a lot of the women who I’ve kept wary distance from are perfectly nice people (one of my coworkers certainly is – though I’ve been working with her for three years and only now am starting to be able to relax around her), but I hear that verbal tic or see that particular hair toss, or whatever, and my adrenaline shoots through the roof and I just can’t not be on edge around them. My childhood conditioned me to view them with fear and suspicion, so I do. 😐

    1. 8.2

      I had a similar experience except the kids didn’t get physical. The bullying and name-calling were relentless but fortunately I lived in a largish city and found friendship with the musical kids. I grew up with brothers and that messed me up a bit but being bullied was much more influential than sexism at home. I still mistrust attractive women, especially blondes. In our school the blonde girls were the queen bees and teachers’ pets. I have found through trying to set that aside and getting to know adult blonde women that sometimes they really still are the grown-up versions of the horrible girls who tormented me as a child.

      I realize in hindsight that introverts are mistrusted by extraverts who can’t “read” us and therefore wonder if we’re up to something, or hate them, or are hiding some freaky wierdness. I have learned to act extraverted for work but my heart belongs to introverts, male or female.

      1. That’s part of it. The other part is that I was very obviously different in appearance (overbite + glasses + small for my age), heritage (German surname in a Scottish area, and moved there from away in an old community), interests (science nerd and unashamed geek), religion (none in a heavily Christian area), coordination (almost nonexistant) and social interaction (namely: I’m bad at it). I’d be surprised if a kid like me wasn’t bullied, given how much our society values conformity.

  9. Pen

    When I was younger I was influenced by a strong heterosexuality that made boys interesting to look at before they even spoke, whereas girls were not. On top of that, I preferred traditionally boyish activities.As an adult this is still the case, but I also realise that both those things involve appreciating people at a pretty shallow level and have nothing to do with deeper values. On the other hand, I still find it easier to start a conversation with someone who is attractive and interested in the same things as me. In order to get close to women I generally have to work through those early levels of relationships that do tend to be a bit shallow and focus on commonplaces. One of the problems perhaps is that we all use gender to try to establish what those commonplaces might be. My worst ever house guest experience was a woman who, after realising that I didn’t know that much about her profession, IT, wouldn’t be dissuaded from talking to me about shopping for dresses and shoes (her second favourite interest) for two whole weeks. I would have preferred IT and I’m surely not less competent at discussing it.

  10. 10

    gender policing—my daughter was eight years old and her favorite cartoon was the super robot monkey team—she swore me to absolute secrecy about it too, because the other girls at her school made fun of her for liking a “boy’s cartoon”—same deal two years later with naruto shippuden

  11. 11

    Of course, bullying isn’t limited to any gender. However, the type of bullying that seems to cause the most lasting insecurity when it comes to friendship is relational bullying, which (according to some of these “scholarly studies”) is more common among women. Relational bullying relies on psychological manipulation, which often requires close ties like friendship. (A lot of my perspectives on this are informed by Rachel Simmons’ book Odd Girl Out.)

    This seems quite likely.

    I’m probably a really bad data point for this, being male, but I feel this deserves to be added;

    For a number of years (until about two years after high school), I was the male inverse of this; I only really formed platonic (I hate this word, but I’m not sure how else to directly specify “no romantic inclinations involved” without making the description awkward to read) friendships with women, and when asked about it, would explain it with the same “women backstab, trust issue, jealous, drama” type mantra, with “women” swapped for men, and “drama” swapped for “assholes”. It was entirely due to this type of bullying described, which happened to me almost constantly in pre-high school education (many thought I was LGBT because of this, but I was fortunate to go to an unbelievably progressive-leaning high school on LGBT issues, in Arizona no less, so I didn’t experience any bullying as a result of those thoughts).

  12. 12

    OK, let me try to put this into a “framework” and whack me over the head when I go wrong:

    1. Gender policing is done by both sexes and usually each group polices their own, so girls are bullied by other girls, boys by other boys.

    2. With the different gender expectations for behaviour, girls will rely on different means than boys. While boys can get away with lots more physical bullying, girls can get away with emotional bullying.

    3. Universal misogyny takes those very real and bad experiences of the bullied girls and reinforces them with stereotypes about women as such, confirming the “you can’t trust women in general” ideas. No such thing happens with the bullied boys. They are being told that “boys will be boys” and that those qualities are admirable and that they have to “grow up instead”.

      1. I wouldn’t call it a strategy as that implies somebody who actually plans and does do things when I’m having a hard time already explaining that no, we’re not talking about a conspiracy of evil guys in a dark room but about a social system that reproduces itself.

        1. social system that reproduces itself—that’s a great way to put it—that might also go a long way toward explaining why so many people accept it as the “natural order of things” rather than a problem that needs to be remedied

  13. 13

    They are being told that “boys will be boys” and that those qualities are admirable and that they have to “grow up instead”.

    Bingo. Also, if you don’t listen to the whole “grow up” nonsense immediately, the response to complaining about bullying suddenly becomes very homophobic.

  14. 14

    I think the big thing is just recognizing that it is a prejudice and working to consciously counteract it. I might not feel at ease around such women, but once I’ve identified my nerves, I can try to act as if I am. I might jump to the worst conclusion, but having identified my prejudice and being mindful of it, I can make an effort to look for more charitable explanations. But to do that, I have to know and admit to myself that I have this prejudice.

    This is why I find the “I don’t see [external attribute – color, weight, eye color, etc], I see people” meme dangerous. If I bought into that, I’d mistreat these women because I wouldn’t be willing to admit that it’s my prejudice at play, not them.

  15. 16

    The reality is that it’s about ‘authority’, or in other words maintaining a hierarchy. If any person of any group is unable to live up to the structure of this system they are ostracized and sent packing. They have options, to hate the world, to hate their own group or to hate the opposition. There is no one reaction that any group of people will take and to try to simplify this is impossible.

    What usually happens in any group when one member doesn’t feel that they belong is to create a new group to prove the old group how well they can survive. Most times I see the new group consisting of toxicity just as fierce as the original group.

    There are some women raised around men, some isolated altogether from any co-ed activity. There is no ‘rule’ and that’s our mistake there, thinking that there is one and thus trying to create more ‘rules’ to solve the ‘problem’. Trying to use historical accounts of Civil Rights, gender, biology to cover up hurt. It doesn’t go away by painting the world black and white. It doesn’t go away by changing the group. It changes when an individual wakes up and learns to love themselves, trust themselves, erect positive barriers and boundaries. I see none of this happening. I don’t see victims, I see women unable and sometimes totally unwilling to do the work to establish their own identity. It’s easier to focus on everyone elses yards than it is to fix their own.

    What’s done is done, and the most empowering thing any human being can do is to treat others with kindness and compassion where they received none, to prove and to set the example of how people ‘ought’ to be treated, rather than continue the see-saw/teeter-totter of oppression, taking turns. Save that for the BDSM scene.

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