Catfight

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American feminist and cultural critic Susan J. Douglas stated in her book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media that the purest form of a catfight was between a blonde and a brunette

Catfight (also girl fight) is a term for an altercation between two women, often characterized as involving scratching, slapping, hair-pulling, and shirt-shredding. It can also be used to describe women insulting each other verbally or engaged in an intense competition for men, power, or occupational success.[1] The catfight has been a staple of American news media and popular culture since the 1940s, and use of the term is often considered derogatory or belittling.[2][3][4][5][6] Some observers argue that in its purest form, the word refers to two women, one blonde and the other a brunette, fighting each other.[7] However, the term is not exclusively used to indicate a fight between women, and many formal definitions do not invoke gender.[8]

Etymology[edit]

The term "catfight" was recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary as the title and subject of an 1824 mock heroic poem by Ebenezer Mack. It is first recorded as being used to describe a fight between women in 1854. The word cat was originally a contemptuous term for either sex, but eventually came to refer to a woman considered loose or sexually promiscuous, or one regarded as spiteful, backbiting, and malicious.[9]

Male responses to catfights[edit]

Catfights are often described as titillating for heterosexual men.[10][11] Portrayals of catfights in cartoons, movies and advertising often display participants as attractive, with "supermodel physiques,"[12] dishevelled and missing articles of clothing, and catfights are often described by media aimed primarily at boys or men as sexy.[13] Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once described the appeal of the catfight as "men think if women are grabbing and clawing at each other, there's a chance they might somehow, you know... kiss."[14]

"Culturally, we think of the catfight as bikini-clad bimbos slapping each other around and wrestling. They're sexualized and devalued."

Onur Tukel, Director, Catfight[1]

Female responses to catfights[edit]

Women have often been critical of the term "catfight", particularly when it is used in ways that may seem to inappropriately sexualize, neutralize, or trivialize disagreements among women on serious topics.[3][4][5][6]

Feminist historians say use of the term catfight to label female opponents goes back to 1940, when American newspapers characterized as a catfight a dispute between Clare Boothe Luce and journalist Dorothy Thompson over which candidate to support in the 1940 presidential campaign. One newspaper called it "a confrontation between two blonde Valkryies", and journalist Walter Winchell, upon running into Luce and Thompson at a nightclub, reportedly urged them to refrain from fighting, saying, "Ladies, ladies, remember there are gentlemen present." Luce later said she learned from this that although it was acceptable for men to disagree violently, women's disagreements would immediately be called a catfight, fingernail-scratching, or hair-pulling contest.[15]

In the 1970s, in what feminist historians have characterized as a divide-and-conquer strategy aiming to neutralize and trivialize feminist issues,[16] the American news media began to use the term catfight to describe women's disagreements about issues related to women's rights, such as the Equal Rights Amendment.[2] Historian Susan J. Douglas says this served two important ideological purposes: it promoted division rather than unity among women from different ethnic, class, generational and regional lines, and it replaced the notion of "sisterhood" with competitive individualism.[17]

Filmmaker and writer Kathleen Sweeney describes catfight scenarios as patriarchal attempts to undermine female bonds, and argues they teach girls to be rivals for male attention in ways that males find "titillating, arousing and/or comical/ridiculous", and that reinforce female gender codes of manipulation and backstabbing.[18]

A University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business survey found that both female and male observers judged female vs. female conflicts to have more negative impacts on the workplace environment than conflicts that involved men.[19]

Usage in popular culture[edit]

In the post-war years, photographers began marketing pictures of women in catfights

Catfights first began appearing in American popular culture in the 1950s when postwar pioneers of pornography such as Irving Klaw produced film clips of women engaged in catfighting and wrestling. Klaw used many models and actresses in his works, including Bettie Page.[20] The popularity of watching women fight increased in the postwar years and eventually moved into the mainstream of society.[21] In the 1960s, catfights became popular in B movies such as Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and the 1969 animated Boris Karloff movie Mad Monster Party.[22] In the 1970s and 1980s, catfights began to make appearances in women in prison films, in roller derby, and in nighttime soap operas such as Dallas and Dynasty.[2]

Dynasty starred John Forsythe as an oil tycoon and patriarch of a wealthy family that lived in Denver. The show co-starred blonde Linda Evans and brunette Joan Collins. The two women had a number of fights, both verbal and physical, during the show’s 9-year run on ABC. Designed to compete with Dallas, a highly popular evening drama on CBS, Dynasty’s first-year ratings were unremarkable. For the second season, the producers introduced the dark-haired Collins as a foil to the blonde Evans and hoped that her “bitchy persona” would enhance the show’s ratings, which it did.[23] Wanting the ratings to go even higher, Douglas S. Cramer, Dynasty's producer suggested that the two women have a "knockdown, drag out fight." Cramer, in a 2008 interview, claimed that everybody loved the catfights except Joan Collins because "...Linda was so much stronger than she was."[24]

“Dynasty upped the ante … On one side was the blonde stay at home Krystal Carrington … in the other corner was the most delicious bitch ever seen on television, the dark haired, scheming, career vixen, Alexis Carrington Colby … Krystal just wanted to make her husband happy; Alexis wanted to control the world. How could you not love a catfight between these two?” [25]

According to Evans, the Dynasty director’s blueprint for the first fight was an “outrageous catfight” [26] that she had almost a decade earlier with Stefanie Powers in the detective series McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver. The fight occurred during an argument they were having in Evans’ apartment when Powers, on her way out, grabbed a bottle of seltzer water and sprayed down Evans. Before she reached the door, Evans grabbed Powers and the two women engaged in spirited catfight, wrecking the apartment in the process. During the fight, Powers’ blouse was partially torn off, exposing her black bra, a surprising level of undress for network television in that era. Evans eventually overpowered her brunette opponent and was holding her head down in a water-filled aquarium when Weaver walked in and ended the fight.[26]

Circa 1950s, an Irving Klaw photograph of Bettie Page fighting another woman

Catfights, both real and staged, are a staple of daytime television talk shows and reality television shows such as The Jerry Springer Show, The Bachelor, For Love or Money, and The Real Housewives series,[27] where women are frequently presented as being in continual competition with each other for love and professional success. In 2009, ABC-TV promoted The Bachelor with the voiceover narration "Let the catfights begin", and reality television shows have frequently overlaid sound effects of hissing cats onto scenes featuring women arguing or competing with each other.[28]

In 2002, an SABMiller television commercial called "Catfight" featured two young beautiful women[29] drinking a beer in an outside cafe. Their polite conversation quickly turned into an argument about whether Miller Lite beer’s best aspect was its taste or the fact that it was less filling than other beers. The argument led to a fight where one of the girls knocked the other into an adjacent pool. The women quickly lost most of their clothes and continued the fight clad in only in their underwear. Before the fight came to a conclusion, the scene faded out and the viewers saw that it was a fantasy dreamed up by two men in a bar discussing what would make a great commercial. The scene would later cut to the girls, stripped down to their underwear, wrestling in a mud pit. An uncensored version was also filmed that included an alternate ending where the mud-covered girls fall in love and kiss. Predictably, one critic noted, the fight was blonde vs. brunette.[21] The campaign generated considerable controversy, but sales of Miller Lite subsequently declined by 3%.[30]

“More than any other aspect of the catfight in today’s culture, the catfight’s sexually arousing potential is exploited for numerous purposes. The phenomenon of catfighting as erotic entertainment for straight men is widely documented throughout the Internet, television, film, and even pornography. On numerous websites … web users are overwhelmingly presented with catfighting as highly sexual, even pornographic. So many websites act as sources of catfights as pornography that it would be hard to believe the catfight can be interpreted in any other way. Venturing onto … these pages will lead a viewer to an abundance of videos and images of objectified women fighting with each other by pulling hair, scratching, and even biting each other. The interpretation of the catfight as sexy and gratifying for men is hardly uncommon on the Internet. -- Rachel Reinke: “Catfight: A Feminist Analysis”[21]

Catfights in the film industry[edit]

The film industry has produced many films that include catfights. Below is a selection of notable films, many of them featuring major movie stars engaged in fighting.

  • 2 Days in the Valley. Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron star in what the Los Angeles Times referred to as the "... spandex cat fight of the year."[31] According to director John Herzfeld the two women, who refused to use stunt doubles, were hitting each other so hard that at one point the filming was stopped after Hatcher connected to Theron's chin so that the resulting bruise could be hidden by make-up.[32] After filming, when Hatcher was asked about the "catfight", she responded "It was actually a brawl -- not a catfight because technically a "catfight" is hair pulling and there was none of that."[33]
  • Barfly. Faye Dunaway has a kicking, hair-pulling battle with Alice Krige in a Los Angeles bar, described by the Washington Post's review of the movie as a "...cat fight on skid row ... (that is) as preposterous as the script as a whole."[34]
  • Destry Rides Again. Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel engage in "...one of the most famous female vs female fights ever captured on film."[37] The New York Times review of the 1939 movie said "The scene that really counts though is the cat-fight between Miss Dietrich's Frenchy and Una Merkel's outraged Mrs. Callahan ... we thought the battle in "The Women" was an eye-opener, now we realize it was just shadow clawing. For the real thing, with no-holds barred and full access to chairs, tables, glasses, waterbuckets and as much hair that can be snatched from the opponent's scalp, we give you not "The Women" but the two women who fight it out in Bloody Gulch."[38] Adaptations of the movie include Frenchie starring Shelley Winters and Marie Windsor as the combatants and Destry starring Mari Blanchard and Mary Wickes. All four women, in both of the movies, were shown the Dietrich-Merkel fight in the original, as a point of reference.[37]

"The Dietrich-Merkel match-up, a riotous tooth-and-nail catfight lasting over two minutes, took five days to film. Dietrich was adamant about doing as much of her own fighting as was possible on the screen. Co-star Merkel realized that Dietrich wasn't pulling any punches and opted to do her own fighting as well. Both actresses became carried away in the moment in front of the Hal Mohr's camera and came away with scrapes, bruises and splinters. A first aid station was set up off the soundstage for injuries. Pioneering stuntwoman Helen Thurston filled in for Dietrich when the action became too heavy ... but the publicity claimed the stars did all their own stunts in one continuous take and were presented with champagne toasts and applause from the cast and crew."[37] -- Gene Freese, Classic Movie Fight Scenes: 75 Years of Bare Knuckle Brawls, 1914-1989

  • Eve. Celeste Yarnall stars in this film as a female version of Tarzan, living in the jungle with native peoples. Yarnall almost fell to her death while filming her fight scene with Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros when Monteros failed to follow the carefully scripted fight choreography and nearly kicked Yarnall off a 200 foot cliff.[39]

"I was a very nice girl but Aliza was a cow. We had terrible clashes and I was disgusted with her. I had a lot of anger inside of me so that [fight] scene was a perfect way to work it out. We rehearsed the fight for three weeks but when we shot it, Aliza was really fighting. Everyone encouraged me to fight back, so I did. We got into a real scrapping match." -- Martine Beswick[42]

  • Kansas City Bomber. Raquel Welch stars in this feature film about the sport of female roller derby. Portraying a divorcee and single parent, Welch in the role of K.C. Carr, engages in a number of fights, most notably against actress Helena Kallianiotes who plays the role of a fading roller derby star, Jackie Burdette. Two weeks into the shoot, Welch suffered a cut lip and swollen face during a fight scene with Kallianiotes. An MGM spokesman said the two actors "got carried away" and Welch "got slugged" by Kallianiotes.[46][47][48]
  • Off Limits. During a boxing match where one of the fighters is being managed by Bob Hope, two of Hope's girlfriends, Joan Taylor and Carolyn Jones, get into a boxing match of their own, distracting both the audience and the boxers fighting in the ring.[51]
  • Perils of Nyoka. A 1942 movie serial shown in 15 parts, starring Kay Aldridge as the imperiled Nyoka and Lorna Gray as her female nemesis, the evil Vultura. Aldridge, attractively attired in a jungle miniskirt, and Gray also attractively attired in a revealing sarong, engage in multiple fights, the climactic battle occurring in the serial's final chapter when Vultura attempts to escape with a valuable treasure, only to be confronted by Nyoka. "The wrestling match between the two girls, their naked legs entwined, had something for everyone." [55] Watching the women fight was Vultura's pet gorilla who, seeing that Nyoka was winning the fight, launched a spear at her, but missed and instead killed Vultura.[56]
  • Planet Earth. A 1974 made-for-TV science fiction movie created by Gene Roddenberry about a post-apocalyptic matriarchal society where women keep men drugged and use them as slaves. Led by John Saxon in the role of Dylan Hunt, a team of outsiders that includes Janet Margolin as Harper-Smythe, visits a village looking for a missing friend. Hunt is quickly taken prisoner by Diana Muldaur in the role of Marg, the head Amazon. Smythe quickly realizes she will have to fight Marg to get him back.

"Marc Daniels brings professional polish and brisk pacing to the telefilm and the action sequences are very nicely-staged ... there's a very well-done catfight between Muldaur and Margolin where it's clear that the two actresses are doing much of the stuntwork themselves." [57]

Prior to that encounter, Smythe fights actress Sally Kemp[58] in the role of an Amazon housemestress named Treece. The confrontation was interrupted by Treece's children who were clearly distraught at the site of their mother fighting another woman.

"This mirrors a scene in Genesis II in which the shock wave from a nuclear explosion Hunt has triggered strikes on a Pax lookout just as a mother has brought her young children out to see the stars. There and in the Planet Earth scene, the heroes witness the effect of their own violence on children, forcing them to rethink the use of force—a very effective and intelligent pacifistic touch from Roddenberry."[59]

  • San Antone. 1953 western where "...bitchy Southern belle Arleen Whelan" attacks Mexican Katy Jurado with a knife. Jurado disarms Wheelan and the two fight each other until broken up by returning members of the group. [60][61]
  • Swashbuckler. During a bar scene, Geneviève Bujold accuses another woman of owning a trinket that is rightfully hers. The dispute leads to a fight between Bujold and stunt actress Lee Pulford.[62] The fight ends with Bujold knocking out her opponent. In an interview after release of the film, the blonde-haired Pulford, who described herself as very athletic, said that Bujold didn't know how to fight and that during the rehearsals she was extra careful not to hurt the slender French-Canadian actress, one of the films major co-stars.[63]
  • Tarzan and the Slave Girl. Jane, played by Vanessa Brown and Denise Darcel in the role of Lola, have a hair pulling, furniture throwing catfight in this 1950 Tarzan entry.[64][65] In a 2001 interview, Brown claimed that "Denise was impossible ... I really didn't like her. I don't think the catfight scene took much preparation on my part."[66]
  • The Mini-Skirt Mob. Diane McBain stars as the leader of an all-female motorcycle gang. Furious that her ex-boyfriend married another woman (played by Sherry Jackson), she spends the entire movie terrorizing the couple and, at one point, gives a vicious beating to Jackson. Off-screen, McBain and Jackson were close friends and shared a Hollywood apartment.[70]
  • The Spy in the Green Hat. In this theatrical version of the two-part The Man From Uncle episode titled "The Concrete Overcoat Affair", Leticia Roman tries to escape from the guard of Janet Leigh who responds by pulling a knife from her garter belt and attacking Roman. Knocking the knife out of Leigh's hand, the two women "... roll around together on a conference table, and a good old-fashioned catfight ensues." One critic described it as "... what may very well be one of the sexiest spy movie scenes ever, Janet Leigh versus Roman wrestling in skirts is the stuff dreams are made of."[71][72] Advertisements showing the dark-haired Roman fighting the blonde Leigh were featured in many newspapers. One caption read "Guest stars Janet Leigh and Leticia Roman use cat-like tactics in this sparring scene from Friday night's 'Man From Uncle' telecast."[73]
  • The Three Musketeers. Near the end of the movie, Raquel Welch fights Faye Dunaway, a battle described by Dunaway as a fight "...where we try, more or less, to tear each other to pieces. Have you seen Dietrich in 'Destry Rides Again' in that bar room brawl? Wild, isn't it? Well, something like that."[74] Welch and Dunaway worked with trainers to make their fight as "physical and brutal" as possible without injuring themselves, although Welch suffered a sprained wrist when Dunaway shoved her so hard she fell.[75]
  • The Women. After Paulette Goddard steals Rosalind Russell's husband, the two get into a kicking, hair-pulling fight that took three days and eight changes of costume to shoot.[78] During the fight, Russell bit Goddard in the leg. Russell later said that Goddard suffered a permanent scar from the bite, but that the two actresses remained friends.[79] A 1955 remake of the film was featured on the TV show Producers' Showcase. Goddard and Mary Boland were the only cast members from the original 1939 film.[80] Allegedly, Goddard and Shelley Winters, a cast member of remake, engaged in an actual "hair-pulling fist fight" during one of the rehearsals.[81] Unlike the original, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1956 remake of the 1939 film, The Opposite Sex included men, music, color and songs but did not include an extensive catfight scene. Instead, there was a single face slapping scene where June Allyson struck Joan Collins so hard filming was postponed until Collin's facial swelling went down.[82]
  • Untamed Youth. Arguing over a bed in a prison camp dormitory, Lori Nelson fights Jeanne Carmen in the 1957 film about juvenile delinquency.[89] The scene has been noted for unusual dialogue: before they fight, Nelson asks Carmen if she wants "... an Italian hair cut", presumably referring to hair pulling.[90][91] The fight begins with the dark-haired Carmen threatening to give Nelson a "beating", the two barefoot girls proceed to punch and wrestle each other until Carmen surrenders to her blonde opponent by telling her "Don't hit me in the mouth again, you'll break my dental plate."[92][93]
  • Yankee Pasha. Rhonda Fleming and Mamie Van Doren are both in love with Jeff Chandler leading to a "catfight for supremacy" where Fleming landed an actual punch on Van Doren's jaw, sending her sprawling across the set. Van Doren later said that Fleming was a "... quite a fighter." Despite the mishap in what was otherwise a carefully choreographed fight that involved a lot of "tumbling and hair pulling", Van Doren claimed that as a young actress, she enjoyed working with Fleming in the movie.[97]

Gallery[edit]


See also[edit]

References[edit]

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