Book Review | Tripping the Prom Queen

Nov 8, 2017 | Tina Varghese, MD
WIC Book Review

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Susan Shapiro Barash, a prolific author and knowledgeable professor of gender studies, uses these talents to construct her book Tripping the Prom Queen. This story illustrates the obvious and not-so-obvious dark elements of female rivalry through numerous anecdotes from female volunteers. Her discussions include: mother-daughter disputes; high school and college drama between girlfriends; judgments on workplace and household roles of women by other women; and fights among supposed female friends over appearance, relationship status and popularity standing.

Barash explains how men compete differently with other men than women do with each other. Men generally compete in individual categories and can compartmentalize their thoughts. For example, men are able to have cordial relationships with their competitors outside of the boxing ring. Meanwhile, women compete in all aspects of each other’s identity and are less likely to isolate those feelings, leaving little room for genial interactions as distaste from rivalry in one area pours feelings of judgment into other areas. No realm of life, from spouses to employment to the raising of children, is ignored. No stone is unfortunately left unturned. 

Barash explains that some accountability for this phenomenon falls on the fact that despite the significant advances societally and occupationally for females, job opportunities and prospects of rising in cultural and work rankings remain a male-dominated privilege. With few reserved spots left for women in such settings, the resulting supply and demand mismatch leaves women with little option but to compete against each other (“not-enough-pie” syndrome).

Barash also suggests that women simply have unrealistic expectations of female friendships, leading to unnecessary (and sometimes hidden) bitterness and dissatisfaction towards those considered as friends.

For instance, she notes, women want their friendships to consist of unconditional love and be devoid of jealousy – also called “the mommy mystique.” Additionally, Barash says women want their friends to experience life events the same way they do. They want them to be strong in the areas they are strong, weak in the areas they are weak, sick when they are sick and struggling when they are struggling – without divergence. She calls this second pathological frame of mind “the twinning syndrome.” Neither the “mommy mystique” nor the “twinning syndrome” are practical or healthy ways of thinking, she says.

Barash concludes the book with more positive portrayals of female relationships and suggestions on how to best navigate the treacherous waters of female-to-female conflict. She begins with the proposal to accept that emotions of envy are normal and ends with the recommendation to channel that envy into healthy competition and mentorship. Readers are encouraged to accept that female camaraderie entails finding ways to desire happiness for others and offer counsel to their companions despite, not without, any sense of covetousness. Molding negative energy into positive actions and having realistic expectations of female family members, colleagues and friends benefit all involved; we end up pushing ourselves further, while helping other women in our lives do the same. The benefits do not end there; now we can become content with our female relationships and, as a collective group, work together to promote the continued progress for women in modern day.

Tripping the Prom Queen was an interesting, albeit dark synopsis of a broad and complicated topic that Barash presented in an organized manner. Several limitations were also noted. Firstly, the conclusions of the book are derived from conversations with 500 women who replied to her survey requests placed in YMCAs and health clubs for stories regarding female rivalry and friendship. Therefore, a certain degree of selection bias is likely present in terms of who decides to volunteer their experiences. Such bias potentially pushes the deductions on women’s tendencies to a more intense realm, thereby potentially becoming less representative of the female population as a whole. Moreover, many of the complaints of the women discussed were trivial and unequivocally selfish, and most of the book’s content is allocated to sharing the stories themselves rather than the analysis of their meanings, implications and solutions, ultimately decreasing the impact left on the reader.

However, despite any pettiness, possible bias or lack of deeper investigation, Barash’s numerous stories illustrate the motifs of jealousy and distrust in female-to-female interactions. Her accounts demonstrate that female rivalry is ubiquitous and undeniable, and that no one is immune to its grasp. The book is a realistic reminder of this point. While likely not on my “must-read” list, I do think this is a good read for women, especially those in a field as male-dominated and industrious as cardiology. If nothing else, it will make you thankful for the good female relationships you enjoy and wary of the ones that may have limited potential for real mutual benefit and longevity. 

This article was written by Tina Varghese, MD, Fellow in Training at Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA.