When I went to the movies or watched television, I saw similar signs of trouble in paradise. Although male friendships in the media abound -- from buddy movies to the warm, collegial relationships among the guys on cop shows -- I saw precious few portraits of female relationships. The handful of examples that I did find rarely offered any sense of how women could form friendships based on love, trust, and a sense of separate identities. In the romantic comedy "Jerry Maguire," for example, female friendship is portrayed as a powerful obstacle to romance. The heroine's sister and her feminist friends sit around carping about how badly the men in their lives have treated them, trying to entice the younger, more hopeful heroine to join them. But the heroine insists that she "just likes men" and eagerly forgives the wayward Jerry ("You had me at hello."). Her youth, beauty, and romantic success make her the envy of the other women, who clearly would rather bond over their common misery than help each other to find individual versions of happiness.
Although I had heard many real-life stories that echoed this negative image, I didn't want to focus on such a dismal view. I didn't like feeling that I might be playing into the sexist stereotypes that had portrayed women as conniving little man-hunters; nor did I enjoy reliving my own painful experiences with female rivalry. But finally, I had to face the truth: this was too central an aspect of women's lives for me to ignore. My next book would focus directly on jealousy, envy, and competition. Perhaps by looking closely at this problem, I could help women find new ways to overcome their dark side and form healthier, more satisfying bonds.
So I designed a study whereby I could interview five hundred women -- again, from a wide range of ages, classes, ethnicities, and religions -- asking them directly about their experiences with these feelings. I wanted to know the role that women's rivalry had played in their lives, their experiences as both targets and perpetrators of female envy. I was eager to understand how these dynamics had shaped my subjects' life choices, their relationships with people of both sexes, and, most important, their sense of self. I wanted to know why some relationships seemed to transcend these problems, while other bonds were marked by bitterness and betrayal.
What I found astonished me. I heard from women whose colleagues, best friends, and sisters had stolen their boyfriends and husbands. I talked with women whose fear of female rivalry was so strong that they chose to live in small towns, "so there would be less competition"; women who avoided certain parties "because I don't want my husband to meet too many single, beautiful women." I heard about girlfriends dropping a woman when she snagged a promotion at work, or finally found a great guy, or even when she became pregnant. Women described the wear and tear of constant competition, of continually comparing themselves to friends, coworkers, sisters, even to their daughters. Many women confessed that they had spent their lives trying to steer between two painful courses: reaching for the advantages that other women seemed to have and struggling to defend themselves from other women's envy. Although I had known that female rivalry was a theme in many women's lives, I emerged from my research feeling as though it must be a theme in every woman's life. We're just not allowed to talk about it.