Monday, April 11, 2005

The yada-yada sisterhood. Although I feel like crying myself to sleep right now, I thought I would share with you something that struck me at lunchtime, when I was reading The Age because Chong had the Hez. I was reading this article about Jeannette Angell, a US academic who wrote a book, Callgirl: Confessions of a Double Life, about her time as a sex worker.

Now I am reserving judgment on the book itself, because I am deeply suspicious of these confessional callgirl books that come out from time to time, and because the issue of what constitutes exploitation and degradation in the sex industry is too complicated for me to attempt to tackle here. No - what I noticed about the article was a quote from Angell:
The book's reception in the US has been mixed, she says. "Men seem to deal with it much better than women. The book seems to threaten women, and when they've interviewed me they've often been very angry. I didn't anticipate the accusatory nature of their reactions - 'How dare you, didn't you think of the wives of the men you were with?'."
This got me thinking about the paradoxical notion of the "sisterhood". I characterise it as an idea of solidarity among women. It is non-feminist in that it can be expressed informally through the loyalties of friendship or an imagined, shared empathy born of women's experiences (like, for example, the empathy that writers of 'chick lit' aim to create between their readers and their characters). This informal version of the sisterhood mainly uses economies of emotional and moral support - support your girls, and when The Man gets you down, you know your girls will be there to cheer you up. The latest Destiny's Child song and its Sex and the City video dramatise this particularly vividly.

However, it takes on a more militant cast in feminist thought, particularly second-wave feminism, which couches it as a political necessity and duty to share power and knowledge among women in order to ameliorate (practically or 'magically') women's systemic inequality. There is the reasoning that women must form their own homosocial networks to counter the social disadvantages they face from such powerful and pervasive male homosocial networks as old school ties, the private club, Freemasonry and sports fandom.

The trouble, I thought, with the incident recounted by Angell, is that her female interviewers accuse her of betraying the sisterhood by providing sex for other women's husbands. But I saw another kind of betrayal of the sisterhood - these interviewers cruelly castigating someone who, by the hazy gendered 'laws' of the sisterhood, they ought to champion and applaud. This makes me think that the idea of the sisterhood is ultimately unworkable.

The warm, fuzzy rhetoric of the sisterhood is completely at odds with our brutal, individualistic, competitive society. Women compete amongst each other for status, men, jobs. There's the anecdotal phenomenon of the woman who manages to break through the glass ceiling, but kicks the ladder away so no other women can usurp her position. Generally, rather than an attitude of "I've made it; now I'll help others," there's an attitude of "I've made it by myself; so should others."

When it comes to men, women are particularly ruthless, and will use their stereotypical 'feminine wiles' to thwart their competitors at every point. In fictional narratives, these kind of women are demonised and either meet nasty fates or are redeemed by renouncing their wickedness. But vixens are not the Other - they're your friends, your workmates, your relatives. One act of vixenry to get rid of their sexual rivals, and they're back to their normal lovely selves. And depending on your perspective, you can even applaud their vixenry as brilliant social strategy.

Here are three real-life examples of vixenry (names have been changed, natch):

Sally is at a dinner party hosted by Andrew, a man she fancies. Another of his female friends, Jenny, also fancies him. The guests leave, one by one, until the host and the two rivals are the only people remaining. Sally yawns, puts on her coat and picks up her bag. Jenny realises that Sally won't be a sexual threat tonight, and puts on her own coat. Andrew escorts Jenny to the front door. When he returns, Sally is still sitting on the sofa. She has removed her bag and coat.

Veronica is at a conference. She meets Kate, who's never been to a conference before, and they end up hanging out. One night at the pub, Kate confesses to Veronica that she has a crush on Julian, a hot and charismatic fellow delegate. Veronica knows Julian and is still smarting at having been rebuffed when she tried to pick him up at another conference the previous year. She tells Kate that Julian has a terrible reputation as a cad on the conference circuit, and that he always cheats on his girlfriend when he's away.

Belinda has her eye on Kevin, and has been flirting with him for months. She calls him one night to see if he's in town and wants to have a drink with her, and he invites her to meet him in a city bar. When she gets there, he's drinking with a co-worker, Michelle. The three of them end up having many drinks. Belinda is just thinking about going home when Kevin comes up and hugs her goodbye. Michelle is hovering in the background and it dawns on Belinda that Kevin is leaving with Michelle. Wanting to be sure, Belinda says she was just thinking about going herself. The three are almost at the door when Michelle starts waving a half-empty bottle of beer and saying "I can't leave, I have to finish my beer!" Belinda is pretty sure Michelle didn't have the beer before, but having said she was leaving, Belinda has to follow through, leaving Kevin and Michelle alone at the bar.

So much for the sisterhood. I'm sure these situations are familiar to most female (and many male) readers, and you can doubtless add your own. That's precisely the point. Where the sisterhood presumes honesty and empathy, real women deceive one another with impunity. Where the sisterhood is generous and egalitarian, real women compete because they are threatened by each other.

But I don't think women should be condemned for 'failing' to live up to the sisterhood myth. Instead, I feel generally despairing that women fight each other and not the discourses that legitimise female competition. Unlike Elizabeth Wurtzel, I don't see anything positive in being a bitch, and I despise what I call "men's women" - women who are brusque with other women but sweet as pie to men, and who have only male friends because of their deep suspicion of other women. I would like to see women coming in to bat for each other the way the sisterhood dreams of, and the way men do. But I also reject the idea that women should have to model their homosocial relationships on men's, and I can't think of anything that could replace the idea of the sisterhood.

Oh, I feel so miserable. I got home at six and cried and cried. My eyes are still sore from crying. If the sisterhood existed, I wouldn't feel so utterly alone. But I know other women are bored by my sob story and will just sneer at my pathetic despair, which gives me one more thing to cry about.

Yesterday I met some old school friends for lunch, and we were reminiscing. Grace said that on year 9 camp, she remembered on the last night everyone sat around the campfire and had to say something to the group about their experiences on the camp. One of the teachers said, "I've felt quite excluded this week." What struck me is that even as a fourteen-year-old, Grace thought that was an embarrassing thing to admit, and she immediately felt less respect for the teacher. There is no sympathy for honesty, no room for admitting wrongs and weaknesses, in the sisterhood, or in life, for that matter.

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