Scratch! Hiss! It's two women: it's a catfight!

Fur flies more often as mature females give way to flailing limbs and titillation

Pop Culture

March 30, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

Just before passengers begin to board, a beautiful blonde in an elegant flight attendant's uniform is regally surveying the plane with a Jackie-O je ne sais quoi.

Enter her cute archrival. An argument ensues, and suddenly they're shoving each other. Cheese plates are flying, arms are flailing, and one woman ends up straddling the other on the ground, grabbing her head and slamming it into a large bread roll.

Sound like a WWF wrestling skit? One of those late-night B-movies that borders on soft porn? Actually, it's a scene from the latest Gwyneth Paltrow comedy -- View From the Top.

Catfights once skulked about the seedy underbelly of pop culture, in domains like porn and comic book fantasies, while making occasional titillating appearances in mainstream fare like TV series Dynasty or Beverly Hills 90210.

Recently, however, the catfight has been almost inescapable. The powerful woman warriors of Charlie's Angels and Buffy the Vampire Slayer seem to have given way to an old stereotype -- the buxom female whose best recourse in any brawl is to teeter on her stilettos as she feebly tries to scratch out her enemy's eyes.

Besides Paltrow's big-screen battle, there have been the ubiquitous Sprint PCS ads featuring teen-age sisters mauling each other over a cell phone, and the famous Miller Lite TV spots, where two women tear off each other's clothes while arguing over the best thing about their favorite beer. There has been a glut of nonphysical catfights as well: women quarreling over guys is a big part of the attraction of popular shows like Joe Millionaire and The Bachelor.

And the action isn't only on-screen. Heiress Paris Hilton recently told People magazine that after an argument with actress Shannen Doherty, Doherty "grabbed my arm and my face," then followed her home, whipped out some lipstick and scribbled profanities on a car.

Pulling out the lipstick? Doherty must have meant business.

Edgy and sexy

Real-life tussles aside, the catfight often has held appeal because it is seen as comical -- with a healthy dose of edge and sexual energy.

"Ever since Linda Evans and Joan Collins in Dynasty had that knock-down drag-out and ended up in the swimming pool, the chant 'Catfight! Catfight!' seems to have risen from the American mass audience," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"There's something about a catfight that has just about everything," Thompson added. "First of all, it's a fight, which is always exciting. Secondly, we went through a period where we had these glamorous women on the screen and you had to do something with them, make them move. The catfight was a pretty good way to do that. You have the arms akimbo, the legs flailing -- it was a way you could get away with doing a soft-porn spread but do it with narrative integrity."

Of course, ask those involved with resurrecting the catfight, and their reasons seem fairly innocuous.

"The purpose of the ad is to showcase our great family plans, to show that it would be a good idea for people to think about multiple mobile phones for your family," said Sprint PCS spokesman Dan Wilinsky. "You don't have to fight over them."

But the sudden prevalence of catfights in pop culture raises a worrisome question: Are we moving backward?

In recent years, the fighting woman in movies and television has tended to be the kick-boxing heroines of Alias or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. They have kung-fu moves rivaling Jackie Chan's and look as comfortable wielding guns as toughies like Arnold Schwarze-negger did. And, as FBI agent Dana Scully repeatedly showed in The X-Files, not only did they not need men to save them from trouble, but often they were the ones coming to the rescue.

Now, we've got View From the Top, with Gwynnie and Christina Applegate squealing like pigs as they dig well-manicured nails into each others' lustrous manes.

Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, a University of Oregon associate professor who is working on a book titled Unruly Girls: Changing Media for the 21st Century, believes women should be concerned.

"It goes back to infantilizing women," Karlyn said. "When we look at I Love Lucy, for example. [Lucille Ball] is a wonderful physical comedian, but her persona was so childlike. She would have a fit and she would sulk and she gets away by acting like a little baby.

"Even the name turns it into something laughable," she added. "Like, if women were to be angry enough to fight, look how cute they are. That something that would upset women enough to make them fight would be amusing."

Leora Tanenbaum, author of Catfight: Women and Competi-tion, believes that catfights have periodically bubbled to the pop culture surface because they lie somewhere between caricature and truth.

Primarily, though, "we don't generally resort to violence," she said. "We gossip, we backbite, we're petty with each other. ... Women are more underhanded and sneaky."

"Seeing this exaggerated image on film, on TV, is very troubling," she added. "It can become difficult for a woman to decide which behaviors are appropriate in interpersonal relations."

A way out

Thompson has a theory on how to make these catfights disappear.

"It'll only last as long as its oxymoronic, fish out of water, unexpected behavior," he said.

For example, "while swearing on television is still kind of shocking, we're still going to get it," Thompson said. "When there's a generation that doesn't think twice about hearing these words on TV, when there's no grandmothers who are offended by them, that's when we won't see them any more."

For catfights, that won't be anytime soon. Two weeks ago, Miller announced that it has developed 10 more catfight ads after the success of its first. The well-endowed Pamela Anderson reportedly will star in one that features two women and a pillow fight.

If Thompson is right, maybe the only way to end this madness is just to say: Bring it on.

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