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Twisted sisterhood? Well that's just pants

AN american author is being touted as taboo- breaking for writing a book about the fact that women aren't always perfectly nice to one another. Kelly Valen's pop-cultural moment comes on the back of The Twisted Sisterhood -- a tell-all of the particular kinds of meanness and betrayal that women reserve for each other.

What's most surprising about this thesis, which the author admits is based on no research of any kind except the simple truths that came from being bullied by her sorority sisters while in college, is that this is considered to be a revelation.

Did the author really believe that femininity was next to godliness? That girls, by virtue of their gender alone, would be above all base motivations. If there is any revelation here, it's in the expectation that having ovaries should be considered the hallmark of a person somehow magically removed from the nitty gritty of being human.

Women, just like men, can be ruthless, tough, unforgiving and cruel. Like men, they are prone to compete with one another. What's more, over the centuries they have evolved into clever social strategists. Hence the trope of the scheming female concealing her real agenda in plastic smiles and fighting battles in a backhanded way. Women are not underhand by nature. For generations, women lacked any real agency in society. The task of having to wield influence by stealth has taught them to employ guerrilla tactics when trying to get their way.

So, it's true that since competition between women is so often internalised and so rarely on the table, point-scoring has to be achieved in other ways. Competition, or rivalry is often expressed by inflicting subtle emotional hurts to friends or siblings. Hence the cliche of the underhanded female, delivering her bid for dominance not with a fist but with criticism or disapproval.

In a more broad context this can be seen as being the process underlying the now widespread female culture of schadenfreude which has hijacked magazine stands and the web. Characterised as snark, a whole strand of female-orientated entertainment has been built on the practice of women making sneering judgments of other women from afar. Magazines publish pictures with celebrities cellulite circled in red. Pointing out spots or love handles has become a new, uniquely female kind of sport. Gossip columnists rub their hands together at the opportunity to attack outfit choices or revel in the humiliation of stars who lose their poise.

These trade on the principle that any given woman's self-esteem will be bolstered by the public dismantling of her competitors. What used to be known as old-fashioned playground bitching, has now become a wholesale culture.

The key thing about these sort of tactics is that they are the bitter defence of the underdog. Women who wield real power, women like Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel, I'm sure, have no need to sink to sniping about the waist sizes or wardrobe choices of the women around them.

But while bitchy behaviour might not exactly be nice, neither is it evidence that the sisterhood is twisted. The sisterhood and the vital solidarity it describes looms as large in the wider culture as it does in most real women's lives. It's a tired example, I know, but it continues to be expressed in the wholesale embrace of the girls-for-each-other credo of Sex and the City.

There's a reason why women have the capacity to inflict so much hurt on other women. It's because we put so much faith in the solidarity of those precious relationships, which we have come to count on more than any other.

We expect our female friendships to be our most important and enduring bonds. The sisterhood may not be perfect, but neither is it twisted.

Sunday Independent