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Girl Culture and the Race to the Bottom: About that Rant About Women

So, that Clay Shirky piece about how ladies don’t self-promote so much! Perhaps you have heard about it? Because I sure have. I have, in fact, been writing around that very piece for a while now, trying to explain how I feel about it. Because Lord knows no conversation is complete until we have all HEARD ABOUT MY FEELINGS.

The thing is, I am actually not the most impartial commenter on this particular piece for any number of reasons. For one thing, I need to do the FULL DISCLOSURE thing, here, and tell you that I like Clay and consider him a friend. He is a very nice man, that Clay Shirky! And I’m not trying to say that my having a good opinion on the writer of the piece means that I have the Best Perspective Ever on this particular topic. I’m just saying that I do have a perspective on it, which I need to acknowledge. Because here is maybe the reason I am the least objective and impartial about it: I have had conversations with Clay Shirky which demonstrate, exactly, the particular dynamic he is talking about. These conversations, they have gone like this:

“I, Clay Shirky, believe you to be capable of more than you are doing right now! Allow me to offer you some advice on this particular front.”

“Oh, my goodness, NO! I believe you to be severely deluded as to my capabilities! Allow me to present you with a list of reasons why I would not be qualified for doing anything, ever, in the entire world.”


“And so, Clay, those are the reasons that I suck. I can provide you with further proofs of my sucking, drawn from personal history reaching back as far as kindergarten! But I think you have the basics. You see why you must rescind your advice and belief in me as a person, as clearly I would only bring shame upon you. I am but an idiot child, who spills things frequently upon my wretched frame. How did I even get dressed this morning? I don’t know! It is a fluke, clearly.”

“Um, okay. But I was trying to help…?”

“CEASE THIS FUTILE CRUSADE AT ONCE! I must go now, and mortify my flesh, perhaps with whippings. As I do so, I shall review my sub-standard grades from middle school, that I might never aspire above my due station. Thanks for coffee!”

The thing is: I can see where people might object to the language of the piece, or find that it overgeneralizes about ladies. I can see where people might feel that he misses out on some of the larger structural issues at play. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a dude entitles something “A Rant About Women,” people tend to assume bad faith there, and if there are comments enabled, you can bet there’s a-gonna be a rumble. But, as a lady who continually downplays herself, has panic attacks when engaging in even the most mundane and obligatory forms of self-promotion, and enthusiastically shoots herself in the foot career-wise on a more or less constant basis, I… well, I can’t say he’s not on to something, basically.

If we’re talking about gender, we’re (hopefully) not trying to talk about behaviors or traits that every single member of each gender shares to exactly the same degree and in the same way. Because there are none of those! What we are talking about, though, are behaviors that are widespread within each group, including some differences between the two groups. And, while probably not every woman in the world is as hugely averse to self-promotion or as neurotically terrified of being a social climber or a narcissist or a craven careerist or a selfish asshole or whatever as I am, I have noticed that an aversion to self-promotion tends to be kind of a lady thing. I basically think we need to get over that.

So, for the moment, I don’t necessarily want to talk about why some ladies do self-promote aggressively, and don’t get rewarded for it. Because that’s been covered. I want to talk about why ladies don’t self-promote aggressively. I think there are reasons for this too, as it turns out. Allow me, for the moment, to list some that I have observed! They involve middle school, animal behavior, your mother’s dating advice, and a decades-old article in Ms. So, you know, bear with me.

Obviously, all of these pieces – Shirky’s piece, this piece, any of the other reaction pieces – are rooted in personal experience to some degree, and obviously no personal experience is universal. So: this is what I see, from where I’m standing.

One of the things that I am really into studying, lately, is adolescent female friendship. It is this hugely complicated and fascinating thing, wherein girls create immensely powerful spaces of resistance, but also put each other through Patriarchy Boot Camp, and I am starting to hold the opinion that studying it extensively will reveal to you the Secrets of Life. I won’t go into all of that right now! But I will say that I have, recently, been reading a book called Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons. One passage in this, which grabbed me and blew my mind and suddenly made about a thousand troubling incidents way more easy to understand, was about how female bullies pick their victims. The author interviewed a whole bunch of girls about this, and she came up with a really good, really obvious answer. So, do you want to know how they pick their victims?

They pick the girl who seems the most confident.

Yes, that’s really it! In the particular seething cauldron of insecurity, unhappiness, and fear that is female adolescence, girls tend to feel shitty about themselves for about a million reasons, and to think that they need outside approval – from friends, from boys, from the culture at large – in order to be worthwhile. But if a girl seems not reliant enough on outside approval – if she doesn’t hate her body enough, if she’s too successful at getting guys to like her, if she’s not interested enough in getting guys to like her, if she thinks she’s smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty (or if she just is smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty, and it’s pronounced enough for the people around her to take notice) – then the wolves start circling. Because they’ve all been bullied, too; they’ve all been undermined; they’ve all made the mistake of standing out, at one point or another, and they’ve been punished for it. And now, because they feel like shit about themselves, you have to feel like shit, too. A girl who doesn’t feel like shit is a threat to the entire social order, the extensively complicated and crappy system whereby women have to earn their way into a pretense of self-esteem by getting enough approval from other girls or from other outside sources in general.

What girls learn to do, in order to survive in this particular dynamic, is to race each other to the bottom. It lasts for a lifetime. They maneuver, hiding the urge to matter and succeed under an appropriately self-loathing demeanor, so that they can get ahead and climb up without ever appearing to do it.

For example: have you ever gotten the Complinsult? It is a wondrous and immensely complicated thing, the Complinsult. Here’s one of the best I have ever received, which I keep close to my heart: “Your outfit is amazing! I think it’s so great that you can wear that out in public. I’d never have the nerve.” The words are saying “I suck and you are awesome,” and yet? That is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what it means. Guys do this, too, sometimes, but typically only guys who are really adept at social maneuvering; girls tend to learn it earlier, and to have it down better, and to use it more, if my own personal experience is any indicator.

Or: the Fat Talk. You know about the Fat Talk, right? Lots of people have written about the Fat Talk already. For years, I thought this was some grody stereotype that you only found in male stand-up comedians’ routines about how women are awful. But then I met women who actually did it: the thing where, before ordering dinner at a restaurant, you all talk about how you should order this and you absolutely cannot order that, because you are so disgusting and you cannot stick to your diet and eating a cheeseburger will literally send you right straight to hell, and if you are the girl who straight-up says she wants some nachos so covered in cheese and guacamole and various meats that they might as well not even have any chips involved – just a big mess of meats and milk fat and squished-up avocados, that is the experience for which you are aiming, and also it would help if the entire thing had sour cream all over it – well, you just might have earned yourself a Complinsult about how brave you are with your dietary habits, young lady.

The weird thing is that, in this scenario, it seems not to ultimately matter whether you get the cheeseburger or the nachos or whatever: what matters is the extensive ritual of saying bad things about yourself, and contradicting other ladies about the bad things they have said about themselves, and giving each other permission to order the nachos, before they’re ordered. And if you don’t get permission to order the nachos, if you’re the one girl at the table who doesn’t get contradicted when she says she’s fat and shouldn’t be allowed to eat what she wants, then you know something is up. You know someone at the table, or maybe everyone at the table, has a problem with you. Which is why you don’t place your order without doing it: for a long time, I thought I was just demonstrating my good body image by ordering a cheeseburger and not participating in the Fat Talk, and then I sort of figured out that I was straight-up declaring that I was so hot I got to do whatever I wanted and was too insensitive to appease the body insecurities of my friends, who were (my actions declared) less hot than myself. I still think the Fat Talk is destructive and body-hating and stupid, and I don’t want to do it, but the way I get around it is to talk with the girls I have lunch with about why I think it’s destructive and body-hating. Not to just bypass it. Because that’s how self-esteem, and self-promotion, and social status, tend to work with girls: it’s a series of very subtle interactions in which you say you’re not good enough so that other girls can tell you that you are.

Much of what I’m writing has been about women, I guess because I am actually responding to two blog-posts here, and the other one is by another lovely person by the name of Chally, who wrote on The Importance of Women’s Friendships a while back. And I am in a place, right now in my current life, where I can say that at least two of the three people who matter most to me in my life, the people who represent my primary emotional support system and in whose emotional support systems I am also a primary factor, are women. That’s two women with whom I have an agreement that they can call me at any time of the day or night simply because they need me, two women who could realistically drag me away from anything I might be doing to simply sit and eat nachos with them and help them through a rough day, two women who know more about me than probably the man I am living with knows in some respects, two women I rely upon to have the conversations that matter. And, at this point, most of my creative or career-related relationships are with women, and they’re really important and vital and supportive, too. Which is great, because for a long time I was a person who only ever had supremely toxic relationships with women. I’m still parsing all of that stuff, actually, and it’s really hard because I can’t exempt myself from being one of the toxic parts of the equation. I was gross, in these relationships, even if I wasn’t the only gross party. But when we talk about how women are taught not to self-promote, or believe in themselves to the extent necessary to self-promote, or the language whereby women race to the bottom on their way to the top, well: we can’t take how women train other women out of the equation, in my opinion. Women can be primary agents of enforcing misogyny on each other, and women can be supremely effective at eviscerating or draining or punishing other women’s confidence.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started to be able to have functioning relationships with women at around the same time that I started to openly identify as a feminist. But it’s not like the phenomenon of women being punished or scared out of demonstrating their own excellence magically vanishes, in feminist circles. For example, there’s this:

I have been watching for years with increasing dismay as the Movement consciously destroys anyone within it who stands out in any way. I had long hoped that this self-destructive tendency would wither away with time and experience. Thus I sympathized with, supported, but did not speak out about, the many women whose talents have been lost to the Movement because their attempts to use them had been met with hostility.

Or, you know:

What is “trashing,” this colloquial term that expresses so much, yet explains so little? It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.
The means vary. Trashing can be done privately or in a group situation; to one’s face or behind one’s back; through ostracism or open denunciation. The trasher may give you false reports of what (horrible things) others think of you; tell your friends false stories of what you think of them; interpret whatever you say or do in the most negative light; project unrealistic expectations on you so that when you fail to meet them, you become a “legitimate” target for anger; deny your perceptions of reality; or pretend you don’t exist at all… Whatever methods are used, trashing involves a violation of one’s integrity, a declaration of one’s worthlessness, and an impugning of one’s motives In effect, what is attacked is not one’s actions, or one’s ideas, but one’s self.

Would it interest you to know, dear Reader, that the methods of girl destruction outlined in the previous paragraph – or the motives and goals attributed to them –  are precisely the same as the methods used by adolescent girls, as detailed in Odd Girl Out? Would it, like, surprise you at all? Because it does not surprise me, in fact. Not even remotely. Having gotten the angry blog comments and e-mails and posts about me on other forums about how I am clearly a dirty sexy man-appeasing sell-out who does private lap dances on Mary Daly’s grave for blog hits (PATRIARCHY!) this seems like… just, really, not shocking at all.

But, leaving all this aside for the moment – although, do you ever really get to leave it aside? HECK NO, would be my answer – let’s just TALK about the man part of the equation, shall we? Let’s just talk about the fact that, growing up, I knew many women who were told to lose intellectual arguments with their boyfriends on purpose, so that the guys wouldn’t be threatened by them. Let’s talk about the fact that, growing up, I considered “smart” and “attractive” to be mutually opposed, and therefore considered myself unattractive for no real physical reason. (Because I thought I was smart. It’s not like there was no arrogance, in this particular variant of self-loathing.) Let’s talk about the fact that adult female friends have told me they only want to date dudes more successful than themselves, because dating dudes less successful than themselves always sends them through some wacky hell-ride of Let’s Take My Girlfriend Down a Peg that they’d rather not endure again. Let’s talk about the women I know who are successful, in traditionally manly fields, and who spend a tremendous amount of time constructing “just one of the boys” personas to assuage the guys and make guys feel that their privilege isn’t threatened, or who spend an enormous amount of time crafting personas that are less smart and strong and opinionated and accomplished than they really are, just so that people (meaning guys – although, you know, girls too) won’t be scared of them. Let’s talk about how many times a woman gets called “intimidating” just for being correct, and for not seeming unsure about how correct she is, in the course of an average lifetime. Let’s talk about the weird hostility that a girl faces if she walks into a room of guys and doesn’t seem dead set on making them all like her and feel like superheroes. Let’s talk about the endless wave of articles about how weird it is when women are more successful than their husbands, or how being too successful means you won’t have a man in your life at all. (Because, clearly, men are the goal for EVERYONE. I’m not even touching that one.) Let’s talk about that. Or, at least, take a moment to think about it. Because it is a big deal.

Most of what I’m describing falls into the category of “personal” – it’s about friendships, sex, intimacy – and not into the realm of “career,” where self-promotion, no matter how you feel about it, is in fact important. But my point is this: before any woman even walks into her first job interview, she has received a lifetime of conditioning, from men and other women alike, intended to make her downplay or disguise or feel secretly ashamed of her own talents or exceptional qualities or qualifications or potential. It’s every day for your entire life, that you get that training. We’re taught not to succeed; we’re taught that success is failure. So, you know: exaggerating our own qualifications? It goes against the grain, most of the time, to even fucking admit that we have qualifications in the first place.

Here’s the part where I more or less go off the rails and talk about animal behavior, because: have you ever seen how dogs handle conflict? Like, in the park or at the dog run or something? If a dog has an issue with another dog, and is reasonably convinced that it can attain dominance over that dog, it will get scrappy and start a fight. Or, it will participate in a fight with the dog that’s picking on it. But if a dog is picked on, and it feels for whatever reason that it will lose, what it does is to roll over and expose its throat and belly. It’s a gesture that says, here: you can kill me if you want to, here are all the soft vulnerable parts. It’s intended to appease the aggressor in the exchange, make it feel that there is no challenge or danger coming from this direction, so that they won’t escalate the violence. It’s a way of, essentially, saving your life by offering it up. Actions like these aren’t uncommon, amongst pack animals who operate in a hierarchical fashion; they’re called “submissive gestures.” Or, if you’re a human being, they’re called “femininity.”

Which doesn’t mean that we don’t, as I said, need to get over this particular wackiness. Because I don’t think Shirky is wrong, at least not about this one thing: it does hurt us, it does stop us from accomplishing as much as we have to, it does keep us silent and in second place (or third, or fourth, or) when in reality we could be rocking first place pretty darn hard if we wanted to. We have to stop punishing other women for promoting themselves; we have to stop punishing ourselves for promoting ourselves; we have to somehow convince dudes to stop punishing us for promoting ourselves, and Lord knows THAT’S been a fun ride thus far. I don’t think it’s necessary to act the fool and be a dick in the public square about it, because a person who has to be the center of attention is just as fucked and stocked-up on Serious Issues as a person who cannot be, but, you know: a journey of a thousand miles begins with acting slightly more confident in a job interview than you actually are. Because, even after reviewing all of these various reasons why a person who is a lady might choose not to do it, I can see that they’re scary, and I can see that they’re sad, and I can see that they’re really tough to overcome. But I can also see that acting against this socialization is a feminist act. Although it is also a feminist act at which I kind of suck, at this particular moment in time.


  1. Ah. This really gets, better than I’ve been able to articulate, to what bothers me about the Lean Cuisine spots. The ones where thin women are bragging to each other about how they deprive themselves, and one confesses to eating an actual meal of real food — only, psych!, it’s just Lean Cuisine, and she’s still socially acceptable.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Lila wrote:

    My absolute favorite Complinsult: My boyfriend’s mom is eating dinner with us at a restaurant. She is a small person, I am not. She knows I have struggled with eating disorders, and have had issues with my recent medication related weight gain. When I’m full (about halfway through the dish), I stop, saying “If I eat any more I’m going to burst.” Her response? “You eat so much less than I do. Life is so unfair.” Yes. To my face. Clueless bf missed it completely.

    Friday, February 5, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  3. annejumps wrote:

    Great post and comments, but I have to agree the most with Marinas here.

    Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  4. Sage Ross wrote:

    My reaction when I read Shirky’s piece was: the ladies (and their socialized behaviors) are less the problem here.

    There’s a big gap between what describe as a good goal here and what Shirky does (“acting slightly more confident in a job interview than you actually are” vs. lying your way into a job because you think you could pick it up on the fly). In general, people are going to be better off if we stick to the former and avoid the latter–even if the lying, self-promoting, macho approach is a workable, maybe even optimal, strategy for the people like you and Shirky who are much more talented than 99.999% of us. (Seriously, if I had to name my three favorite writers, you and Shirky would be two of them.) Cuz you two are role model for other would-be world-changers, and if everybody went around acting like Shirky says women should do more, it would just make it all the harder for honest people with accurate views of their own strengths and weaknesses to compete, and all the more necessary to be a self-aggrandizing ass.

    In my experience (as a dude and a grad student, among other things) academics (among other professional, no doubt) have these powerful norms of acting more competent and knowledgeable and sure of their knowledge than they are, basically all the time when they’re around each other. (This doesn’t usually apply to grad students when they are only with other grad students.) But successful ladies are much more likely to be transparent about the limits of their knowledge and their work than successful dudes. And maybe that means dudes do better climbing academic ladders, but it also means the value of their work is lessened because there’s no acknowledgement of shortcomings.

    Obviously, the kinds of mutually assured destruction you describe adolescent girls putting each other and themselves through is terrible, and to be avoided. But in many of the women (and men) I admire most, that feminine norm of self-abasement seems to have been reforged into taoist-style humility: “[a wise woman] acts without claiming the results as hers; [she] achieves [her] merit and does not rest (arrogantly) in it: — [she] does not wish to display [her] superiority.”

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 6:52 am | Permalink
  5. J wrote:

    I think you just saved my day. I love you.

    Also: complinsults. Trying to figure them out makes my head hurt, so I’m just taking them literally as compliments, even though I know I SHOULD read between the lines and feel bad and insecure like a good girl. But I really hate complinsults and so can’t be bothered spending any more energy on them than necessary.

    (Also it’s a lot of fun to watch people’s faces when you do this, and the little implied insult just slides off like you’re made of teflon.)
    “Thank you! I love this outfit too, I feel great tonight, and I’m having so much fun wearing this.”
    Or, in response to Lila’s boyfriend’s mom: “Yes. Life is unfair sometimes.”

    All said in a friendly tone of course, and then quickly change the topic of the conversation.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  6. Heather wrote:

    yep, I know the ‘stand-out therefore bullied’. and that was at a girl’s school designed to produce over-achievers. You weren’t bullied if you were an over-achiever, (grades/looks/sports) but you were bullied if you were confident about not fitting in. Sad to say, that only stopped when I punched the bully in front of the whole class. Mind you, I did come out of that school thinking I was dumb. Work, tend to get bullied for speaking my mind and therefore went out of my way to be known as the difficult member of staff who refuses to play the game. Thus I get a modicum of respect as the person people come to for problem-solving but no promotion.

    Re:fat issue? I once butted in on a ‘omg I’m so fat/calorie discussion’ by going ‘I eat full-fat, don’t calorie count and just exercise – why don’t you try that?’ and immediately got a sneering whiplash from all of them designed to take my head off of ‘Rub it in/Don’t be so superior/Yes, well, you’re YOU’ as though keeping to a reasonable diet and exercise regime (it turns out I was eating healthier and less junk than the faddy diet moaners) and having a realistic attitude to my weight was wrong.

    Friday, March 5, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  7. TISHA wrote:

    One of the problems with self-promotion is that many girls learn to dread receiving praise, not only because it would be stuck up of them, but also because you never know when that compliment is actually an insult. i think perhaps people are more accustomed to feeling envy than admiration.

    Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  8. LR wrote:

    This comment just totally bowled me over:

    “Let’s talk about how many times a woman gets called “intimidating” just for being correct, and for not seeming unsure about how correct she is, in the course of an average lifetime.”

    I get called intimidating *all the time*, mostly by women, and whenever I’d ask people why, I always got vague responses about aggression that never seemed to make any sense. I never attack people in arguments, just their ideas, so I couldn’t understand where the problem was. I’ve always understood it had something to do with being confident, and that being a woman didn’t help, but I don’t think my mind ever quite clicked on it the way you just described. You are so freaking correct it make my head spin. Now I’m even more pissed about every demeaning thing I’ve heard since kindergarten – and goodness knows that anger will only make me all the more intimidatng.

    Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  9. Veronika wrote:

    “Complisults” is such a great term. I could plug the oil spill with the amount of them I received in my teenage years alone.

    No one writes with more truth or incisive clarity about social issues than Sady. I’ve never read anyone else as cohesive, funny, and painfully honest. Your writing always makes me think and you’ve helped me more than I can say.

    Your friend is damn right when he says you can, and should, hold a higher opinion of your abilities and promote the hell out of them and yourself. I love me some Tiger Beatdown but I hope that eventually your talents will reach a wider audience – because you write better than anyone I know and you deserve it.

    Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 12:11 am | Permalink

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    […] Tiger Beatdown › Girl Culture and the Race to the Bottom: About that Rant About Women Lots of people have written about the Fat Talk already. For years, I thought this was some grody stereotype that you only found in male stand-up comedians’ routines about how women are awful. But then I met women who actually did it: the thing where, before ordering dinner at a restaurant, you all talk about how you should order this and you absolutely cannot order that, because you are so disgusting and you cannot stick to your diet and eating a cheeseburger will literally send you right straight to hell, and if you are the girl who straight-up says she wants some nachos so covered in cheese and guacamole and various meats that they might as well not even have any chips involved – just a big mess of meats and milk fat and squished-up avocados, that is the experience for which you are aiming, and also it would help if the entire thing had sour cream all over it – well, you just might have earned yourself a Complinsult about how brave you are with your dietary habits, young lady. (tags: bodypolitics:fat gender culture women food adolescence) […]

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