She’s pretty, she’s rich, and she’s a little bit of a bitch.

We are all aware of the queen bee stereotype that has managed to define a generation of headstrong and sharp-tongued women. However, unknown to most, its origins perpetuate hatred between women and has been instrumental in preventing solidarity among them.

What is Queen Bee syndrome?

Defined in 1973, Queen Bee syndrome refers to women in authoritative positions who treat subordinates more critically if they are female. Research also indicated that women with Queen Bee syndrome are those who have succeeded in advancing their careers while refusing to help other women do the same. Professor Susanna Stern states that women in queen bee positions display the following characteristics:

  • Being financially and/or racially privileged.
  • Selfish, manipulative and overly aggressive.
  • Heterophilic preferences
  • Envied or hated or adored by peers.
  • Arrogance and narcissism due to overly heightened self-esteem.
  • Bullying or sociopathic tendencies.

Women in leadership are often pressured to become a representation of all women. Instead, queen bees lean towards conservative politics and choose not to publicly identify with feminism. Such authoritative women prefer displaying their masculine qualities to overshadow their feminine ones. This is as feminine characteristics are associated with being too sensitive or emotional, which are stereotyped as unprofessional or invaluable. To ally with their male counterparts, queen bees will seek to adhere to such cultural stigmas and oppose other women seeking success.

Professor Marie Mullaney defines such women as ‘loophole women’: women who are successful in male-dominated fields and are opposed to other women attaining similar levels of success. Loophole women believe that if other women attain such success on a large scale, it would detract from or substantially reduce their own status and importance.

Influences in pop culture

It is common for girls in adolescent age groups to form groups among themselves based on a shared characteristic of attractiveness or popularity. These groups are likely to invoke a sense of desirability among others, principally in larger populations. Upon this basis, mainstream media has presented us with more than our fair share of queen bees, generally in high school settings. 

Characters in pop-culture entertainment such as Mean Girls and High School Musical offer stock character versions of the queen bee, otherwise the mean popular girl. Fictional portrayals of queen bees depict beautiful girls with positions of high social status like a head cheerleader or prom queen. These girls operate in cliques where members revere the presence of the queen bee and sometimes, maybe even imitate them.

“You can’t make people love you, but you can make them fear you.

– Gossip Girl (2007)

Unlike real-life queen bees, fictional depictions do not particularly display masculine features. In fact, they are vapid and hypersexualized for the benefit of the male gaze. More than often, these girls are the antagonists of the story for asserting their dominance while maintaining their femininity. In contrast, the characterization of female protagonists focus on being “not like other girls”; the implication that the female gender is inferior but as she is “different,” she is better than other girls. Pitting these characters against each other is also consistent with the theory of the “good vs. bad” type of girls. While this may pave the way for box office hits, the stereotypes assigned to these characters only work to enforce internalized misogyny within the audience.

Undermining women in society

The queen bee syndrome has become a fixture in perpetuating misogyny within society and has had a lasting impact. The societal belief regarding women’s inferiority forces women to minimize the value of women in favor of men. As a result, women internalize these misogynistic beliefs and apply them to other women as well as themselves. However, the implications behind these beliefs induce a number of negative consequences among women.

The research presents that the internalization of misogyny is a coping mechanism to manage the experience of being prejudiced against. Internalized sexism compels women to become more accustomed to feelings of shame, confusion, powerlessness, and inferiority. One study presents that the internalized misogyny acts as a moderator of the link between sexist events and women’s psychological distress. The passive acceptance of traditional gender roles accounts for symptoms relating to anxiety and depression as well as eating disorders.

The queen bee syndrome also enforces a fear of femininity while increasing and maintaining the value of men. To maintain the status quo, women are more likely to invalidate, derogate, and objectify themselves as well as other women. As a result, they are more subject to mental illnesses and other health disorders.

Debunking the myth

It is necessary to speculate whether Queen Bee syndrome is just as active in today’s socio-political climate. It is doubtful that this is still an issue faced by women at present compared to the discussions 50 years ago. According to various studies, women in senior positions are not necessarily more competitive or aggressive with other women any more than they are with their male counterparts. In fact, more female leaders are pushing through gender barriers and mentoring their subordinates to do the same.

However, it does not eliminate the existence of the queen bee. Some women are likely to abstain from advocating for other women due to the ‘implicit quotas’ for female leaders. As shown in one study, once a woman advanced to a senior role within a company, the chance of another woman joining the same rank dropped by 50%. Knowing that they might be competing for the same position may result in increased competition among women towards each other.

“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”

– Malala Yousafzai

Madeline Albright famously once said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” This is in association with the belief that all women have a moral obligation to have each other’s backs and help each other. In the face of sexism, all women are likely to relate to the gendered barriers other women may experience. To succeed against these barriers, it is critical for women to foster alliances and become of aid to one another. 

After all, empowered women empower women.

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