Photo: NBC/ Getty Images.
It’s August 26, 1970, and the Women’s Strike for Equality is happening in major cities across the country. Male anchors moderate the news coverage surrounding the event — like ABC’s Howard K. Smith, who says that women may take “a little longer” to tame than expected. He quotes West Virginia Sen. Jennings Randolph in describing the women’s liberation movement as “a small band of bra-less bubbleheads.” We meet Jacque Davison, a woman who’s expressing her disagreement with the movement itself. And in the final moments of the segment, we see Davison in a physical fight with a female protester. This was the televised debut of what’s colloquially referred to as the “catfight,” a lens through which men view a physical altercation between women. Male broadcasters used this fight as an example of why feminism would never flourish. Susan J. Douglass, author of Where the Girls Are, explains that the female row became a metaphor in this way, but it was also something of a spectacle. She describes it as “two women, often opposites, locked in a death grip that brought them both crashing down into the muck. Both women were sullied; no one won. Meanwhile, the men, dry, clean, and tidy, were off in some wood-paneled den relaxing, having a drink and a smoke, and being reasonable.” First, let’s define what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about the female fight. According to Douglass, the earliest iterations featured “a traditional wife (blond)” and “a grasping, craven careerist (brunette).” And while physical combat between women isn’t something invented by men, it certainly endures in pop culture because of its appeal to the male sex. As we learned in Seinfeld, “Men think if women are grabbing and clawing at each other, there’s a chance they might somehow kiss.” And while the female fight may have gotten its start on cable news, it’s since made a home for itself in nearly every other genre of television. Primetime Soap Operas (1980s)
The female fight holds a seminal place in the nighttime soaps of the 1980s, like Dallas, but Dynasty is perhaps the most notorious example. Joan Collins and Linda Evans played two warring women who tussle inexplicably often and in the strangest of ways. (Once they ended up in a lily pond.) Though the scenes seem silly now, this was just 10 years after that ABC broadcast set up the idea that women fight each other for no reason, that they can't be "tamed," as it were. So, really, did it matter that their skirmishes came seemingly out of nowhere? In a 2007 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Collins reflected on this plot device. “The first time we did it, the ratings went through the roof,” she said. “So, from then on, we had to do it every season afterward.”
Daytime soap operas of the early-'90s carried on that legacy.
Many primetime shows of the ‘90s feature fights between women, but a few stand out as key examples of how this trope made appearances both outrageous and subtle.
Take Melrose Place, which aired from 1992 to 1999 and focuses on a group of young, attractive people living in an apartment complex in L.A. In 1994, The Orlando Sentinel dubbed it as “nasty and delicious,” “the chocolate cake of television shows,” and almost immediately adjusted that assessment to “the Lite beer of television shows, less filling and tastes great. It’s big, dumb fun.”
What’s troubling is the assertion the Sentinel made about why the show was so successful and earned a top place in Nielsen ratings. “Melrose also works because it understands that women do not want to watch men fight each other with guns; they want to watch women fight each other with words. Almost all the Melrose women have a catty streak, while most of the men serve as ornaments.” Indeed, the show's ratings only went up after the writers swapped out heartfelt, earnest moments for brawls. Sadly, the catfight permeated even the most lighthearted of sitcoms. Consider Friends, the comedic interpretation of the lives of twentysomethings turned thirtysomethings in New York City. What a hoot! Except, remember that time Monica needed to find a wedding dress? Take a look.
This fight is especially disappointing, because it not only plays into the stereotype that women can’t get along, but that marriage is always the ultimate goal for us ladyfolk — one so important that a perfectly reasonable woman will go barbaric over it.
If you stayed home sick from school in the ‘90s and early-‘00s, you could expect to see a few key programming blocks. Namely, shopping games on The Price Is Right, Maury Povich informing men of paternity results on live TV, and all-out melees on Jerry Springer. Springer’s show hit the air in 1991, but it wasn’t until 1994 that it took a turn for the sensational. And by 1998, it was the epicenter of all things violent, beating out Oprah and Regis and Kathie Lee for ratings. The New York Times chalked up this success to the nearly constant “toplessness, fistfights, and filthy language.”
And of course, the show had segments specifically dedicated to “catfights.” A USA Today writer who attended a taping of the show in 2001 shared her experience. “We are forbidden to curse,” she wrote, “but the words ‘skank’ and ‘whore’ are encouraged.”
During the NFL playoffs in 2003, Miller Lite broadcast a commercial called “Catfight.” It is quite literally an ad featuring a brunette woman and blond woman fighting over whether Miller Lite is so wonderful because it’s less filling or because it has great taste. This hair-pulling event travels from the table where they start to a nearby fountain to a wet cement pile. By the end, the women are in their undergarments and making sounds that feel plucked from a soft-core porn soundtrack.
And what did Miller have to say for itself? The brand claimed it’s “a hysterical insight into guys’ mentality. It’s a really lighthearted spoof of guys’ fantasies.” Maybe that’s why women fighting became the crux of these ads for Axe and Bud Light.
This genre started out with series like The Real World and Survivor, and now includes everything from The Bachelor to Hoarders. Perhaps taking a nod from the success of Jerry Springer, much of reality TV focuses on women fighting other women. It’s not always an all-out fisticuffs. It can be subtler, in the vein of America’s Next Top Model, wherein competition creates immediate enemies. But sometimes it is an all-out physical brawl. Just look at Jersey Shore.
But what’s concerning is that so much of reality programming insists on female-on-female violence, or at least suggesting that things will become so tense, so dramatic between women, that a fight may ensue. Consider the trailer for the newest season of Real Housewives of New Jersey. How fun they are! How sentimental and heartwarming that Teresa is back from prison and reunited with her family! But, you know, there’s also gonna be a battle or three.
Will Things Change?
Though you might blame reality TV for perpetuating a lot of drama between women on screen, you can also look to it for a possible solution. Cast members have begun to distance themselves from reality franchises because of the way networks glorify their bad behavior. Other stars are coming forward to admit portions of their programming were scripted, and that producers created setups to intensify drama. So, while reality TV may have been one of the biggest culprits in perpetuating the female fight, it may also be where we start to notice a significant change. A lot of questions linger, of course. When can women fighting on TV be a good thing? (Looking at you, Buffy.) And what about the way female relationships are depicted in the media? When will a scrap between two women no longer be called a "catfight"? By addressing this trope and showing you examples, have I inadvertently contributed to the problem?