Earlier this month, someone who is not a cat meowed at Australian Minister of Finance Penny Wong. Wong had the floor during a heated debate among members of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee when a Tasmanian senator named David Bushby interrupted her with said animal sound. Wong, incredulous at what she'd heard, shot back: "The blokes are allowed to yell, but if a woman stands her ground, you want to make that kind of comment. It's sort of schoolyard politics, mate. It's just extraordinary."
Would that it were extraordinary, Minister. The meow – the universal sound cue for "catfight" – has become a common spectacle, popping up in politics, on reality TV and many points in between. It's a rare week that real housewives and female celebrity apprentices don't engage in a hair-pulling, table-tipping, "Let me talk, beeyatch!" girl-on-girl tussle. Us Magazine loves to drop the phrase in a headline, such as: "Meow! Rihanna, Ciara Get Into Nasty Catfight." Potential Republican candidates Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman are in a "catfight" rather than a "competition." Real-world, porny catfights are helpfully catalogued on many websites tuned in to the titillation once articulated by Jerry Seinfeld: "Men think if women are grabbing and clawing at each other, there's a chance they might somehow, you know, kiss."
Rather than admitting a crass adherence to stereotypes, Bushby issued a non-apology apology: "I'm sorry that Senator Wong has felt offended by my reaction." He then clarified his position: "It could have been a male or female cat. So I thought she was like an angry cat, the way they sometimes strike out. I like cats."
This Ralph Wiggum-y response is so staggeringly off-point that it seems almost brilliantly designed to distract from the question: Are men ever the recipients of the "meow"? In Catfight, a book about female rivalry, Leora Tanenbaum notes that the Oxford English Dictionary lists "cat" as a term of contempt for a spiteful or backbiting woman dating back in the 1600s. Cat can also be slang for vulva, vagina or prostitute. By the 1900s, "cat-fit" meant a fit of "anger or hysteria" by a woman or child.
Occasionally, the catfight is invoked in a gender-neutral way – as in the nirvana-like, all-cats-are-equal land where David Bushby dwells – but usually it's leveled at a woman who dares to take up space, loosing anger or a controversial opinion. Female anger is crazy anger. Catfight is a term that infuriates me and, because I am a woman, my fury means I'm going to get out my high heels and pull Catfight's hair. Stop disrespecting me, Catfight!
No woman is inured to the meow. Recently, novelist Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, she mentioned, while discussing young writers, a 2006 scandal involving a Harvard student who had plagiarized her way to a best-seller before being found out. Kaavya Viswanathan had lifted passages from several commercial writers, including Meg Cabot and Megan McCafferty. Egan called those plagiarized works "very derivative, banal stuff."
Immediately, bloggers screamed "catfight." South African author Fiona Snyckers wrote: "Is it … PhD syndrome – Pull Her Down Syndrome? This is a learned behaviour on the part of certain women to be unable to resist any opportunity to pull other women down." Egan's offhand comment had landed her at the dangerous intersection of feminism and femininity (no lights, lots of collisions). She inadvertently violated a tenet of a narrowly defined brand of feminism that insists a sister must never criticize a sister. Also, she disobeyed her feminine instincts by saying something negative, and negativity goes against the loving, maternal kindness that radiates from our lady bits. Hey, Pulitzer Prize winner: Meow!
Of course, when male writers criticize their peers, it's called Wednesday or possibly a literary "feud." No one meowed when Norman Mailer clashed with Gore Vidal. Strut and bravado is the – ahem – meat of many a male literary persona. But a woman writer who expresses distaste for a woman writer gets an air claw.
Still, Egan apologized for her remarks. Her motivations for doing so remain her own, but it seems that even a writer as revered as Egan knows how poorly female anger plays in public. A study published in Psychological Science in 2008 showed that a woman who expresses anger is less likely to get a job than her angry male counterpart. After watching videos of actors applying for jobs, both men and women concluded that men who lose their tempers deserve higher salaries and would be better employees than angry women.
But anger is actually productive. Anger gets things done. Female anger isn't just the result of a weepy ovary; it's often justified. If it goes unexpressed or burrows down, it will reveal itself anyway, in a myriad of unhealthy ways. The catfight isn't spectacle or entertainment; for all its noise, it's silence.