Female Rivalry in Film, A Toxic Dynamic

By Claire Wilson

November 11, 2023

If you’ve ever watched a movie or read a book, you’ve surely come across the age-old female rivalry trope. Women tearing each other apart over a man, an opportunity, their pride, or sometimes nothing at all. Where does this need to compete come from, and why do we enjoy watching it so much?

Competition between women can be traced back to primitive human history. Women needed to reproduce, and to do this had to compete with other women for men’s attention. This may also explain the discrepancy between the way men and women compete. While men tend to express aggression physically, women often use indirect aggression. Emily V. Gordon of The New York Times explains, 

“Evolutionary psychology, which uses natural selection to explain our modern behaviors, says that women need to protect themselves (read: their wombs) from physical harm, so indirect aggression keeps us safe while lowering the stock of other women.” 

This explains the origins of competitive behavior among women, but in a modern world with no signs of population decline or the immediate need to reproduce, why haven’t we outgrown these behaviors? More importantly, why do we glamorize them in the media? 

Rivalry between women can be internalized at a very early age. In Disney princess movies, almost every princess faces a female villain who despises her for her beauty. None of the original Disney princesses have a woman role model or mother figure in their life. According to The Shenandoah Film Collaborative, Inc, “The Princesses female villains are always shown as being ugly, vain and malicious. Their plots often consist of imprisoning or eliminating the Princesses out of jealousy. This rivalry promotes hatred and competition between the women.” Girls who watch these films are likely to internalize the idea that women must compete in order to get male attention. As they get older, this idea is reinforced by such films as Mean Girls, Black Swan, and Legally Blonde, among others. 

Artwork by Jade Andres

“The weird thing about hanging out with Regina is that I could hate her, but at the same time I really wanted her to like me.” 

- Cady Heron (Mean Girls)

In the iconic 2004 film, Mean Girls, protagonist Cady Heron is the new girl at North Shore High School. She joins a clique of popular girls after her friend and social outcast, Janis, persuades her to spy on Regina George and her friends. Throughout the movies, the girls pretend to be friends while secretly backstabbing and manipulating each other. After Regina starts dating the boy she likes, Cady plots her revenge on Regina, saying, “in girl world, all the fighting had to be sneaky.” Mean Girls  exaggerates and glamorizes the world of adolescent girl competition, reducing teen girls to catty, backstabbing brats. It pigeonholes girls into stereotypes, where the popular girls are evil, and the art girls are weird, and the goth girls are vengeful social outcasts. It perpetuates the idea that competition among teen girls is an inevitable part of high school. In Anna Kaplan’s research paper for the University of Seattle, Stop Trying to Make Fetch Happen’: The Disempowerment of Women’s Voices in the Film Mean Girls, she argues that, “this portrayal of teenage girls presents a problematic form of feminism that consists of cacophonous fighting and competition against each other in a way that goes against the overall interests of women.”

In Mean Girls, Regina and Cady are mainly competing for one thing: the school heartthrob, Aaron Samuels. In other films, women fight over power and opportunities, a scenario that plays out between Nina and Lily in the 2010 psychological horror film, Black Swan. Nina is casted in Swan Lake, as the Swan Queen, a dual role of the white swan, Odette, and the black swan, Odile. When Lily, a ballerina from LA, arrives at the company, the two begin a tense and complex relationship, fraught with competition. As Nina becomes more and more convinced that Lily is trying to steal her role as the Swan Queen, she becomes paranoid and begins to hallucinate. While Nina and Lily play mind games and manipulate each other, they also engage in sexual acts with each other, or so Nina thinks, which brings a new angle to the dynamic of rivalry between them. In her examination of Black Swan, Naomi Wolf poses the question, “How many times in the tensions between ostensibly straight women has an untenable attraction been redirected into a safe resentment?” Black Swan ranks a little higher than Mean Girls in feminist standards, considering Nina and Lily compete over success and prestige as opposed to a man, but the fact remains that they tear each other apart in a terrifying display of physical and psychological carnage. The dramatic ending, wherein Nina’s delusions lead her to kill herself, is a disturbing conclusion to a film about the power women hold over each other. 

Legally Blonde has to be one of the best representations of women in competition with each other. Although they originally compete for Warner, Elle’s ex-boyfriend and Vivian’s fiance, their rivalry takes new turns as they compete to be top of their class and win the coveted internship at Calahan’s law firm. Their rivalry is different from those of Mean Girls and Black Swan, because they never fake their friendship. They are enemies at first, but slowly become real friends, a refreshing take on the traditional female rivalry trope. It presents the alternative that rivals can become friends with no underlying tones of competition, and an ending where both women win because they learn that they can accomplish more together. Sofia Jubraj of Metea Media writes, “Through Elle’s progression of a complex friendship with Vivian, she finds support from Paulette, portrayed by Jennifer Coolidge. Elle’s friendship with Paulette indirectly emphasizes the core foundations of feminism at work, whether it be through the “bend and snap” confidence lesson or Elle helping Paulette get her dog back, this highlights the theme of women supporting one another. 

Through these movies, we see many recurring themes: women reduced to stereotypes, women competing over men, power, opportunities, their pride. The female rivalry trope is not necessarily a bad one, but when we see it over and over again in media, we internalize it. When all we see is women tearing each other apart instead of helping each other, we come to think that competition is necessary to achieve success, and we fail to realize that our greatest successes are won through collaboration. Although competition between women may have been necessary in prehistoric times when resources were limited and reproduction was priority number one, we no longer live this way. We should have long outgrown this tendency to compete, but we have held onto the instinct to compete for men and it has infiltrated other parts of our lives; our jobs, our schools, and our friendships.

Almost everyone likes to see themselves represented in the media they consume. As women, we like to see this type of rivalry because it validates us. It tells us that we are only doing what is necessary to achieve our goals, and we create a vicious cycle in which we reinforce the destructive ideas that have been instilled in us since childhood. Only when we stop competing with each other will we see a shift in, or perhaps even an end to the idea that women must compete with each other to find success. 

 For more information:

‘Stop Trying to Make Fetch Happen': The Disempowerment of Women's Voices in the Film Mean Girls.

Why Women Compete With Each Other - The New York Times