Significantly, both Clinton and Stewart became much more popular when they were shown to fail. Clinton, thrust into the role of the wronged wife, became a figure with whom many women could identify. Rather than hate her for her success, they could empathize with her failure. Despite her political qualifications, I wonder whether Clinton would have been elected to the Senate in the absence of the Lewinsky scandal. Likewise, Stewart's jail time seemed to humanize her. Instead of envying her seemingly facile rise to the top, women could pity her harrowing fall.
A third reason for our fascination with other women's failure is, I believe, rooted in the nature of female identity itself. For virtually every woman in this society, our definition of ourselves is bound up in our perception of other women. We see ourselves through comparisons with our mother, our sisters, our friends, and our colleagues. For a whole host of reasons -- some psychodynamic, some social -- we have a hard time seeing ourselves as separate individuals with destinies of our own. Instead, we view our identities as a kind of zero-sum game: we succeed where our mothers fail; we gain what other women lose. We can't envision succeeding or failing on our own terms; we can only measure ourselves against other females. So first we envy the powerful women we see in the media, and then we symbolically triumph over them as they crash and burn. After all, we can never compete against them. Who can be as beautiful as a movie star or as powerful as a princess, a president's wife, or the head of a business empire? If we can't beat them ourselves, at least we can enjoy the sight of them competing with one another, and we enjoy even more seeing them fail.
However, we pay a terrible price for this vicarious victory. Every time we cheer the downfall of a powerful woman, we're giving ourselves the message that power is bad and we shouldn't desire it. Every time we revel in a beautiful woman's aging or weight gain, we reinforce the idea that we, too, are less valuable if we are old or overweight. Every time we gloat over a woman's loss of a husband to a younger, prettier rival, we are reminding ourselves that our own relationship is unstable, that someday our man, too, will move on to greener pastures.
Moreover, in savoring women's defeats and seeing other females as our rivals, we lose out on the chance to make women our allies. Who better than other women to understand what we are going through -- on the job, with men, in friendships, with our family? Who else should we look to for support, empathy, and assistance? With whom should we join together to improve conditions for us all? But we cannot expect other women to join us in true solidarity if we are continually reminding ourselves that these very women are our enemies.
Beyond Our Dirty Little Secret
All right, so what's the good news? What do we have to gain from delving into the grim world of female rivalry, from taking a closer look at the backstabbing, undermining, and self-hatred that color so many of our female relationships?