Are Women Really Crabs in a Bucket?
Have you seen stories such as April Ryan's petty questions suggesting White House Social Secretary Desiree Roger seeks to upstage Michelle Obama? How about the persistent gossip rag rumors that the First Lady and Oprah are feuding? Do you remember the campaign commentary that blamed women's distrust of women for why Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin couldn't win?
I've seen the stories and remember the the chill flowing from Why Women Undermine Hillary Clinton, a BlogHer.com post examining feminist Gloria Feldt's take on how women resisted supporting Hillary as she ran for the presidency. I recall being so infuriated by one of Feldt's questions -- "Shouldn't women support Hillary in the same way support from African-Americans is beginning to sway toward Barack Obama?" -- that I ended up writing a four-piece blog post at an old personal blog addressing that issue alone. That four-part piece is now offline.
Looking back, I see that in my fit of annoyance with Feldt on the African-American question, (in particular, that she seemed to ignore that the group "African-Americans" also includes women), I didn't look more closely at the rest of what she asserted about women. As Morra Aarons Mele summed up in the beginning of her piece on the topic, what Feldt said was akin to the old Groucho Marx saying, "I wouldn't join any club that would accept me as a member."
Ironically, Belinda Luscombe gave similar arguments for why women didn't support Sarah Palin; however, she put an uglier spin on it:
Women are weapons-grade haters. Hillary Clinton knows it. Palin knows it too. When women get their hate on, they don't just dislike, or find disfavor with, or sort of not really appreciate. They loathe —- deeply, richly, sustainingly. I do not say this to disparage my gender; women also love in more or less the same way. (Luscombe)
Statements such as, women don't like other women, or how folks go so far as to manufacture rivalries, pitting women against women even when the women's behaviors indicate they like each other, say one thing to me: Women really are an oppressed class.
For all our strides, we still exhibit the same strange psychological pathology in discussing how we relate to one another that oppressed ethnic minorities exhibit. We accuse each other of holding each other back, of having "crab mentality" or something like it. A willingness to pull down/tear down the others in the group so that no one escapes the bucket. And, we present this moral failing as unique to us rather than part of human nature in general.
Black people claim they have a monopoly on this mindset. However, if you read up on the topic, you'll see Native Americans like Julia Good Fox referencing crabs. And, a quick Google of "crab mentality" shows you other people of color claim to have it as well. For some reason, Filipinos mention it often.
When people of color talk about the affliction of crab mentality, eventually someone suggests those brown, red, or yellow folk should act more like white folk, who it seems few believe have this crab mentality. When women talk about it, usually in terms of women not helping women, someone pipes up to say women should act more like men. Apparently this involves being more boastful and more willing to lie to get ahead -- behaviors that should make everyone crabby.
In the area of friendship, as Luscombe implies in her Palin piece, we perpetuate the notion that women let anger and resentments linger and fester. Men don't do that, implies Luscombe. Men slug it out and let it go. However, I don't think she's suggesting women punch each other in the face. Nevertheless, she infers that men resolve matters of personal dislike more simply and quickly than women do and perpetuates the stereotype that women are vengeful and vindictive.
These kinds of assertions about what's wrong with women, as well as scuttlebutt that suggests women can't be close or have genuine love for one another unless they are gay, have caused me to contemplate women and friendships. As a result, when reviewing my recorded interview with writing partners, DeBerry and Grant, from earlier this summer, I found myself focusing on how they described their work, in particular their discussion of the importance of women's relationships with women.
They said that in their novels, such as What Doesn't Kill You or Trying to Sleep in the Bed You Made, that they are always "telling the stories of best friends," relationships between women.
Virginia DeBerry said:
We really believe that those are the relationships that sustain women's lives. The men come and go. Your children come into your life and go off and have their own lives, but it is the friends, it is your sisters, those are the people that are there for you when times are good, when times are bad, and in just regular old times. Those are the people who see everything. That's your strength.
Both women agree that female friendships come in different shapes and sizes.
"There's such a variety there. We both have an array of friends from different points in our lives. We both have friends that we've known since we were young children. I have a friend that I say I've known since before I was born because our mothers have been friends since they were in kindergarten," said Virginia.
Donna Grant said, "It is part of the fabric of who we all are and there are a wide variety of ways that we relate to each other.
(In our book) What Doesn't Kills You, we wrote about someone who doesn't have that primary relation or thinks she does but her friends turn out to be not quite her friends, and she has to find what that (primary relationship) is. Friendship is a really important relationship for women and we found a way to express it even before we knew that's what we doing.
That may have come naturally to them because these two women met when they were both plus-sized models in the 1980s and have been best friends ever since.
Donna is happily married, and Virginia, who is divorced, identifies herself as "husband-free." She is the one who makes the observation that society often marginalizes female friendships.
There's this sense that what really matters is our relationship with a man. Getting hooked up with a man, that is the primary motivation that women are raised with from the time they are little girls -- that you have to find the right boy, and then he'll be your husband, and you'll live happily ever after, and you'll have 2.3 children. This is what your life is supposed to be.
So we set out on that, focused on that, to the detriment of so many other things, especially when that goal is not always as fulfilling as it has been portrayed to be. Then you find yourself stuck out there, and he's gone, and you go back to the relationships that you've kind of neglected somewhere along the line, which is what happens in our latest book (Uptown, which will be released in March). And in so many cases when you go back, they (female friends) welcome you back just like you had never gone away.
The latter part of Virginia's statement referenced women who more or less drop all their female friends when they fall in love with the latest male in their lives, as though they can't maintain both a romance and female friendship simultaneously; however, they run back to these friends when the romance fizzles.
I guess for me in that I do have a marriage that is long-term, and I do have friendships that are long-term, they are not in competition. My husband is not in competition with my girlfriends. He knows that. They know that. It's not like I'm going to neglect (him) for the women who are important to me. That's not how that works.
However, Donna's husband knew when he married her, according to Virginia, "that I was part of the family. I was right up there on their wedding day standing right up there at the altar. You marry her and you get me, too."
That kind of friendship is something I've only read about in books or seen in movies, and it's the kind I make myself remember when reading about books like I'm So Happy for You by Lucinda Rosenfeld. Writing at Jezebel, Anna North says she wonders why Rosenfeld's characters don't simply find better friends.
Unless Rosenfeld's point is that female friendship is inherently toxic. She says on her Web -site, "every woman has a Daphne in her life — a so-called "best friend" whose seemingly effortless successes never fail to make her feel like a Huge Loser." Really? Everyone has a best friend so fake she deserves quotes? And for whom her jealousy outweighs her joy? Sadly, reviewers seem to concur. Publishers' Weekly calls "I'm So Happy For You" "a dark, hilarious and painfully accurate view of the less-than-pure reasons why women stay friends." And Zoe Heller calls it "a finely observed and witty account of the jealousies that lurk within even the kindest female hearts." (North at Jezebel)
While I've never had the genuine BFF experience, I've never had the love/hate long-term thing either, so I'm lost at what Publishers' Weekly may mean about accuracy in Rosenfeld's depiction of female friendships or what it calls a "hip take on modern womanhood." I haven't read the book, but it sounds more like a book about poisonous codependency than about genuine friendship.
When I think about examples of good friendship and cases where women support each other rather than cripple one another, I also think of BlogHer.com, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary. The BlogHer story is not simply the tale of growing a Web site that promotes female bloggers, but it is also an example of three women -- Elisa Camahort Page, Jory Des Jardins and Lisa Stone -- cooperating well to build and brand a profitable enterprise. That's three women working well without cat-fights, something mainstream entertainment media repeatedly suggests is impossible.
And, I think of how heavy-hitting black female writers Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou (to name a few) achieved a kind of synergy in drawing attention to the late Zora Neale Hurston's work. From what I can see, these women recognized that by promoting and building respect for the work of a departed woman of color, all women of color writers would benefit. Not only have black women writers benefited from these women pushing one woman but Hurston's hometown was saved as well. Eatonville, FL was saved because America, through these women, rediscovered Zora.
If those women had been like crabs, would they have done this? Unlikely.
Or do humans do crabs a disservice by saying they have a malicious mentality? Is instinct a mentality? Perhaps the crab is simply reaching to the higher crab the way we'd reach for the next rung up on a ladder. All the crab knows is that it wants out of the bucket.
But we are not crabs, we are women, so unlike the crab that we should know the tug we feel on our ankles may not be someone pulling us down, but someone who wants to move up. Unlike the crab, we understand we have arrived at the top of the bucket and are about to cross over to freedom so we should know our job is to hang on and pull ourselves up, applaud anyone who follows and shower with praise the ones on whose ankles we've hung. We should praise each one and call her friend.
Photo: Virginia DeBerry on left, Donna Grant on right.