Every now and then you come across a curious little news item that stops you in your tracks and challenges your perceptions of the world. I experienced one of those moments in September when my Yahoo! news page prompted me to click on an unlikely "urgent" headline - this one not about oil spills or the war on terrorism, but about the sixth-season finale of Australia's Next Top Model. There was, apparently, big trouble in Sydney.
I confess I'd never seen the program. But as someone who has spent the past two-plus years researching, writing and trying to promote healthy, non-competitive relationships among girls and women, I had my preconceived notions.
I figured Top Model was little more than a glammed-up, made-for-TV spectator sport, a contest that by its very nature imposed a harsh, Darwinian type of rivalry among females, pitting girl-woman against girl-woman on the basis of superficial markers like exterior beauty, the accidental gift of photogenicity, and the daunting ability to work a runway in stilettos - winner take all. I'm not an uptight gal, but I didn't understand the appeal.
The show's trailer pretty much told me all I needed to know: aspiring young models foaming at the mouth, lined up like livestock in stalls at a starting gate, waiting for that gunshot, then kicking up dust, stepping over one another, hell-bent on beating the competition to that modelling contract finish line. Yep, sitting at my computer all wrapped in smug that night, I assumed it would offer up yet another round of what I’d grown accustomed to seeing all too frequently: the media's stereotypical "evidence" confirming our gender's petty, competitive and drama-laden nature.
I can't tell you how delighted I was to be wrong. The video clip showed the now infamous moment from the September 28 live finale of Australia's Next Top Model. As hundreds of thousands tune in, lead judge Sarah Murdoch stands on stage with the two finalists, Kelsey Martinovich and Amanda Ware, and prepares to crown the victor. "The winner, and Australia's Next Top Model for 2010 is...it's you, Kelsey." Screams, hugs and cheers all round. An ecstatic Kelsey thanks her supporters, and Amanda makes a gracious concession speech. But oops, wait! There's been a mistake. The wrong name has been announced. Sarah looks dumbstruck, pulls a reverse and crowns Amanda. To anyone who has ever watched any type of competition on television or elsewhere – ever – this kind of thing just doesn't happen. The cringe-worthy clip was enough to make even the most cynical gasp in horror. It’s hardly surprising that it went viral around the globe within hours, headlines screaming things like "Blunder Down Under!"
You didn't have to be in that auditorium to know emotions were running high - among contestants, judges and audience alike. Watching it all unfold, I felt a pit in my stomach for Kelsey, but the blunder itself isn't what struck me most. What took my breath away was how genuinely lovely Amanda was in her initial concession speech, how genuinely sweet, composed and gracious Kelsey was in the face of that dream-crushing mix up ("It's an honest mistake. Don't worry! No, really. It's OK!"), how sincerely forthright and apologetic Sarah was in her moment of mortified shock, and how those two young ladies remained composed, instinctively embraced and comforted each other, and even tried to lighten things up by injecting humour into a hopelessly bizarre situation. "Now that's sisterhood," I thought to myself.
It would be easy to dismiss all this as merely a "nice" TV moment. But, really, this was so much more. Something about the scene was so fresh and ultimately so meaningful for women. It was, fundamentally, a welcome reminder that when you strip away everything we think we know or hear about the female dark side and competition, our basic essence is goodness - plain and simple. This was a testament to the beauty of civility, empathy and kindness; the things women are so good at bestowing on one another when we're at our best. In that raw moment, when those three human beings had no time to don the game face or create subterfuge and cover-up, no opportunity to grab a lifeline, they showed grace, sportswomanship and true generosity of spirit. Individually and collectively, in a few minutes, they blew a hole in the catfight stereotype and conveyed a quiet, but heartening message to any female (or human, for that matter) watching. It was an incredibly powerful, but rare media moment for females, one we've unfortunately come not to expect.
Throughout my research, I've focused on the support-sabotage paradox of female relationships. It's forced me to examine our darker tendencies - the gossip, excluding, judging, jealousy, status jockeying and other shenanigans so many of us have experienced at work, school, on the internet, the mummy front and beyond. I'm not saying men aren't capable of these things, but most of us seem to agree: female relationships can be uniquely intense and set us up for great disappointment. As one woman told me, "While men might hurt my body, it's women who can scour my soul."
I've now heard from more than 3000 women about their female relationships. In addition to beautiful tales of friendship, I've also heard story after story of ugliness; everything from women badmouthing female colleagues who were up for promotion, and mothers stalking their daughters' peers, to the garden-variety gossip and put-downs so many of us fall into out of habit, sport, boredom, or even as a bonding ritual.
Kelsey Martinovich, Sophie Van Den Akker, Sarah Murdoch and Amanda Ware arrive at the live final of Australia's Next Top Model September 28, 2010.
The final straw prompting me to write a book on the subject was the suicide of a friend's niece, a lovely girl who couldn’t take another day of her girlfriends' relentless Facebook and schoolyard harassment. Indeed, female competition and insecurity has become such a cultural norm - one reinforced by the media and marketers - it's like we've been trained to expect or even accept it as a cost of doing business as a female.
It's unclear whether our aggressions are increasing or whether we're discussing these issues more. What is clear to me is this: simply talking about these behaviours won't change them. I'm convinced we have to look at what this stuff is doing to people. A staggering 84 per cent of the women I've heard from told me they'd endured palpable emotional blows from other women. Many said that while they might not be actively dwelling on their run-ins, they know for certain it has impacted their self-esteem, confidence, willingness to open up and make new friends, ability to take risks, and their overall quality of life.
Many remain wary or ambivalent. They've coped by avoiding groups or certain types of women, holding females at arm's length and gliding through more superficial relationships, turning to men for "lower-maintenance" companionship, self-medicating with everything from ice-cream to painkillers, and even writing off women entirely. Although 90 per cent say they’re enjoying at least one reliable girlfriendship, an equal number say there's an undercurrent of negativity and incivility coursing through our gender, much of it borne of competition and insecurities. A full 97 per cent of these ladies told me it's imperative that we improve the female culture.
And yet, after hearing from thousands of women on the subject, I can distil it all to a simple truth: women can be good for one another. When we're supporting each other and otherwise behaving ourselves, there's nothing like it. Research confirms the unique physical, mental and emotional health benefits our positive female connections give us - dividends that aren't necessarily replicated in male-female and male-male relationships. Trouble is, the flip side to all this is also true. Those slights and outright cruelties we perpetrate against one another take a heavy toll.
The nice thing is, as Amanda and Kelsey showed us, we have a choice in how we treat each other. These ladies surprised us. I think we can all imagine how the scene might have played out. This had to be one of the most emotionally delicate moments in these women's lives. Any one of them might have feigned a plastic smile to mask inner turbulence, or flashed an unmistakable look of rivalrous disappointment or insincerity. Sarah might simply have said, "So sorry, but, gosh, that's the way the cookie crumbles, love", and left it at that. Instead, her primal female instincts kicked in. She knew they'd messed with Amanda's brain circuitry; she knew Kelsey was about to hurt. Her response was brilliant. Now, I can't tell you how these women behave at other moments in their lives.
I don't know their general reputations or struggles they've had, if any, with other females. For all I know they were hideous to each other during the course of the competition and returned backstage that night to badmouth, cast blame, or sulk like toddlers. Somehow, though, after viewing that clip a few times, I doubt it.
It was thrilling to see real, live, breathing women dictating the story - in real time, with no media embellishment. Because we don't see enough of this positive female coverage. Much of our TV diet consists of mean girls - warring women dramas and sassy, entitled, girl-star programs that peddle the lesson that Nastiness Finishes First. We've grown accustomed to being drip-fed gossip about the latest celebrigirl screw-up or home wrecker, invented rivalries and other shameful, gratuitous pot stirring. Drugs, booze, affairs, weight, sex tape, bad dress, same dress, bankruptcy, illness, or death all make for a guaranteed ratings and profit bonanza. Why? Because the media count on us to revel in schadenfreude and a good catfight between the ladies; it's a proven formula.
So, it's no wonder these positive moments jump out at us - we're starved for them. I'm not watching a tonne of TV these days, but the last genuinely positive media moment I can recall involved Beyoncé in 2009. In the past, folks had taken their pot shots at Beyoncé, labelling her a diva and all the usual digs. In this item, though, we learnt about the good deeds she was racking up. The story was accompanied by a video of her singing "Halo" to 11-year-old leukaemia patient Chelsea James in Sydney. I was so moved and inspired by that clip. It left me feeling good about humanity and I quickly found myself, a grown woman in her 40s, wanting to be more like Beyoncé. We can only imagine the impact on young and impressionable girls.
At the end of the day, though, women needn't point fingers at men, the media or our mums for the state of our relationships. Each of us bears responsibility for how we treat other females. Instead of falling into a competition-judgement-gossip-insecurity-aggression-manipulation cycle, we can choose to practise a more mindful civility. We can open up beyond our close girlfriends, raise our daughters to be more confident, inclusive and empathetic, and support and mentor our so-called "sisters" for the benefit of all. This isn't pie-in-the-sky idealism. We women should be writing our own history. Let’s pay more attention to what's going on within the gender and, if nothing else, at least think twice and behave ourselves for the betterment of all.
I can't say I'll be tuning in to season seven of Australia's Next Top Model, but, in this instance, at least, its women delivered. And in case you hadn't heard, all's well that ends well: both Amanda and Kelsey were awarded cash prizes, trips to New York and magazine covers. Turns out nice girls actually do finish first, a powerful message indeed.