Bad Blood: Why the Passive-Aggressive Way Women Fight Is So Toxic

Women in Hollywood are engaging in a very public form of passive-aggressive fighting, which is not a good example -- and something women do all too frequently. Nix passive-aggression and get assertive instead.

August 18, 2015
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You’ve probably heard Taylor Swift’s chart-topping “Bad Blood” about a thousand times at this point — but interestingly, although she’s known for penning post-breakup hits, this track is not about a man.

“Bad Blood” is reportedly about fellow performer Katy Perry. Taylor wrote the song after Katy allegedly stole her backup dancers. After the record dropped, Katy tweeted, “Watch out for Regina George in sheep’s clothing…” a reference to the 2004 hit film, Mean Girls.

In the age of Twitter, we’re able to see these “mean girl” feuds play out in real time — and it’s not the first time two big-name female celebs have been involved in passive-aggressive fighting on the platform.

Taylor Swift misunderstood Nicki Minaj’s tweets about missing out on a nod for Video of the Year at the MTV VMAs, assuming they were directed at her in some fashion. “I’ve done nothing but love & support you,” Swift wrote to Minaj. “It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.” Nicki shot back that her tweets were actually about a lack of diversity in those rewarded for their work in the music industry, not about Swift — who had to eat her words and apologize to the “Anaconda” singer.

Katy Perry then chimed in with a tweet to her followers: “Finding it ironic to parade the pit women against other women argument about as one unmeasurably capitalizes on the take down of a woman…” Camilla Belle then tweeted, “Couldn’t have said it better…” in response to Perry. Her connection? Taylor reportedly penned a song about Belle, too — the track “Better Than Revenge” resulted after Joe Jonas dumped Taylor and paired off with Camilla.

Notice a pattern?

No one seems to be addressing their conflicts directly, but rather brewing toxic words behind closed doors — and making videos like Swift’s “Bad Blood,” featuring one girl squad taking up arms to fight another. “I don’t get the violence revenge thing,” Miley Cyrus confessed to Marie Claire. “That’s supposed to be a good example?”

Cyrus has got a point. Women in Hollywood are engaging in a very public form of passive-aggressive fighting, which is not a good example — and something women do all too frequently.

Passive-aggression can take many forms, but ultimately, it’s when you feel anger toward a specific person or group — but instead of addressing the problem in a straightforward manner, you might show sneaky resentment with cryptic remarks, sulking behavior, or withholding affection or kind words due to a perceived slight. This typically frustrates and confuses the recipient of the attacks; while they sense something is wrong, nothing about a passive-aggressive person’s behavior points to what exactly they’re upset about.

Sure, men do sometimes engage in passive-aggressive behaviors. But those are learned. Men are hard-wired to address conflicts directly with physical attacks or strong words. Passive-aggression is typically reserved for female-on-female fighting, confirmed with a 1994 study.

According to a pair of 2013 studies, women evolved to use sneaky tactics to take down other members of their sex and reduce competition: “To safeguard their health over a lifetime, girls use competitive strategies that reduce the probability of physical retaliation, including avoiding direct interference with another girl’s goals and disguising their striving for physical resources, alliances and status,” Emmanuel College psychology professor Joyce F. Benenson wrote in her study. “The development of human female competition: allies and adversaries.”

She continues: “Within the female community, girls reduce competition by demanding equality and punishing those who openly attempt to attain more than others.”

Passive-aggression is still a 21st-century problem

Our ancestors were passive-aggressive. But just because women aren’t fighting for men and resources as a means of survival doesn’t mean passive-aggression has basically died off. Case in point: Swift vs. Perry in a “Bad Blood” battle over backup dancers.

And this behavior is detrimental. According to psychiatrist Dean Burnett, PhD, an expert in neuroscience, “The brain doesn’t deal well with ambiguity or uncertainty; like with cognitive dissonance, acceptable’ behaviour combined with the hostile effects/mannerism causes mental distress and discomfort,” he writes in The Guardian. “With passive-aggressive behaviour the appropriate response is impossible to work out for certain, causing even more distress and frustration.”

What does this mean? Both parties are brewing in toxic energy. All. The. Time. One woman is angry or upset, refusing to clear the air with the person she’s perceived has wronged her; the other is confused and uncomfortable as her ‘friend’ (a.k.a. frenemy) launches unspoken grenades at her. Notably, this behavior is ultra-common in the workplace, where competition and tension are common — and it’s all very stressful.

While some mild daily stress is normal, hearty doses of chronic stress is not. It’s hugely detrimental for our bodies, according to Diane Robinson, PhD, a neuropsychologist at UF Health Cancer Center – Orlando Health. “Stress day in and day out, on end, can change the brain chemistry,” she once told me, “and it has huge implications for our immune systems.”

When your body is under daily stress, the cytokines that send messages throughout your body begin to overwork, flood your system and send mixed signals. The result? It can be Crohn’s disease, shingles, depression, IBS, insomnia… the list goes on.

So, don’t make like these Hollywood girls, fighting on Twitter and launching indirect attacks. Nix passive-aggression and get assertive instead. If a co-worker gives your boss a progress report about your project, and earns all the praise, don’t give into your baser instincts. Say, “Next time, I’d appreciate it if you waited for me to share our work with the boss.” If a friend seems to be throwing mental daggers at you? Speak up. “It seems like you’re upset with me. Did I do something wrong?”

By learning to get assertive with friends, co-workers, relationship partners (whoever), you bring all conflict out in the open so you can address it directly. You disarm your adversary, clearly seeking to bridge the gap keeping you both from peace.

And then you can move on, instead of wading out into the toxic waters of chronic stress. It’s important for a healthy mind and body.

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