Dynamics are different when women clash Catfight Fever

February 19, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

This time, it's playing out on ice, at the Olympics and before the increasingly tabloid-blurred eyes of the world. But strip away the sequins and the triple toe loops, and what you have is a variation on one of the oldest and most enduring themes in the world: the catfight.

As Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan warily continue their joint practices before the women's figure skating competition begins on Wednesday, it might seem as if you've seen this drama before. And you have: In movies and television, in soap operas and perhaps even in your own workplace, the scenario -- real or perceived -- of a woman conniving and back-stabbing to one-up a rival is a familiar one.

And it's one that turns us into rubberneckers: We simply can't stop watching, regardless of how unseemly it gets. Not only will we see Ms. Harding and Ms. Kerrigan battle for Olympic medals, we'll see the rivalry portrayed in any number of authorized and unauthorized, true or fictionalized books and movies in the coming months.

"For some reason, people love it when one woman goes after another woman," says Camille Paglia, the combative academic and author of "Sex, Art and American Culture" and "Sexual Personae." "It's primitive and primeval. There's something tigress-like about women. The clawing. It's carnivorous. Tearing each other's hair out. The nails. I've attacked everybody. I punch men. I yell at men. I punched a guy out at a Madonna concert. I'm known for this. But when I attack women, people get very nervous."

Ms. Paglia is currently involved in any number of what she freely calls catfights -- she battles feminists like Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolfe over whether date rape actually exists and whether women's studies are scholastically valid. And she's in "a huge catfight" with British journalist and fellow provocateur Julie Burchill, whose scathing review of Ms. Paglia's latest book touched off a trans-Atlantic volley of faxes and profanity that the Sunday Times of London headlined, "Battle of the Bitches."

People fight all the time, of course. But of all the possible configurations, woman vs. woman perhaps makes us most uneasy and thus most intrigued. It's what's behind the titillation of mud wrestling and all those other barroom attractions that feature scantily clad women in mock battle. It's what's behind the interest in watching the feminist movement splinter into different camps.

And it's what's behind any number of plot lines over the years, from the dueling goddesses, Aphrodite and Athena, of Greek mythology to the battling blonds, Amanda (Heather Locklear) and Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith) of today's "Melrose Place" television show. (TV Guide recently called them "the hottest cats ever to scratch and snarl" the best combatants since "Dynasty's" Krystle and Alexis "slugged it out in the mud.")

"I think it goes back to the old idea that women cannot be friends with each other because their only role as women is to compete for men," says Jeanine Basinger, a Wesleyan University film professor whose book, "A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960" (Knopf 1993), addresses the long-running catfight convention in movies. "Men don't have catfights because we don't trivialize men. Their endeavors are more important; they fight over more important things. With women, it's always trivial. You're fighting over a dress or over a man or, now, over a figure-skating medal."

Good girl vs. evil girl

The so-called women's films of the 1930s and '40s -- you know the ones, usually Bette Davis or Joan Crawford starred -- often pitted a good girl against a bad girl, even heightening the parallel by sometimes making them twins, in a sort of morality play. It was a way of warning women of the price of misbehaving, Ms. Basinger says.

Perhaps the ultimate bad girl, Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind," for example, not only loses her beloved Ashley to good girl Melanie, she ends up alone in the end. (Melanie, though, ends up dead, so the moral of this story perhaps isn't quite so clear cut.)

And we continue to filter our perceptions of women through this good-evil dichotomy, Ms. Basinger says.

"This Tonya Harding - Nancy Kerrigan thing is just classic. It's the great ur-story of this deal," says Ms. Basinger. "They're from Central Casting . . . Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn in their prime. They're the perfect opposites, even down to their mothers. There's Nancy's blind mom, who sticks her face in the TV set to see her, and then there's Tonya with her trash-pit mother."

Today, however, we're a little too cynical for morality plays, even as Hollywood continues to put out the occasional "Fatal Attraction" or "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," both of which end with the good wife triumphantly killing the rival who would supplant her.

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