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29 November 2013

Why there can be no science for bitchiness

Evolutionary psychology so often seems to underpin existing gender biases that until we see some solid, hard, biological evidence to contradict us, you'll have to forgive us for siding with the late, great Simone on this one in proclaiming that one is not

By Rhiannon

Are women hard-wired to be bitches? Could it be that, when you whisper to your colleague how that girl’s outfit is way fugly or speculate about how that your female colleague is a pathological liar, it’s not because you’ve been conditioned to do so by a society which sets women up in competition with one another, but because your brain has developed that way? If so, it allows you to blame any Regina George-like tendencies on your bitchicampus, say, or your pre-frontal whoretex, rather than having to face up to the possibility that you might just be a massive asshole. Talk about a get-out-of-jail-free card. Thanks, evolutionary psychologists.

Whether or not women are natural bitches is the question the Times saw fit to ask itself week, and, after taking an extremely balanced look at one whole side of the argument, decided to write it all up in its special burn book, sorry, newspaper, under the not-at-all-sensationalist headline ‘The science of being a bitch’, with the accompanying standfirst ‘Mean girl behaviour is hard-wired in the female brain’. In the article, said ‘mean girl behaviour’ is tenuously linked to the phenomenon of ‘slut-shaming’, thus conveniently allowing the Times to illustrate it with a picture of a scantily clad woman who journalist Barbara McMahon recommends you scrutinise thus:

‘Look at this photograph. If you are a woman, look particularly carefully and monitor your response. Look at those boobs. That miniskirt is ridiculous. She’s probably a complete cow.’

That’s some quality journalism, right there. (We should add that, despite Barbara’s leading question, we did not assume that the lady in the picture was a ‘complete cow’, though we were somewhat surprised that nineties polyester peddlers Bay Trading were still making clothes).

According to Canadian psychologist Tracey Vaillancourt, women such as ourselves make bitchy comments – such as the one we made just now – do so because we perceive our female opponents as sexual rivals because like, evolution. The article goes on: ‘This indirect aggression – what we call bitchiness or latterly slut-shaming – goes back to the caveman era when women had to learn ways to compete with other females to find suitable males with whom to reproduce.’

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Though no hard evidence is put forward for how so-called female bitchiness is down to nature and not nurture, we are of course totally ready to take at face value the basic claim that, despite thousands of years of social and technological progress, all of which has taken place against a backdrop of patriarchy reliant on women’s subservience, we’re all just monkeypeople wearing dresses (and bitching about those dresses afterwards). Furthermore, all our bitchiness is apparently to do with trying to get men, something that came as a surprise to us considering the fact that modern female bitching is rarely ever about men, but hey ho.

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Vaillancourt and her colleagues readily admit that their theory is unpopular. Indeed, apparently people tell Vaillancourt she’s a bitch rather a lot, something that she regards as deeply ironic. Fair enough. Equally, you could say that leading a study that sets out to prove just how massively bitchy women are and then giving lots of interviews where you hammer home that point about just how massively bitchy women are might look to some like the height of bitchiness. Indeed, it could be seen as meta-bitchery. But it would be very bitchy of us to say so. Though totally not our fault, come to think of it, because we were BORN THIS WAY.

Sidestepping the risk that we’ll tie ourselves up in circles trying to work out who’s a bitch and who isn’t, let’s instead deal with the claim that women hate this study because they feel Vaillancourt is ‘denigrating the sisterhood.’ Perhaps we could all try and think of a single woman that any of us have met who has confessed to a persistent belief in this thing called ‘sisterhood’ or indeed has indicated membership thereof. We might be here a while, because as far as our experience goes, most people seem to believe society consists of a range of individuals of different genders who are either friends with one another or not, and that the likelihood of them being nice or, indeed, nasty to one another has very little to do with their respective genitals and much more to do with whether or not you behave like a twat at drinks parties. If you do behave badly at drinks parties, expect to get bitched about by both men and women alike. It’s happened to the best of us.

Relationships between people are complex and that goes too for relationships between women. To reduce those relationships to evolutionary impulses not only limits our transactions with other women to merely sexually competitive ones, but also disregards the number of things a human being can do to thoroughly piss another off.

This is the problem with claims of ‘hard-wiring.’ Though the Times article acknowledges the existence of the social norms that make female aggression more taboo than male, it seems to find the fact that female chimpanzees don’t beat the shit out of each other much more compelling a narrative, regardless of how convincing it is. ‘The science of being a bitch’ is going to sell copies, granted, but it would be useful to see some proper, balanced reporting on this issue rather than the usual dumbed down media-friendly studies, cherry-picked to maintain the status quo. People want to believe this stuff because it offers a ready and simple explanation for why the world is the way it is, through the eyes of a very select number of people.

Evolutionary psychology so often seems to underpin existing gender biases that until we see some solid, hard, biological evidence to contradict us, you’ll have to forgive us for siding with the late, great Simone on this one in proclaiming that one is not born a bitch, one becomes one. And to anyone who disagrees, we say simply: boo, you whore.