February 21, 2020

Pop culture has lauded and normalised the phenomenon of the “mean girl” with movies like Cruel Intentions and Pitch Perfect. Some women can be downright vicious to one another by making snide or passive-aggressive remarks that can pass off as thinly veiled compliments. However, such noxious behaviour gets pardoned when these women are depicted as sassy, empowered, and independent individuals. This veneration of bitchiness further perpetuates a cycle of toxic female behaviour, engulfing women into an asinine state of mutual pettiness. From the kindergarten playground to the corporate boardroom, aggressive feminine behaviour is more prevalent than we imagine and will invariably manifest in one form or another, at every stage of a woman’s life.

The concept of toxic masculinity, which demands that men act in aggressive ways to command respect is fairly ubiquitous. But toxic femininity is less conspicuous, coated with a thick layer of artificial sugar. Like synthetic sweeteners, it is placatory on the surface, but laced with arsenic and malicious intentions. Acts of “accidentally” forgetting to inform you about an important meeting, undermining your work in front of your superior, or playing the helpless victim card among friends to procure sympathy—are often all part of the game. In the ancient Tang dynasty, younger concubines were often tormented by the older ones who saw their youth as a threat to their position. 

As we increasingly become inundated by the whole rhetoric of female empowerment, toxic behaviour becomes cleverly shrouded under the guise of it. Taylor Swift’s girl squad, consisting of “It Girls” with waifish bodies and gorgeous designer outfits, is a modern-day embodiment of this. Presented like effigies of perfection and immaculately groomed in photos, their poses reflect an air of superiority. Swift proudly calls it the “power of female friendships”, but what it really is, is a guileful way to show the world their exclusivity—and to remind you are not ‘one of them’. #SquadGoals, another Swifty creation, brandishes having a girl gang who will stick with you through thick and thin. But if you strip away the artifice, you are left feeling like a failure if you haven’t found your tribe.

The appeal of Taylor Swift is infectious, to say the least. Her music resonates with most women, as she sings the grim truths of how hard womanhood can be (ex-boyfriends included) with all its contemporary emotional currency. But Swift takes it too far in her music video “Blank Space” showing how vengeful women can be and how it is perfectly normal to act out just because she is a woman. In most of her lyrics, we see another form of toxic femininity lurking insidiously between the lines: through the victimhood narrative, bad behaviour becomes exonerated. In her ballad “Look What You Made Me Do”, she repeats the line countless times like a chant, shifting all the blame to her partner and effectively relinquishing her responsibility in the matter. 

If anything, perhaps the evolution of such malignant behaviour stems from patriarchy. Women are naturally physically weaker than men, so as a matter of survival, women had to put other women down in order to assert their dominance. Society has set up dichotomies that women merrily weaponise against each other like the virgin vs. whore, mistress vs. wife, and single vs. married. Think about the mother-in-law from hell silently praying for your fall, insufferable aunts who make ‘well-intentioned’ remarks about your reproductive choices (when are you having kids), or friends who munch innocently on gluten-free chocolate cupcakes while secretly waiting for you to gain weight. Once again, Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video has an army of all her female celebrity bffs who use deadly weapons to destroy the other woman. While it is an entertaining watch, the underlying message is dysfunctional: violence against other women is endorsed.

In the corporate context, toxic femininity has resulted in the “sisterhood ceiling”, where women prevent other women from career advancement—for reasons that may be irrelevant to their qualifications. The only way out is to directly address an act of “sisterhood sabotage”, and not pretend it doesn’t exist. Make it your imperative to inform others and intervene when such acts are witnessed. The impenetrable sisterhood ceiling can be shattered if you view your female counterparts as supporters instead of competition. Learn to shine a light on the successes of deserving colleagues instead of snuffing out their candle. And practise having an abundant mindset to eliminate the insecurity that leads to such pernicious competition. 

The truth is men and women can both be equally toxic. Toxic behaviour is not gender-specific and not all women engage in toxic forms of behaviour like bullying and bitchiness. However, just like how we call men out by exposing them for all their transgressions in the #MeToo movement, women should not be afraid to call out out poor behaviour in women, too. Why the double standards? If we expect men to behave better, shouldn’t women follow suit?