Earlier this week, when Jennifer Lawrence accepted her (much-deserved) Golden Globe Award for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, the first thing she said was, “This means I beat Meryl.” I cringed (not knowing at the time that this is, apparently, a reference to a line from the 1996 film The First Wives Club). I cringed because that’s not what you’re supposed to say.
You’re supposed to say something gracious and generous about the strong field of women with whom you were nominated. You’re supposed to say, “You like me, you really like me.” You’re not supposed to talk about winners and losers. Remember when, at the Academy Awards, they switched from “And the winner is…” to “And the Oscar goes to…”?
Some say competition runs counter to feminist ideals, making the very idea of competition “un-feminist.” In 1972, volume one of Ms. Magazine included an article by Letty Cottin Pogrebin entitled, “Competing with Women.” And in 1987, Valerie Miner and Helen Longino co-edited a collection of essays, Competition: A Feminist Taboo? It opened with a re-print of the Pogrebin essay.
They suggest that feminists have had difficulty talking about competition—hence, the taboo—because it they consider it a key feature of the patriarchal social structure that feminists criticize. The default assumption that competition is not just un-feminine (though it is that too), but actually un-feminist. Why? Well, it’s sometimes bad, and sometimes downright ugly.
Competition isn’t just suspect for being masculinist and patriarchal (and capitalist). It’s divisive and hierarchical. You can’t have winners without losers. And aren’t winners superior to losers? The gold medalist stands at the top of the podium. What about feminist solidarity? What about equality? How does a good feminist reconcile competition with that?
This unease with the idea of competition means that many women who consider themselves feminists are loathe to admit to their competitive tendencies. We compete with ourselves. We support our sisters. We hold hands as we cross the finish line.
And yet, feminist or not, don’t we all like to win?
A few months ago I played Scrabble with a friend who didn’t care about winning. She just played any old word, not striving to lay down all the tiles, land on triple word scores, or get the most out of blanks and Qs and Zs. That’s not how I play Scrabble. Where I come from, you play to win. You challenge words. You play by the rules. You do not, I repeat, do not under any circumstances leave an open triple. I won that game. But I didn’t feel like a winner because we weren’t both competing.
If competition is bad because it is unfeminist and creates winners and losers, it can also be downright ugly. Valerie Miner has an essay about competition among feminist writers called “Rumors from the Cauldron.” The cauldron, that bubbling brew that cackling witches stir, cursing their enemies and wishing them ill.
She talks about the ugly side of competition: envy, jealousy, resentment. She talks about wanting to feel happy for our friends who succeed, but instead feeling envious of their success, wishing it were ours. And then we feel guilty for feeling that way.
I’ve been on both sides of the envy, and neither feels good. If we care about our friends and know that our successes in some way hurt them, then it’s easy to feel hurt in turn (why aren’t they happy for us?), and also to then have to downplay our victories and successes.
When I was a PhD student in a stressful doctoral program in philosophy, my housemate and I used to take time out from our studies by playing backgammon. When we were learning the game together, we had a splendid time. It was loads of fun. At certain point we turned a corner with it.
Instead of being a happy outlet from a difficult day, it became a complicated context of emotional management (what some might call co-dependence). The winner couldn’t just play her best, most strategic game and win. Instead, we started to try to gauge how the other was feeling. Was the trouncing making her upset? Would using the doubling cube just be an added cruelty? (We actually banned use of the doubling cube.)
Sometimes, the winner felt the need to apologize for winning. Sometimes the pending loser had to bow out, apologetically, because she’d had a rough enough day already, thank you very much. No one got to feel good.
Around that time I developed an aversion to competition. It wasn’t just about the backgammon. Competing was emotionally draining. If I won, I felt a mixture of joy and guilt. If I lost, I felt inferior and unworthy. I recognize that none of this is healthy and that it reveals at best that I was a bad sport, at worst that I needed lots of therapy. But my competitive nature led me to take myself out of competition as much as I could. It just felt ugly.
All this, and I haven’t yet talked about sports. It’s become part of my public “narrative” about myself that I do not enjoy playing competitive sports. I’m more about yoga and running (for my own satisfaction) and resistance training for strength. And even when I run a race, I’m only going for a personal best, not actually trying to place.
Mostly, I have to confess, I don’t like competing in sports because of the combination of two factors: I’m not all that good at sports and I can be a poor loser. When I say I’m a poor loser, I mean I feel badly about myself when I lose, and I am apt to need at least a little bit of time before I can feel happy for she who beats me (unless I, like my Scrabble friend, wasn’t actually competing to begin with–then it’s okay because I wasn’t trying to beat her anyway).
And yet I recognize sports as perhaps the one domain where women can compete against one another in a healthy, socially acceptable way. It’s the area where we don’t have to be nurturing and cooperative and concerned about how our opponents feel about our success.
I see it as a domain where we should be able to go for the win because we can (if we can). We can feel empowered at our own accomplishments while at the same time applauding the success of those who train harder or have done better in the genetic lottery than we have or both. We can set ourselves personal goals and, as Samantha says in her post about who she’s trying to beat, look at ourselves as our fiercest competition. We can admire champions.
Sports and athletics are where we can find the good in competition. Mariah Burton Nelson has a wonderful book, Embracing Victory: Life Lessons in Competition and Compassion, New Choices for Women, where she explores and develops, with much depth and eloquence, a feminist theory of victory in sports. It’s really about winning with grace and compassion, about developing your own criteria for success (and not necessarily shying away from winning as a goal), about attending to the process, about being willing to lose.
We need to give ourselves permission to compete. Lift the taboo. And lighten up.
She cites a lovely quote from the tennis champion, Chris Evert: “If you can react the same to winning and losing, that’s a big accomplishment.” I love how Evert shifts the idea of accomplishment away from “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” and towards the attitude with which you accept the outcome.
We don’t have to hold hands across the finish line. But we can go for the group hug when we all get there!