Almost as intriguing was the spectacle of women competing for the same job, as evidenced by reality shows like The Apprentice, America's Next Top Model, and The Starlet. Or, if we preferred, we could watch women competing over each other's families, in programs like Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy or Nanny 911. In each of these programs, women were ostensibly competing in only one category -- as professionals, or as mothers. But every show demonstrated that, in fact, women's competition is total, including professional competence, looks, fashion sense, and sex appeal, all indiscriminately considered as elements within a single competition without boundaries.
Advertisements drew even more explicitly on the theme of female envy, as in the publicity for the weight-loss program represented by former model Anna Nicole Smith. After years of being overweight and ignored, the ads explained, the slimmed-down Smith was finally getting the acclaim she deserved -- acclaim that the (presumably female) consumer could acquire simply by buying this product. But attention and admiration were not the only goals to be sought. The ads pointed as well to female rivalry with their succinct slogan: "Be envied."
Although Smith was supposed to be the target of our envy for her miraculous weight loss, the ads drew on the implicit contempt that women (and men) felt for Smith after she'd gotten fat. Indeed, malicious stories about the woes of prominent women -- Martha Stewart's legal problems or Kirstie Alley's weight gain -- seemed to be a never-ending staple of popular culture, particularly in media targeted to women.
Why, I wondered, were we so fascinated by the miseries of famous females? In an era when women were making unprecedented gains in politics, business, and the arts, we seemed to have an endless appetite not for inspiring stories but for tales that fed our own competitive natures. What was the appeal of watching powerful women fail? Why not just cheer them on, viewing them as inspirational role models who offered us hope rather than icons whom we needed, obsessively, repeatedly, to tear down?