Crab Mentality: How women hold each other back

That's just crabby.
That’s just crabby.

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the concept of “crab mentality.”  This concept refers to a common occurrence in buckets of crabs: if one crab attempts to escape from a bucket of live crabs, the other crabs will pull it back down, rather than allowing it to get free. Often, the crabs will wait until the brave crab has almost escaped before pulling it back into the bucket. This seems strange—why would the crabs pull each other down, instead of working together to get out of the bucket?

The same question can be asked of women who compete with other women.  Real talk:  whether we’re willing to admit it or not, all women are competitive with other women, to some extent.  I repeat:  ALL women.  I recently read Catfight by Leora Tanenbaum, which discusses the ways in which women compete, in every aspect of our day-to-day lives.  At first, I didn’t quite buy into her hyperbolic examples of lady bitchiness, a la Mean Girls.  I’m not passive-aggressive and under-the-table, I thought.  Therefore, this logic doesn’t apply to me, right?  Wrong.

We’re socialized to compete in some form or another, because as women, we all fall short of an ideal type:  we fall outside of the category of man.  We are conditioned to equate manhood with credibility, and because we were born with two X chromosomes, we are inherently “lacking”.  As Tanenbaum points out, “if a woman belittles other women, she can prove her superiority among women—and is one step closer to the inner circle of men.”

she doesn't even go here...
she doesn’t even go here…

Maybe, like me, you don’t consider yourself a Regina George personality.  But consider these other scenarios:  Have you ever said that you prefer guy friends to girl friends, because “girls are just drama”?  Have you ever criticized another woman for being “dumb”, or “too slutty”, thereby making yourself seem smarter, more upright?  Have you ever judged a woman for being “too fat for those jeans”, for “really wearing that outfit…?”, for her obviously unkempt roots, or any other criteria that made her fall short of emulating Barbie?  Have you ever hated your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, even if you’ve never met her, just because (literally, for no reason, other than the fact that she’s the ex)?

Ladies, Ms. Tanenbaum is speaking to us, as well.  We’re actively partaking in crab mentality when we speak unkindly about another woman.  We’re reinforcing unhealthy ideals when we pass judgment on how another woman’s body looks, or how she dresses.  We’re guilty of slut shaming when we criticize her for what she chooses to do with her body, or who she chooses to love.

To the gentlemen, and even those ladies, who will stipulate that women just act this way because “women are psycho”:  you’re off-base.  Women aren’t born with a “crazy” gene, and nowhere in our DNA is there a script for how to be the perfect bitch.  Rather, the blameworthy buzzword here is patriarchy, where men are in a position of privilege, and women are consequently discredited.  We have been conditioned to fight tooth and nail to succeed (read: be validated by a man), even at the expense of burning bridges with our sisters.

I wholeheartedly believe that the cattiness we engage in is not entirely our fault.  However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t be part of the solution.  In fact, it’s the only shot we have at propelling the feminist movement further, rather than pulling each other back.  In the epilogue of Catfight, Tanenbaum outlines two pages worth of tips that women can engage in to change our script from one of destruction and debilitation to one of empowerment and encouragement.  A few of these tips (interspersed with a few of my own) include:

-Compliment a woman on her appearance.catfight

-Be friendly to your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend.

-Ask to get lunch with a woman whom you envy.  Rather than stewing because you think she’s better than you, why not befriend her?  Watch the walls come down, guaranteed.

-In the workplace, tell a female supervisor how much you admire her work—help her be a role model.

-Be a role model yourself:  don’t speak poorly about another woman, especially personal attacks about her appearance, etc.

-Be a friend to someone who has given birth.  Offer to watch her infant so she can nap, do chores, or read a book.

In short, don’t allow yourself to partake in crab mentality.  Turn your envy into admiration, and your defensiveness into friendliness.  Above all, never underestimate the power of sisterhood.

10 thoughts on “Crab Mentality: How women hold each other back

  1. So interesting! I have never heard of this “crab mentality” but it made for an awesome post! This idea of holding each other back as women is something that I myself often see occurring in my own life and even just when over hearing others conversations. You are right, at first, you do not notice yourself taking part of such catty ways but once you become aware of it and take a step back, you begin to notice that you ARE adding to the insanity. So like you said, lets turn this shit around and use our powers together not against each other.


  2. Great reflection on competition and crabby behavior 😉 One thing I think we often forget to note in discussions of female competition is that men are highly competitive as well. Just look at the history of empires. Really, competition is a human trait. Somehow though, when we talk about competition among women the language we use is dramatically different than competition among men – and it’s certainly more pejorative. I think it’s good advice for everyone to consider the ways that competition can become unhealthy and self-defeating as opposed to healthy and valuable. It seems like we might learn something from positive athletic conduct where individuals compete to push themselves and others to greatness while still supporting fellow competitors.


  3. Also the bucket under patriarchy is the whole world, there is no way out of oppression no matter what social position a woman gets to as no woman can escape woman hatred because its in culture, it does not matter if she is a gender conforming or a gender non conforming woman its still there, even if she has a circle of male friends its still there.

    Push past the other women who pull you back, and see what is beyond the line and maybe you will find out that after you get past a certain point, other women back off and you may find its men firing at you and at this point other women stop bc they cant come any further without being fired at by men themselves. Its possible women fear crossing a certain line so fire their energy at each other close to it to make themselves feel like they are achieving something, but all fear going over it and actually becoming effective as when women become effective they threaten men unless they remain in conventional roles. Also observe women dont tend to tear women down who are succeeding in traditional things, like caring etc, despite the fact these women are more appealing to men.


  4. I also think the anger towards female power in both sexes is related to anger towards the mother and of the power she had over oneself in childhood. Women who are good at something that does not require giving others orders tend to not be hated the same.


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