Status Signalling among Women

I was having a discussion with some male fans over on another blog, and found myself freaking out for ill-defined reasons over a scene in an anime. Eventually (after spending way too much time taking over the poor guy’s comment box, and consulting a few folks) I managed to narrow down what was bothering me.

There’s a trope, in real life as well in anime, of the “cool girl” or the older or more forceful girl who bosses around the other girls, sometimes leading them on wonderful adventures. Pippi Longstocking is a good fictional example.

As many people have noted, women leaders with good relationships are always asking for feedback. Are we having a good time? Isn’t this great? Aren’t you glad you didn’t stay home? Even exclamations are often asking for a reply or an affirmation.

But the subtle point is that if it’s a good relationship and the leader is good, the girl followers do stand up for themselves. They may do it by always agreeing, but they do make it clear that agreement is coming from an individual of status, whose opinion matters. I think that we’re having a good time. I think that your dress is gorgeous. I think that Sempai is awesome. The declaration of individuality may be unspoken, but it’s there. And almost all the time, even sycophant characters stand up for themselves enough to demand response. I think this; don’t you agree about Sempai? What do you think? What are you going to wear tomorrow? What should we do next?

Similarly, when girls or women are doing things together, one woman may be gathering all the other women up to go to the bathroom, but each of the women makes her own individual production out of it, according to personality. All the women may be encouraged by fashion conformity to wear similar clothing, but wearing the exact same clothing is a fashion faux pas. All the girls on a softball team may wear the same uniform and their accessories may be restricted, but every single one of those girls will have something a little different from the others.

Women run in packs, but only a woman who has totally given up on herself will show total submission to a female leader. Among women, showing total submission makes you a natural target for cruelty. A female leader seems to have very few instinctual limits on her power and ruthlessness toward other females, except for status signalling by them that they’re not sick, not dead, and not expendable. Furthermore, a female satellite to the leader will often be eager to signal her own status by being mean to whoever is lower in rank; and the lower down she is in the pecking order, the more she tends to peck desperately at the one who’s safely the lowest.

Obviously women can use their brains and hearts instead of instinct, though. That’s why kindly girls will put a lot of effort into encouraging a shy girl to stand up for herself and/or develop individual style, rather than remain at rock bottom. But very few teenage girls do well at resisting the lure of absolute power. In extreme situations, you get the Parker-Hulme murder duo. It seems that some girls literally don’t know how to stop being mean once they start; they have to be stopped by someone or something external in order to regain self-control. Standing up to them is doing them a favor.

The survival aspect of this probably goes back to primate bands. As long as females keep signalling with sounds or actions, and the other females keep signalling back with their own sounds and actions, all the females know that there is no predator or dangerous situation picking off females. A female who doesn’t signal back in any way is not helpful for the common warning system, so she’s expendable. If nobody expends her, she has to do what everybody else says… until she starts to stand up for herself by responding, and keeps it up despite any opposition.

Sometimes there’s a lot of opposition. But it’s ultimately a lot easier to stand up for yourself than to submit. I’ve been at the bottom of the ladder, but nobody’s ever made me rock-bottom; I’ve never been anybody’s slave.

(The takeaway for men? Some guys may inadvertently do things that could be misinterpreted as female total submission, even though no guy on earth would take it that way. So I suspect that it would be helpful for guys having problems to figure out a way to bounce back women’s comments with their own actions or comments, although without giving up their own style. Older men who’ve been married for a long time are often pretty good at this. It can be pretty minimal response, but they verify that they’re there and nothing has eaten them. However, some women are just nasty and are always demanding total submission from everyone, so there’s not much to do about them but avoid them.)

(Likewise, it’s helpful for us women to learn to stop fussing for reflex comfort and start thinking about why we are freaking out for responses this time. Before we take over somebody’s comment box, for example. Which is why I have my own darned blog.)

(I also suspect that women find some aspects of religion easier because women like having God as a sounding board, and they like paying attention to learn His response.)

PS. Does anybody know any good webpages about female social hierarchy? Contemporary researchers seem very uninterested in investigating women’s behavior around other women, but maybe I don’t have the right search terms.



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3 responses to “Status Signalling among Women

  1. I think there’s also an angle, at least in Christian cultures, of the “kindly” girl you mention having a stronger stance than the theoretically more powerful ones that savage instead of trying to salvage. Sort of like giving stuff away– it’s only possible if there is excess to be spread about the group; a weak link is a threat to all.

  2. I wonder if maybe men are less threatened by being seen as part of a collective than women. At the university where I work I see exactly what you mean in the departmental admins (who are almost exclusively women.) There is a great emphases on individual identity in dress and in the decoration of work spaces.

    In the maintenance department, where I work,there is a deliberate and comfortable conformity. We wear uniforms and the shop is divided functionally, not by the individual who works there. We are generally referred to as “the guys” by the admins, as in “can we get one of the guys to change a light bulb?”

    It’s not that they don’t know our individual names or recognize us as people, it’s just that we don’t insist on individuality in the same way. At work my identity is as part of the team, and I don’t feel that diminishes me.

  3. I think that’s more to do with how guys handle dominance– the classic “two guys beat the crud out of each other and then they’re friends” thing.

    Guys: totally submit and it’s OK, unless they’re a total blanker.
    Gals: totally submit and it’s either insane or a sign of absolute trust.

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