This time, it's playing out on ice, at the Olympics and before the increasingly tabloid-blurred eyes of the world. But strip away the sequins and the triple toe loops, and what you have is a variation on one of the oldest and most enduring themes in the world: the catfight.
As Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan warily continue their joint practices before the women's figure skating competition begins on Wednesday, it might seem as if you've seen this drama before. And you have: In movies and television, in soap operas and perhaps even in your own workplace, the scenario -- real or perceived -- of a woman conniving and back-stabbing to one-up a rival is a familiar one.
And it's one that turns us into rubberneckers: We simply can't stop watching, regardless of how unseemly it gets. Not only will we see Ms. Harding and Ms. Kerrigan battle for Olympic medals, we'll see the rivalry portrayed in any number of authorized and unauthorized, true or fictionalized books and movies in the coming months.
"For some reason, people love it when one woman goes after another woman," says Camille Paglia, the combative academic and author of "Sex, Art and American Culture" and "Sexual Personae." "It's primitive and primeval. There's something tigress-like about women. The clawing. It's carnivorous. Tearing each other's hair out. The nails. I've attacked everybody. I punch men. I yell at men. I punched a guy out at a Madonna concert. I'm known for this. But when I attack women, people get very nervous."
Ms. Paglia is currently involved in any number of what she freely calls catfights -- she battles feminists like Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolfe over whether date rape actually exists and whether women's studies are scholastically valid. And she's in "a huge catfight" with British journalist and fellow provocateur Julie Burchill, whose scathing review of Ms. Paglia's latest book touched off a trans-Atlantic volley of faxes and profanity that the Sunday Times of London headlined, "Battle of the Bitches."
People fight all the time, of course. But of all the possible configurations, woman vs. woman perhaps makes us most uneasy and thus most intrigued. It's what's behind the titillation of mud wrestling and all those other barroom attractions that feature scantily clad women in mock battle. It's what's behind the interest in watching the feminist movement splinter into different camps.
And it's what's behind any number of plot lines over the years, from the dueling goddesses, Aphrodite and Athena, of Greek mythology to the battling blonds, Amanda (Heather Locklear) and Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith) of today's "Melrose Place" television show. (TV Guide recently called them "the hottest cats ever to scratch and snarl" the best combatants since "Dynasty's" Krystle and Alexis "slugged it out in the mud.")
"I think it goes back to the old idea that women cannot be friends with each other because their only role as women is to compete for men," says Jeanine Basinger, a Wesleyan University film professor whose book, "A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960" (Knopf 1993), addresses the long-running catfight convention in movies. "Men don't have catfights because we don't trivialize men. Their endeavors are more important; they fight over more important things. With women, it's always trivial. You're fighting over a dress or over a man or, now, over a figure-skating medal."
Good girl vs. evil girl
The so-called women's films of the 1930s and '40s -- you know the ones, usually Bette Davis or Joan Crawford starred -- often pitted a good girl against a bad girl, even heightening the parallel by sometimes making them twins, in a sort of morality play. It was a way of warning women of the price of misbehaving, Ms. Basinger says.
Perhaps the ultimate bad girl, Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind," for example, not only loses her beloved Ashley to good girl Melanie, she ends up alone in the end. (Melanie, though, ends up dead, so the moral of this story perhaps isn't quite so clear cut.)
And we continue to filter our perceptions of women through this good-evil dichotomy, Ms. Basinger says.
"This Tonya Harding - Nancy Kerrigan thing is just classic. It's the great ur-story of this deal," says Ms. Basinger. "They're from Central Casting . . . Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn in their prime. They're the perfect opposites, even down to their mothers. There's Nancy's blind mom, who sticks her face in the TV set to see her, and then there's Tonya with her trash-pit mother."
Today, however, we're a little too cynical for morality plays, even as Hollywood continues to put out the occasional "Fatal Attraction" or "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," both of which end with the good wife triumphantly killing the rival who would supplant her.
In the more innocent past, the public would have swung unanimously in favor of Ms. Kerrigan, who after all is the victim of a potentially career- and psyche-damaging attack and hasn't openly fought back. But Tonya Harding hasn't been universally condemned, even as she has admitted to knowing, after the fact, of the plot to harm her rival and investigators continue to pursue a possible deeper involvement.
"Nancy seems like a goody two-shoes. And she's too pretty," says Ms. Basinger, explaining the Nancy backlash. "Unfortunately, though, Tonya is not someone you can easily relate to. She's a little too awful."
That's a familiar theme in catfights -- the fear that a rival will win not on her merits, but because she is prettier or younger or otherwise deemed more attractive to men. It's an obvious fear in figure skating, where looks are part of the game, but it also crops up elsewhere in life where attractiveness is not supposed to be the issue.
Men are often the prize in a catfight: There was the gleefully reported screaming match on an Aspen ski slope between Ivana Trump and Marla Maples over who would get The Donald. (Marla eventually did and is now The Missus.)
Or, sometimes, it's a job: The classic movie, "All About Eve," of 1950, in which an understudy (Anne Baxter) plots against and ultimately usurps the aging star (Bette Davis), was the cinematic antecedent of the real-life "Today" drama of 1989, when the younger Deborah Norville was seen as maneuvering behind the scenes to rob good ol' Jane Pauley of her anchor job. Ms. Norville's ascension, however, ultimately proved to be a ratings and image disaster for the show, and she eventually was herself replaced by Katie Couric.
Intrigue most feminine
It is that underhanded quality that characterizes the catfight, or so the myth goes. Instead of duking things out openly the way men do -- the duel in an open field, the shootout at high noon -- women fight by covertly undermining their rivals, says Warren Farrell, the "reformed" feminist and author of "The Myth of Male Power" (Simon & Schuster 1993).
The San Diego-based author of previous best sellers such as "The Liberated Man" and "Why Men Are the Way They Are," Mr. Farrell says he had this immediate reaction upon hearing Ms. Kerrigan had been clubbed in the knee: Cherchez la femme.
"I thought, this was an attack planned by a woman. Because when women kill or physically attack, they usually don't do it directly. They hire a man -- and a man will do anything for the woman he loves," says Mr. Farrell. "The fascinating thing in this is the use of men as the dirty workers. And, as of now, only the men are being punished."
Mr. Farrell believes men fight fairer because they've established rules over the years -- such as no hitting below the belt. Which is why, he says, catfights are so perversely fascinating. "It's the excitement of there being no rules," he says. "There's also the amazement of seeing women, who have supposedly represented love and nurturing, fighting much dirtier than men would. You see the underbelly. The devil behind the angel.
Not 'dirty,' but 'covert'
Feminists, however, dispute the notion that women fight dirtier. And, if women fight in secretive, manipulative ways, it's because that's the only way society allows them to battle, they say.
"Women have had to have covert fights instead of more overt ones because in the past they haven't had any legitimate power in the outer world," says Emily Hancock, a Berkeley, Calif.-based psychologist who has written about what she calls "the girl within" women. "Men are allowed to have visible fights."
"For boys, yes, they're told they should be good boys, but it's not the defining thing for them that it is for girls," says Marie Wilson, executive director of the New York-based Ms. BTC Foundation. "If you ever talk to little girls, the first thing they ask you, a woman, is, are you a good girl or a bad girl. If this [Harding-Kerrigan rivalry] were two men, it would not be a front page story, two men fighting. It's only a story when girls act out."
As for men fighting fairer, one only needs to look at how the male-dominated business world operates, Ms. Hancock says. "It can get pretty dirty. I don't think we should hold up the male way of fighting as something to emulate," she says.
What makes the on-going Harding-Kerrigan drama so scandalous, some say, is that its milieu is the ultra-feminine world of women's figure skating -- a sport that is based on not just athleticism, but also costumes and music and manicures.
But Ms. Hancock rejects the notion that what's going on between Ms. Harding and Ms. Kerrigan is a catfight just because it's taking place in this feminine world.
"The Olympics are a time when honors are conferred on people," she says. "And what's happening here is something of great dishonor."