In her book Catfight, Leora Tanenbaum tackles the problem of comparison and competitiveness. In chapters concerning work, motherhood, beauty, and women working together, she offers many societal, literary and psychological reasons why women often envy or denigrate each other.
The book is a feminist document in which Tanenbaum holds up a mirror to the women of North America; many women will recognize their own lives and challenges. Young women who have never questioned why they envy or compete with other women would be greatly enlightened by reading it. Tanenbaum informs her readers of historical and modern influences that create competition without boring them, and she relates anecdotes in a friendly conversational style. The divisive issues that threaten cooperation among women are many; Tanenbaum tackles them with passion and aplomb. But like many books written by people with obvious agendas, Catfight often pushes its point and skews interpretations of events, leaving the book feeling unbalanced and slightly untrue. In spite of one's general agreement with Tanenbaum's subject, the reader ends up arguing against some of Tanenbaum's basic points.
For instance, in the section on dating, Tanenbaum mentions the pressure on women to be dependent on a man for security and wealth, but she doesn't mine this material as much as she does what for her is the most important issue: that is, the notion that women are constantly aware of the threat of the Other Woman. Certainly reducing many modern and classical literary works and fairy tales to the motif of "The Other Woman" is stretching things. Tanenbaum writes of Cinderella, "To get the prince, a woman must be beautiful, compete with evil other women." True, but this is a limited feminist reductionist view of a fairy tale which deals with the very true fact that many young children of medieval times were indeed raised by stepmothers because of the high death rate of mothers. The story is also, among other things, about a privileged man who has never known poverty, who, after a long journey, learns to accept a poor depressive declasse woman as a wife. Tanenbaum also declares that the novel and film Bridget Jones' Diary is about a woman who has to deal with a lover who goes off with Another Woman. True, but by the same token, there is heavy male competition in that book which Tanenbaum doesn't consider.
Often, the book seems to be written for successful middle class women who need to feel intellectual reassurance that the have-nots are truly out to get them. And Catfight comes down squarely on the side of the winners of society's catfights. Many of Tanenbaum's anecdotes are from women who have suffered because of their "successes". In one anecdote, a light-skinned black acquaintance of Tanenbaum's tells her about jealous competition she has received from darker-skinned black women and ends her plaint with the phrase, "Slavery is Slavery." This is meant to imply that all blacks suffered – and still suffer – despite the lightness of the skin. But Tanenbaum does not challenge this "anecdotal statement from a friend." Yes, slavery is slavery. But racism is also racism, and the light-skinned do benefit from society's racism at the cost of their dark-skinned sisters. In a nation where success is supposedly based on one's own personal skills, it is hard to admit that other factors might have contributed to one's success. And although it is not required that they feel guilty about having jobs dark-skinned people usually don't get, the "friend's" easy dismissal doesn't seriously address the fact that most media broadcasters and actresses are light-skinned. Tanenbaum, who touches upon the media and racial ideals of beauty, does not challenge her friend with the fact of a world where black newswomen and female video dancers are light-skinned and women on Hispanic TV rarely look typically Hispanic. Nor does she say that her friend probably has benefitted greatly from her skin color. She only commiserates.
In the section on work, Tanenbaum does somewhat the same thing. She begins the section by discussing women who have been victims of women bosses and female colleagues. At first it looks as if Tanenbaum will pull no punches, but before long she retreats from blaming these female bosses. Like all victims of society, these women are nasty because society has made them that way. Stressed and afraid of the male-created atmosphere, they simply can't help being nasty. It's the kind of deterministic view that makes society responsible for the evil action of every so-called victim and no one seems to have control of her own actions. In short, the book touches on many important issues and really should be read by many young women but despite its epilogue, in which ideas are given to engender cooperation between women, Catfight's blatant agenda makes it feel intellectually inadequate.