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. 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. Some observers argue that in its purest form, the word refers to two women, one blonde and the other a brunette, fighting each other. However, the term is not exclusively used to indicate a fight between women, and many formal definitions do not invoke gender.
"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.
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.
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. The popularity of watching women fight increased in the postwar years and eventually moved into the mainstream of society. 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. 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.
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.
“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?”
According to Evans, the Dynasty director’s blueprint for the first fight was an “outrageous catfight” 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.
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, 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.
In 2002, an SABMiller television commercial called "Catfight" featured two young beautiful women 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. The campaign generated considerable controversy, but sales of Miller Lite subsequently declined by 3%.
“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 (and many others) 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… “
Catfights are often described as titillating for heterosexual men. Portrayals of catfights in cartoons, movies and advertising often display participants as attractive, with "supermodel physiques," dishevelled and missing articles of clothing, and catfights are often described by media aimed primarily at boys or men as sexy. 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."
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.
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.
In the 1970s, in what feminist historians have characterized as a divide-and-conquer strategy aiming to neutralize and trivialize feminist issues, 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. 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.
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.
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.