Dante’s 10th circle

Illustration by Leah Reena Goren

Women in their undies dancing together in harmony aka my cultural ideal (illustration by the lovely Leah Reena Goren)

I’m sure you at least recognize the words.

There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.

Madeleine Albright first publicly said it in 2004 during a Wellesley panel, but the line enjoyed a boost of media attention when Taylor Swift quoted it during an interview in 2013. Remember? She referenced it when a journalist asked (more likely begged) for her response to the joke Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had lobbed about her love life in their opening monologue at the Golden Globes.

Tina: You know what Taylor Swift? You stay away from Michael J Fox’s son!

Amy: Or go for it. Go for it.

Tina: She needs some ‘me time’ to think about herself.

The perceived cheapshot was nestled between a million others, a seemingly required awards show practice that incites as much begrudged laughter as it does criticism. It’s a Thing capital T and it’s probably why every celebrity host seems to smile behind the credits with a few fresh gray hairs.

But while most monologue grumbles die out within a few days, this particular joke had legs. It involved two A-list female comedians and one A-list female musician: a recipe bold enough on its own for the media to throw it on the fire without the added spice of a no-doubt orchestrated camera pan which revealed an unlaughing Swift. Now they were all really in trouble.

As we all know, there is unfortunately nothing juicier to the media than a perceived female feud, actual existence of it notwithstanding. Journalists questioned all parties about it for months and the line about this special little place in hell has echoed in the ears of female pop culture enthusiasts since.

Whether or not the words were appropriately applied in this particular scenario (many think not considering the receiving parties), I think Taylor’s use of them and the media’s subsequent spreading of them as gossip fodder actually might have had a positive affect on the feminist consciousness of mass media consumers if for no other reason than subject exposure.

I’d argue the concept is now more widely integrated into the fabric of pop culture than ever before. The nuances of female representation are no longer just discussed on feminist websites and in women’s studies courses, these themes have weaved their way more consistently into red carpet interviews and mainstream cover stories, places that have long stood as beacons for perpetuating misogyny. Whether or not we all approve of pop culture’s heavy influence on the collective conscience, it’s undeniable.

And this perhaps insignificant story sparked progress.

But the question remains: what exactly does it mean for women to support other women and when does it apply? I myself have wrestled with the shades of gray ever since this particular line splashed across headlines two years ago.

Some shun the sentiment as blind support – an excuse for mediocrity. In an EliteDaily oped on the topic, author Tatiana Baez opines:

Women should help other women in the same way an employee should stand up for another, hardworking employee who is facing unjust termination. Women should not help other women simply because they’re women, however. That’s akin to saying a man should help a modern-day Hitler just because Hitler is male.

It’s clear Baez considers herself a feminist and I am not here to dispute that. We are all navigating the same waters here. But whenever the “but if a man….” example gets raised in feminist discussions, so do my red flags. The context of oppression must not be disregarded when we discuss gender differences. We can’t effectively go to bat for any human without carefully considering the asymmetry of the field.

If rich people don’t need a class-based support system and white people don’t need a race-based support system, men don’t need a gender-based support system. The very norms of our society already offer them in abundance. In the same way we don’t accept these arguments in intelligent class and race discussions, nor should we accept them in their gender equivalent.

Uneven playing field aside: Baez’ point is clear. Women don’t need to support all other women. Her assertion that there is room for critical assessment is hard to dispute. It would seem to me that anyone who says otherwise is misunderstanding the intent of Albright’s words.

But Baez believes critical assessment is actually all that should be considered. Many share this opinion.

I’m simplifying here, but the idea of feminism with regard to work is evaluating someone’s quality without considering gender.

But that is indeed oversimplifying. We don’t live in a world without gender just like we don’t live in a world without race – why the call for gender-blindness? If we fail to consider the context of others’ actions we’ll miss opportunities to more deeply understand our fellow humans, our fellow women, and most importantly ourselves.

Of course we are foolish to blindly support women simply because of their gender, but we are also foolish to not consider it.

Societal conditioning is probably the largest barrier at play when it comes to understanding the female struggle. Even the most deeply empowered feminists had at least a few norms to unlearn on their path to discovery. Some learned critical thought-processes are so deeply ingrained or (worse) blatantly considered acceptable in modern-day society that it can be quite difficult to separate them from our more organic ones.

I know this because I still have to challenge myself every day to view myself and other women the way they deserve to be viewed and it’s still not always black and white to me. I must rigorously question my own knee-jerk inclinations and be generous with my slack.

If you’ve clued in to the recent studies on upspeak / and / vocal fry, you’ll know that male and female speech patterns are a great example of ingrained biases. For years young women who employed these linguistic stereotypes were perceived as less confident or intelligent. However, studies have shown these are not exclusive to women, they were just the only ones punished for it. The perception of low intelligence and confidence was not due to way these women spoke, but due to the subconscious preference of the listeners, both male and female.

These biases run deep. This is why we can’t always take our own inclinations or those of others at face value.

Feminist philosopher queen Simone de Beauvoir made an interesting point on the topic in her book The Second Sex:

It is, in point of fact, a difficult matter for man to realize the extreme importance of social discriminations which seem outwardly insignificant but which produce in woman moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to spring from her original nature.

Here she points the finger at men, but this is of course a challenge for all humans. We may draw conclusions we feel are fair and nondiscriminatory when they are anything but, just as so many reasonable people believed it was upspeak they didn’t trust, not the women using it. We must always think twice before we claim someone’s demographic has nothing to do with our feelings about them. Our subconscious will never let that fully be the case.

Inequality is in more than the surface-level discriminatory acts that are easy to pinpoint.

But even if we can all agree we’re seeing the world through a slanted lens, not all actions can or should be excused even if there are larger forces at play. So we are left with the same question of where to draw the line.

How far does empathy go before hypervigilance becomes more effective?

Another feminist philosopher queen, Bell Hooks, wrote about this very struggle:

For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?

This is where the call from women to support other women feels so deeply relevant.

A continuing theme in my own struggle to do so is my frustration with those who don’t actively participate in, care about, or at least agree with the feminist movement – something I find so incredibly important in our modern society. I’m even more frustrated by women who promote (or are happy to be blind to) misogyny, but I also empathize as I too have bought into these constructs over different periods of my short life.

But then of course that very statement is problematic and patronizing, as it implies a binary set of principles: those of women who promote the patriarchy and those of women who don’t. But no set of actions or ways of living can be assigned to that dichotomy. The line between free will (ex: a stay-at-home mother who believes child rearing is her calling) and a false consciousness (ex: a stay-at-home mother who believes child-rearing is her calling because society has ingrained in her subconscious that’s where she belongs) is blurry and dangerous, and this uncertainty continually clouds the feminist movement. I’ve alluded to this issue before.

As teen queen Tavi Gevinson so aptly put it in her 2012 TED talk:

Feminism is not a rulebook, but a discussion, a conversation, a process.

When Taylor Swift accused Tina Fey and Amy Poehler of not supporting her during that 2013 interview, she wasn’t upset simply because women made a joke at another woman’s expense (they are comedians after all), I think she was upset this specific joke referenced, unselfconsciously, the anti-feminist rhetoric about her being somehow less for singing honestly about her many young loves and heartbreaks. It was a touchy subject at the time – and many would contend that Swift herself was unjust towards fellow women before she grew up and understood her wrongdoings.

But of course there should be no feud here. All three of these women are on the same side. Fey and Poehler have arguably been pop culture feminist icons longer than Swift, who joined the movement only in the past few years and has been finding and developing herself in it before the public eye.

But “women supporting women” is an issue that exists outside – or rather, above – that explicit are-you-or-aren’t-you-a-feminist context. Female-on-female everyday competition and criticism is probably the most obvious and prominent of issues when we examine the motivations behind this call for mutual female support.

Have you heard of feminist writer Ann Friedman’s Shine Theory? In regards to female competition she writes:

But that feeling of resentment rather than joy at the personal and professional achievements of another woman is something most of us can relate to.

(…)In many industries, women are still perceived to be token hires — which means that other women can feel like our chief competition.  

(…)When we meet other women who seem happier, more successful, and more confident than we are, it’s all too easy to hate them for it. It means there’s less for us.

Friedman is referring to a falsely perceived scarcity of happiness which can foster an unnecessarily competitive environment. She goes on to explain that she has found true confidence to be infectious, and that comparison in female relationships is toxic. What if, she proposes, instead of being intimidated by the success of other women, we celebrated it and associated ourselves with it?

When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.

(…) Foregoing the internal ranking system in favor of being your best self and helping your girlfriends do the same was a revelation to me.

Friedman’s Shine Theory attempts to combat just one flavor of the competitive female mindset, but her urging to celebrate other women’s success instead of pick it apart for flaws is an important start.

Whether or not our inclinations toward the critical are borne of biological or learned instincts (studies show a combination), they aren’t helping our cause. We are stronger together when we recognize our most common struggles, when we recognize the context of our collective conditioning, when we recognize that empathy and compassion and gentle vigilance open ears and change minds more than hate and criticism. For fear of sounding cliche, we are so very obviously stronger together.

The shades of gray are incontrovertible and I’m continually navigating them and discovering new pockets. But the power of compassion is less fuzzy. Ignorance and stupidity should never go unchecked or be blindly supported, but if we refuse to consider the cultural context of oppression, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to connect and educate. We all need a little empathy and room to grow sometimes. The only enemy is any given person’s unwillingness to try.

So, is there a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women? Probably not, but there is certainly a lonely place on earth.

4 thoughts on “Dante’s 10th circle

  1. A comment for a woman who is easy to compliment and support because she is so talented. I’ve been reading your blog for some time now, and even though I love each and every post, I never stop to tell you. In light of the “celebrate your fellow ladies” bulletin, there’s no better time than now. Thank you for your blog and for sharing your refreshing musings on life. Whenever I need a dose of linguistic or intellectual inspiration, I hop on over to your internet space. Thank you for doing what you do, I am continuously inspired by your writing, your cat, and especially your man-repellent sartorial choices.


    • I’m flattered you’d visit me for linguistic inspiration, you don’t seem to need it! This comment made my day. Thank you so much! I’m so glad people like you take your time to read here. You are clearly a feminist queen through and through. *praising hands emoji*


  2. Hi Girl !
    I regularly read your posts ( and i’m lovin it! ) but I’m still hungry for more! What are your favorite books about feminist/gender ?
    Kisses !


  3. Pingback: An Open Letter to Taylor Swift | similarish

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