Broaden, Build, and Shine: Supporting female networks

This morning, I was listening to an episode from one of my favorite podcasts Stuff Mom Never Told You (SMNTY) on Shine Theory. What is Shine Theory, you ask? Ann Friedman, a well-known feminist freelance writer, coined the term a few years back. It’s not a theory in the scientific use of the term, but it’s a compelling and important concept nonetheless. Shine Theory refers to the notion that women should befriend other women who are ambitious, smart, and supportive, regardless of how intimidating these women may seem to be. The rationale is that when other women in your circle do well, it positively affects you, likely inspiring you to strive for more in your life, both professionally and personally. Friedman simplifies it to “I don’t shine if you don’t shine,” something one of her own best friends taught her. The full definition and explanation can be found in the article linked above.

Shine Theory shouldn’t seem so extraordinary. At its core, it’s about women buoying each other up and every woman in that social network benefitting in the process. Yet, society is filled with examples of women backstabbing and competing with each other for resources, especially when threatened. This trope is so common that it’s earned an SNL parody (see below), and although strong and supportive female friendships on television and in film are more common now than ever—think Broad City—they’re still not the norm.

Traditional evolutionary psychologists would suggest that jealousy between women is rooted in the most basic of human motives: reproduction1. Namely, traditional* evolutionary psychology views jealousy between women to be caused by the threat of one woman stealing another woman’s man, and along with it, her ability to be provided for. Aside from the heteronormative assumptions implicit in this explanation, can we all agree that it’s also a bit simplistic and outdated? Can we really explain all of human nature, including jealousy between women, as a function of mate selection and reproduction? In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a skeptic. And thankfully, I’m not the only one.

Shine Theory is in direct contradiction to the explanations put forth by traditional evolutionary psychologists about women and jealousy. Do women compete with each other? Sure. Are they sometimes threatened by other women? Absolutely. The media certainly doesn’t help to disprove the cattiness trope, but I would argue that social role theory—that is, the way we’re socialized to behave according to specific gender norms and scripts—is a more accurate reason for why women compete with each other. These gender norms and social roles are deeply engrained. However, one of the wonderful aspects of human nature is people’s ability to adapt and transcend. Women don’t have to adhere to the social norm. In fact, they can do their part to change the social norm. Shine Theory champions what’s often framed as the exception to the norm, supportive women who cheer other women on and wish them success, who don’t grow bitter or aggressive when one woman succeeds instead of them.  The fantastic female hosts of SMNTY Caroline Ervin and Cristen Conger pointed out Amy Poehler’s famous saying in their Shine Theory episode that can also be used as a good maxim for how to support other women: “Good for you. Not for me.”

In addition to my own personal (and Beyonce’s) support of Shine Theory, there is ample empirical research on the positive effects of, well, experiencing positive emotions and supporting others. The broaden-and-build theory2 provides a great deal of support for the effect of positive emotions on our own well-being. The theory also accounts for the ability of positive emotions to counter negative ones, like envy. Positive emotions not only feel good, but they also expand our thinking, attention, and holistic processing and may enhance our coping skills for times when we may be envious of a friend’s success.3 Furthermore, the broaden hypothesis suggests that positive emotion, in comparison to negative or neutral ones, can enhance perspective-taking and compassion for others.4 The broaden-and-build model makes a strong case for forming a supportive social network. It accounts for why Shine Theory can work and also describes the process of addressing negative emotions that will surely surface occasionally. The figure below demonstrates the outcomes that can result from experiencing positive emotions, including novel experiences. These novel experiences make it easier for people to build stronger social networks with all the benefits that entails, such as social support and resources. Furthermore, strong social networks improve people’s health and fulfillment, which leads to more positive emotions. Figure 1 is a visual representation of “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.”

Fredrickson, Broaden-and-build model

Fredrickson, Broaden-and-build model

Hannah Rosin, a writer at Slate, critiqued Shine Theory when it first came out, asking what would happen to a woman in her circle of friends if she lost her job or suffered some other type of disappointment? Would or should she be shunned from her social circle because she’s no longer as successful? A fair question given a strict interpretation of Shine Theory. Rosin’s solution was to distinguish friends from colleagues, thereby providing a sort of buffer for those sorts of experiences. However, I don’t think that’s necessary. Shine Theory isn’t a perfect idea without concerns, but it wasn’t designed to be. Rather, it’s a female-centric positive support model that’s certainly a welcome alternative to the backstabbing model often shown in the media. And it undoubtedly already exists among female friend groups and social networks and has existed in the past. I believe that Friedman’s main goal in writing about Shine Theory was to popularize it and to encourage all women to participate. At the risk of quoting Amy Poehler/Leslie Knope too much, “Uteruses before duderuses.”**

What do you all think? Is Shine Theory the way to go, or is it just a self-serving example of BIRGing?


1 Vaillancourt, T. (2013). Do human females use indirect aggression as an intrasexual competition strategy? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B: 2013368 20130080. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0080 2,3,4 Fredrickson, B. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In P. Devine & A. Plant (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 47) (pp. 1-53). Burlington: Academic Press.

*I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that not all evolutionary psychologists espouse such reductionist views regarding the drive to reproduce and select a mate.

**Men can act this way, too, of course. The broaden-and-build model wasn’t formulated specifically with women in mind. Positive emotions help everyone. However, given the societal constructs of gender and power, women are most likely to benefit from Shine Theory. Men don’t need quite that same boost.

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