Wellness·Point of View

Why are we so obsessed with girl fights?

Bette and Joan. Tonya and Nancy. Betty and Veronica. What’s so compelling about women who just can’t get along?
Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in Feud (Source: Fox 21 Television Studios/FX)

"There was never a rivalry like theirs." Or at least that's the first thing Ryan Murphy's glossy campfest Feud: Bette and Joan tells us about the notorious, decade-spanning quarrel between Old Hollywood mainstays Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And while that's kind of a romantic idea, especially when spoken through Catherine Zeta Jones' dreamy drawl, it's not really the case, is it?

Bette and Joan's ability to captivate audiences onscreen and off with the fact that they just can't stand one another isn't revolutionary. In fact, it's one of the only narratives we allow for famous women who tread on similar territory in terms of their appearances, career choices or taste in men.

The 1950s had Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor, we got Angie and Jenn. Figure skating's Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan dominated tabloids in the early 90s when their battle on the rink took a violent turn right before the Olympic qualifiers. And today's gossip blogs rush to be the first to get their hot take out every time Katy Perry and Taylor Swift tweet cryptic, coded messages about one another. It's an irresistible formula that hasn't budged from its place in the gossip hierarchy even as topics like feminism have crept further into our public discourse (and have become a go-to question for every female star each time she gives an interview). And it works. Rihanna shut down the rumour of a spat with Beyonce, SJP took to Instagram to prove she has nothing but well wishes (and birthday wishes) for purported rival Kim Cattrall and Jessica Chastain flat out denied any feud with Jennifer Lawrence despite a gossip site's suggestion that she "hated" her. But still, the magazines sell.

Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fischer and Debbie Reynolds in 1951. (Credit: Getty Images)
Katy Perry and Taylor Swift at the 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards (Credit: Getty Images)

So, why exactly are we so drawn to this dangerous narrative of pitting women against each other? For starters, the idea of two women duking it out plays right to straight male fantasy. As Jerry put it in one of Seinfeld's most memorable episodes, "The Summer of George", that's generally "because men think that if women are grabbing and clawing at each other, there's a chance they might somehow, you know… kiss." In fact, there's a whole subgenre of porn centred around catfights.

Similarly, girls who 'can't get along' feed our societal desire to fit all types of women into ancient (and problematic) archetypes, perhaps most clearly embodied by Archie Comics' leading ladies Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge. Betty's blonde locks and ocean-blue eyes tell us she's sweet, dependable and pure, while Veronica's dark features and impeccable taste in clothing signal that she's a privileged, vindictive temptress. It's not hard to see those parallels in the ways the media positioned 'good girl' Jennifer Aniston and 'maneater' Angelina Jolie when the Brangelina scandal hit. The coverage of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding's rivalry wasn't much different, with Kerrigan representing classic beauty and ballerina physique against Harding's working class athleticism. Not only are these categories reductive and limiting for those whose performance of womanhood beckons them to one side of the divide or another, they're aggressively white and don't leave much room for anyone who doesn't conform to the skirt-and-heels, male ideal of femininity.

Veronica Lodge, Archie Andrews and Betty Cooper. (Source: DC Comics)
Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Hamar, Norway (Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

But contentious relationships like Bette and Joan's also play on (and play up) the idea that women are helplessly emotional and constantly scheming in order to get what they want. Obviously, the wording is much more covert and persuasive than that. But it's exactly how women like Hillary Clinton get labeled as untrustworthy (or to put it in the way so many did during last year's election, 'crooked') simply for having ambition. When we believe that women are not only capable of being cunning manipulators, but that it's an ingrained part of our being, ready to be unleashed anytime an adversary appears, buying that two ladies of similar and competing career status would turn on each other is a natural next step.

Of course, not all of these famous feuds are based in fiction, even if they do get amplified by a perfect storm of misogyny and tabloids. Women are complicated, perceptive creatures who've grown up in a patriarchal society that pushes them apart, so sometimes their drama is just plain juicy. Or as Gossip Queen Lainey Lui likes to put it: Girl sh*t is the best sh*t.

So, then what's really at the centre of these frenemy wars, before they become headlines you can't help but click on? Dr. Terri Apter, co-author of the book Best Friends: The pleasures and perils of girls' and women's friendships, suggests that it's rooted in the intimate nature of female relationships. The focus on closeness and understanding, but also social hierarchies, leads to envy, anxiety and exclusion, as that coveted level of intimacy can only be preserved within a small, insular group.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford at a script reading for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Credit: Getty Images )

For Bette and Joan, as Feud seems to argue, a lot of it had to do with the limited roles for aging women in Hollywood (which, despite the reign of Meryl, is still definitely a thing). The focus on always finding the youngest, freshest actress for the audience to fall in love with (and imagine falling into bed with) made both women, Joan, in particular, who was always known more for her striking looks than her ability to carry a scene, somewhat obsolete once they were deemed too old for men to desire. Both women wanted to work, and wanted to be recognized for their work. And desiring that in a world with few opportunities led to an inevitable level of competition that simply doesn't exist for older men in Hollywood — or, well, anywhere.

On one hand, this whole narrative of dueling women seems inescapable, especially given how little progress we've made since the heyday of Bette and Joan. We've seen fiction take on the complexity of female friendships in interesting manners with satires like Mean Girls and Heathers, but both films seemed to fuel our desire to see girls go at each other rather than challenge or address the structures that spark our interest in the first place. But a recent wave of fictional retellings signals that there might be a light at the end of this tunnel — or at least a way to blow up the tunnel from the inside.

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in Feud (Source: Fox 21 Television Studios/FX)

Feud is using its tale of two talented, difficult women in their 50s to create rich, layered roles for Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange (who, at 70 and 67, respectively, are as captivating as ever), actively working against the struggle the real Bette and Joan faced when looking for work. (Feud has also committed to giving women power behind the scenes, hiring female directors to put their mark on more than half of its episodes, and making sure that the show doesn't become yet another story about women told through the male gaze.)

Similarly, I, Tonya, a fictional take on the Kerrigan/Harding scandal starring Margot Robbie as the titular Tonya that's set to be released next year, goes deep into Harding's side of the story, seeking to add complexity and humanity to the former skater beyond the problematic archetype she was shoved into. Even Riverdale, the moody Archie Comics reboot, has fleshed out the characters of Betty and Veronica beyond their stigmas, resisted the love triangle storyline that will likely turn the girls against one another (at least as much as it can... it is a teen drama, after all) and made Veronica a woman of colour to reflect actress Camila Mendes' Brazilian heritage.

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding (Source: Nicolas Karakatsanis/Clubhouse Pictures)

(Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper and Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge on the set of Riverdale)

It's a good start. But will it be enough? Is it even possible to truly reclaim the sexist girl vs. girl narrative when an overwhelming majority of the positions of power in the industries that promote and exploit this idea are still straight, white men? It seems unlikely that we'll ever really stop obsessing over the girl fight, but maybe finding an inclusive, feminist way to explore it is just around the corner.