A few days ago Self Magazine published a picture of two women running in a race wearing tutus and superhero tee shirts, and labeled it BS, I guess because they decided it was too trendy or kitschy or something. Turns out, the runners were a woman with brain cancer and her supportive best friend. Doh. Self apologized, but the furor continues, along with the inevitable, “let’s all be really, really nice to each other” editorials.
For the record, Self did a shitty thing, and I’m glad it’s prompted some conversation about snarking in publications. Still, when this stuff comes up, the conversation usually turns into accusations of bullying. Essentially, calling someone a bully is name calling, just as calling them an asshole or a slut is name calling. It’s saying, “You’re bad; I’m not.” Calling someone out on a specific behavior or action–and examining our own behavior and actions for unconscious participation or collusion in the larger problem–is a much more powerful approach because it challenges the social norms that allowed the negative behavior to happen in the first place.
In the editorials I’ve read on the Self controversy, there is no discussion by the author or commenter on how she herself has participated in this kind of behavior in the past; only how she has been victimized or been a bystander. The truth is we all take part in this behavior sometimes, just as we all bear the brunt of it. We need to stop pretending indirect aggression will go away if we just try our best to be nice, or act as watchdogs by labeling others #bullies.
Psychologists call bullying “relational aggression“, which basically means any kind of aggression that is not directly verbal or physical. If I call you an asshole to your face (or punch you in the face), that’s direct aggression. If I tell someone else you’re an asshole, write it on your locker, or post it anonymously on your blog, that’s relational aggression. Study upon study claims that women, starting in grade school, are the main purveyors of relational aggression (although I recently read one showing that men are heavily engaged in relational aggression as well).
I’ve had lots of experience with relational aggression, and not just as a victim. Women are not given socially acceptable options for speaking directly to each other about feelings like anger and jealousy, so we gossip, bitch, triangulate, and find other ways to avoid confrontation and blow off steam. This is why I think the “everyone be nice” message is missing the point. If we can’t find a way to be direct with our aggressive feelings towards each other, we are never going to find our way out of the relational aggression mess. We’re going to keep modeling indirect ways of coping with aggressive feelings to our daughters and nieces and friends and this stupid cycle will continue.
Brene Brown has talked about the importance of speaking shame. I think it’s time to speak aggression, and I think the two are deeply linked. Admitting to having jealous feelings towards other women can bring up shame. Telling a female friend she has made you angry can be terrifying. For women, our culture has no acceptable forms of aggression that are not indirect, so shunning or triangulating or gossiping or snarking just keeps happening.
Yes, we need to stand up for victimized women, and I’m glad that conversation is happening. But we also need to start changing what we do when we piss each other off. We need to find ways to change the social norms that lead to bullying, rather than just shaming the bullies. Because we are all bullies sometimes, and there has got to be a better way to deal with this shit than perpetuating this cycle for another generation.