When I was in middle school, I used to turn to movies and books to understand how to make friends and maintain them. I was easily influenced, much like other people my age, by what I saw and read. But what I didn’t know back then was the extent to which I unwittingly let those false, scripted narratives influence my relationships with my friends. Looking back, I’ve realized that the one source I sought inspiration from was also flawed, and in many ways, was propagating meaningless gender stereotypes.
The notion that all females are at war with each other, constantly vying for social status and trying to outperform their “competition,” is something that a lot of popular movies worked into their plot lines in the early 2000s and 2010s. Think of Mean Girls, a staple in many girls’ list of “girls’ night in” movies. When it comes down to it, Mean Girls revolves around three superficial teenage girls struggling to maintain their social status in high school by trying to crush anyone who challenges their monarchy.
But for a typical teenage girl, the movie’s characters are less of a one-time, onscreen spectacle and more of an everyday sight. In my sophomore year of college, I rushed a sorority, and the girls who rushed with me were almost sickeningly sweet when we were in the same group, but immediately turned cold after we split groups. I remember wondering if I’d done anything to offend them, and then realized that that was how they were behaving with everyone.
Mean Girls is only the beginning in a chain of popular movies that have problematic female characters. But I think the more important question is, what influences what? Do young girls become hypnotized by patriarchal narratives and sexist portrayals of female characters in mainstream media, or does mainstream media derive its content from real life events and existing thoughts and practices? Where does the cycle begin, and where does it end?
To answer this, I think we have to look at how women view each other from an evolutionary perspective–how they used to behave before social media and films existed. Why are women so competitive and cliquish? One theory based on an evolutionary psychology research study suggests that the reason women downgrade other women is the need to compete with members of their own gender to find male partners with the most desirable qualities. “When women compete for well-resourced men, their intersexual competition will entail advertising those qualities that men value and their intrasexual competition will entail discrediting such traits in their rivals.” 
Once I came across this point of view, a lot of mainstream culture involving gender roles and sexuality suddenly began to make sense. When the cinematic portrayal of female relationships is contextualized by the primal necessity to mate, it’s a small wonder than characters like Regina George extract their self-worth from putting down their female competitors.
What further aggravates this kind of behavior is sexism that still exists to this day, forcing women to constantly be at each other’s throats even when there is no evolutionary need to do so. Sexist culture is as toxic as it is prevalent, and to deny its influence on humankind is to disregard years of belittlement that women have gone through in the years.
Like Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her TED Talk We Should All Be Feminists, “Culture does not make people. People make culture.” Countless arguments have been made for sexism, one view as conflicting and polarizing as the next, but one small victory for women is the very existence of these arguments; to argue about sexism is to acknowledge, at least, its presence and impact on the world.
Sexism is a topic that can be debated on endlessly (and well beyond the domain of what I want to focus on today), to no avail. But the patriarchal structure of society is not lost on women; we feel it in every way at every moment. When a young girl is forced to bear the burden of not only having to battle against gender expectations and sexist peers but also shoulder the weight of competing against her fellow female companions, it can land a devastating blow on her identity and confidence as a woman.
So to answer the question of where the cycle begins, it’s obvious that sexism existed before the invention of media, but as of today the line that separates reality from a bunch of pixels is blurry. We know where it begins, but where does it end?
And that’s what we must focus on if we have any hope of changing the way females and their subtle, unnecessary intrasexual battles are portrayed onscreen. When I read Roxane Gay’s book of essays Bad Feminist, I came across a paragraph that read, “Girls have been written and represented in popular culture in many different ways. Most of these representations have been largely unsatisfying because they never get girlhood quite right.” And I think she’s absolutely right, because being a woman cannot be whittled down to a mere ninety minute motley collection of scenes of passive bullying and shopping montages.
To be fair, there are a lot more movies coming out that portray strong, independent women. It’s a refreshing change to view the woman walking away into the distance at the end of a movie, realizing that she doesn’t, after all, need a partner to be happy, and that her group of girl friends are all she needs in her life. Or that her job and her friends are so much more important than moving across country with someone she met a month ago.
Shifting the narrative of how females bond with other females is imperative to unshackling the modern day women from societal expectations. We don’t always have to be rude to each other; we don’t always have look perfect and be well-composed. It’s okay to be happy for our friends’ successes as much as it’s okay to seek comfort and support from them. Once popular culture begins to depict the amazing side of having solid female friendships, it’ll be a lot easier to appreciate the presence of one in our lives.
 Campbell, Anne. “The evolutionary psychology of women’s aggression.” Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences vol. 368,1631 20130078. 28 Oct. 2013, doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0078