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006: The Green-Eyed Monster
For most of my life, almost every instance of emotional and physical harm I’ve experienced — in friendships, relationships platonic or romantic or familial, the classroom, the workplace, online, offline — has been chalked up to, “She’s just jealous of you.” She’s just jealous of you has been a clean and simple way of summarizing and concluding the inexplicable and unspeakable that women do. Jealousy is the solution, a kind of emotion provoking of behavior that has become socially acceptable to not warrant further inquiry or understanding; it is after all a woman’s greatest evil, memorialized in film, music, literature, art, propagated by a culture of silence.
This essay I write has in itself been in the works for years. I had pitched this concept of exploring envy and jealousy as it is experienced by and between women to two separate publications — one after the other — whose entire existence seemed cultivated by the need to empower women, to give voice to oft-ignored topics and to facilitate growth. With publication A, the matter of jealousy was broken down into smaller components, iterations of it tossed back and forth, until word from above came: it was too provocative, and to speak frankly of jealousy was not empowering to women. I took it to the next place, publication B, a zanier, fresher version of A, hell-bent on pushing conventions in fashion, so of course why would it not want to push convention in thought, for fashion is an expression of our thoughts. It was warmly received, commissioned, but then the first draft wasn’t humorous enough, the second feigned hilarity with bulleted and bold subheadings, a truly digestible breakdown, until it too was no longer a right fit.
I sat on jealousy for years: if publications that championed the empowerment of women determined that to give words to jealousy was not a right fit, was I doing the movement a disservice by trying to give time and thought and space to something which did not necessarily center women’s strength, which exposed an ugliness, a toxicity that women could succumb to? Were my own feelings of and experiences with jealousy and envy a private ugliness of my own to which other women could not relate to? And yet so much is dismissed as a woman’s capacity to feel envy and jealousy. I want to share this experience to give light to how much the experiences of women are whitewashed to fit a heteronormative white feminist narrative of the woman’s experience. Many of these publications for women, publications I aspired to, purported a banal pant-suit nation idea of the ideal woman: anything not socially accepted as displays of success, strength or achievement were relegated to silence, despite how common the experience may be.
Since the inception of modern feminism as we know it today, those who have challenged its inconsistencies, critiqued its lack of intersectionality in body and in thought, urged for its growth beyond financial equality between women and men have been labeled as troublemakers, detriments to the cause. The determination to safeguard this one holy objective has robbed the allowance for any vulnerability, exposure is a threat: what men do we must do, too. I have found it nearly impossible to speak about the tension and toxicity that can govern relationships — whether formal, informal, casual or intimate — between women without appearing grossly anti-feminist, even though it is my lived reality. This purported feminism is so devoid of intersectionality and vulnerability (unless profitable), that to acknowledge jealousy and envy is not deemed simply a part of the human experience, but a sin of women, one that men are impervious to.
Making something so difficult to talk about doesn’t make it go away — it only festers, causing us only to feel trapped and in pain. It is the unspeakability of this natural human emotion that creates the rot; that it is more acceptable to say, “You’ve gained weight” or “She looks haggard” or worse than to say, “I’ve been feeling a bit insecure lately, and have been feeling jealous/envious of you.” The vulnerability in admitting jealousy has instead been positioned as a threat to the order in which women are to understand themselves and the women around them. In the realm of mainstream modern white feminism where financial equality is the ultimate objective, however it must be attained, breaking away from silence when it comes to the matter of envy and jealousy can destabilize the entire system built upon stratifications of class, race and gender. Vulnerability gives way to the collapse of hierarchies: the mission isn’t empowerment of women, but rather the empowerment of a certain category of women at the cost of those often resisting hardest for the cause.
Each time I experience envy or jealousy, it is like yet another undoing of myself. I’m gripped by feelings of extreme low self-esteem, so that no matter what I do or say or how I look seems entirely insufficient, and not content with my own insufficiency I am determined to cut down to my size (or even lower) those who may have triggered this spiral. It is not enough that I become miniscule, insignificant, but it is imperative that I study those women who have stirred these feelings, examine for physical flaws and falsity in their work and words. I lack the courage, of course, to expose my findings or even verbalize my feelings, so that I must disseminate my loathing to those closest to me, knowing that as they love me they must validate my feelings, and we go around in a circle until I believe I am satiated. But the truth is that I am never fully satiated, like a line in a book that evades me, I constantly return to it. This is also in direct contradiction to how mainstream feminism dictates women should be. In an era where we are constantly being bombarded with slogans such as “Women Supporting Women!” and “I’m With Her!” and even “Brown Girl Solidarity”, there is little room for understanding that women are not always supporting women, that we are not always with her (her being in its most heternormative sense), and that when it comes to brown girl solidarity class, social status and proximity to whiteness can be underhandedly at play.
If you do not ascribe to these mantras, have it printed on your t-shirt and your coffee mug, you are not a feminist, even though, alas, women should be supporting women. In my experience, women who have stood behind these slogans with utmost ferocity are often those who have been most exclusionary, creating a disconnect between what they practice and what they preach. I try to say this with empathy, that lies behind the exclusion is often jealousy, a primal need to maintain stratas, and how else to do this in a women supporting women world. I know this because I myself have been a part of this fallacy, claiming solidarity and support while always keeping an eye on the women who make me burn with jealousy, finding ways to factor them out of the equation. I’ve also been on the receiving end of this, pushed out of a long line of sisters before misters, wolf packs, brown girl gangs and girl power enthusiasts; this isn’t me being facetious, but rather a listing of hashtags women feel compelled to adhere to without there ever being a discussion of the most natural human emotion and rather large elephant in the room — jealousy.
Why is it so important to discuss envy and jealousy, and why are these systems of supposed empowerment and support destined to fail if we don’t address the green-eyed monster? In “The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy”, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, and Baland Jalal, a researcher at Harvard University, create a scenario: Imagine you are a first generation Indian immigrant in the United States; (A) your neighbor is also an Indian immigrant of comparable talent; (B) a Chinese immigrant; © an American local. Say “A” has something you covet and you envy him; “B” has the same thing and “C” does too. Who would you be most envious (jealous) of? Let us say for the sake of argument that what all of you covet is a woman or man. According to the authors’ research, “Most would envy “A” more than “B” or “C” (11 out of 11 we surveyed chose A). It is the unconscious metric again. Your brain says (in effect), “A” has had the same privileges, opportunities, status, etc. as me, so there is some point in my being envious of him in order to motivate me, since I have at least some chance of gaining access to the same resources; he provides an “existence proof” that someone who is very similar to me can have access to the same resource.”
A few years ago when I first set off to write about this subject, I spoke to clinical psychologist and author Tara Deliberto, Ph.D. about what shapes who we are envious or jealous of, and her response mirrored Ramachandran and Jalal’s study: we are most envious (jealous) of those we identify with from those who possess similar talents as or look similar to us, to mothers and their daughters. And this is normal, yet how we process and communicate our jealousy and envy can either veer towards constructive or destructive. In movements where we may find ourselves beside those with whom we have shared or similar traits — gender, race, class, ethnicity, even occupation — it seems nearly impossible for feelings of envy or jealousy to not be aroused. In normalizing what we feel and having conversations about the intensity of how we feel, not just those emotions that are socially acceptable, our systems of support are reinforced, we are actually empowered. In its absence, exclusion always persists.
When I asked Dr. Deliberto what we could do so as to not be completely devoured by our envy and jealousy, her answer was so simple and obvious that I felt foolish: communicate it. She advised that the best way to cope was to submit to our vulnerability and confront the person to whom we have attributed the source of our discontent, plainly and directly telling them, “I am jealous of you because…” “I envy you because…” While some may never know how to process this revelation, she said others may welcome it. The first time I executed this exercise was when I was invited to lunch by a woman who I felt I had subconsciously been competing with for years, always losing out to her, not because the white capitalist heteronormative patriarchy pits people of same or similar races and ethnicities against one another to subjugate us, but rather because — I had concocted — of some malicious intent on her part. For years it made me feel inferior, and so in my mind I had to cut her down too, so that when I was finally able to communicate my envy and my jealousy, I felt a great release. She listened, we spoke, finished our lunch and then I left, and it was the last time we ever saw each other. Yet ever since I have not felt loss but rather relief, that this had nothing to do with her and all to do with me, my low self-esteem, my diminished self-worth, my lack of trust and faith in myself. The project was not total mutual destruction but that I needed to learn and heal from what had happened to me.
In Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Malèna” there is a climactic moment, its making bubbling since the first glance we are given of the film’s namesake, when the women in this small Sicilian village band together — liberated by the Americans who they now pledge their allegiance from the Fascists (who they had formerly sworn their allegiance to) — to liberate themselves of a demon they have been possessed by in the only way they know. The women storm an obtrusive building while the men hold back from intervening: it’s between the women, let the women sort it out, they tell one another. Malèna is procured by the hair on her head, the image invoking Caravaggio’s Medusa; by the women she is stripped and beaten within an inch of her life, she is nearly quite literally torn to shreds. In a final blow, her hair is shorn, her tormentors reducing her to less than what they see themselves as. Instead of bestowing upon her the dignity of death, she is tortured just enough to live, a mutilated shell of her former self. From within her are released terrifying, guttural screams, as if because of all the unspeakable that has happened to her there are no words left. For days I can’t unsee this scene because I see myself in it, I see us all in it.
I too have been the whore and the slut, called so by the women in my family, by friends I believed to have loved like sisters, by women I have hardly known. I have been physically harmed, private parts of myself put on display for the reward of humiliation. I have been forced to make myself smaller as a means of survival, and the violence has only ever stopped. I have also been on the other side: while I have never done anything to directly cause anyone physical harm, I have felt the violence of suppressing jealousy with such a horrifying intensity that it has distorted me, and I can only rest when in my mind and to those around me the locus of my jealousy has been adequately verbally mutilated. To me it seems that perhaps Malèna was not as beautiful as the women in this sleepy Sicilian village had imagined, that this beauty was a projection of their feelings of inadequacy, of low self-esteem and jumbled self-worth, that they saw within her a light that they believed they could not be in possession of as well and that the only way to bear with this revelation was to put out the light. It is only when Malèna returns without the light in her eyes, grasping on to her husband like a crutch, a shell of her former self, that she is welcomed, no longer a threat: here is a woman who has almost entirely erased herself, and so there is no longer the potential for the green-eyed monster to show itself, now satiated.
This entry was originally shared to another platform, but I wanted to give it a home here.