When Reese Witherspoon decides to turn your bestselling novel into a film, you’re living that near-impossible dream: Making real money as a writer. As Jessica Knoll wrote in the New York Times last month, “I want to make the kind of money that allows me to jet to Mexico on a Tuesday, to meaningfully contribute to nasty politicians, to afford a shark of a lawyer if any man ever lays a finger on me again.” Knoll might just get her wish. Her new book, The Favorite Sister,out this week, is already garnering the heavy buzz her debut, Luckiest Girl Alive, did.
The idea of competition among women is a central throughline in Knoll’s novels. “On the surface, there’s a change happening. Women are recognizing the power of putting all of our voices together,” she says. “But I’m also seeing people getting behind that message who don’t live it.” Knoll calls that hypocrisy “a hard pill to swallow.”
Knoll is far from the first novelist to take up the subject; Jane Austen’s Emmahit shelves in 1815; there’s probs some cave doodling on the matter. And while recent academic research suggests women are actually less competitive with each otherthan men, and actually more competitive with themselves, the cultural perception still persists.
“Shine theory,” a concept coined by Call Your Girlfriendco-hosts Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman that describes “a commitment to collaborating with rather than competing against other people—especially other women,” synthesizes how powerful women can and do establish mutually-beneficial relationships. Knoll celebrates this kind of collaboration while underscoring that, in order to practice true, sustainable partnership, we need to talk about the thorny realities of female-female competition.
Before Knoll became an author, she was a senior editor at Cosmopolitanand the articles editor at SELF.Ahead, Knoll talks to Girlboss about what she learned working at women’s magazines, opting out of the interpersonal rat race, standing her ground, and what gives her hope.
On The Devil Wears Prada portrayal of women’s magazines
I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t gotten my start at Cosmopolitan, where I worked for five years.And I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities they gave me.
But I think that everyone who’s worked in the magazine publishing world knows what I’m talking about when I say The Devil Wears Pradadidn’t come out of nowhere. People have certain notions about what the magazine world is like and they’re not inaccurate.
The entire time I worked in magazines, I felt insecure about where I stood with certain people. It’s extremely competitive to get those jobs and, even when I was starting out 10 years ago now, it was made very clear to me there were a million girls who wanted them. Then the economy started to bust and that heightened the feeling of scarcity that was already there.
How women are pitted against each other in the media
Once I started thinking about women being pitted against each other, I started seeing it everywhere. I was watching a celebrity news show the other day and they were talking about how Kate Middleton was probably miffed that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding date would take place so close on the heels of her giving birth so she’d have to squeeze into a dress. The hosts suggested she wasn’t really happy for them.
This was all speculation; there was absolutely nothing to suggest that this was really going on. When we’re fed bullshit about women, it’s important that we view it with a critical eye and a critical ear. This isn’t really how these two future sister-in-laws are looking at each other; that’s just spin.
On being good enough to opt out of the game
There were women I worked with in the magazine world who opted out of the pecking order and they were beloved. You need one or two good eggs—the wholesome people. I always think of one woman who was such a pure soul; she was a very hard worker and chose to let her work speak for itself. She was a reminder to be so good you don’t have to play the game.
On talking back to a culture that wants women to tear each other down
I’ve started stepping back and saying, “I’m not catty, I’m not jealous. You put me in this position.” We can find an empowering response: “I refuse to let this culture define me or define my relationships with other women anymore. I’m going to be the one to define them.”
For instance, there was so much talk about the Time’s Up movement, which I’m a part of out here, during awards season. Time’s Up is an amazing, impressive organization that’s actually getting things done.
While I was sitting at home watching an awards show, I got a text message from a guy friend with a negative comment about the body of one of the actresses who was speaking about the movement.
In the past, I would have been “the cool girl.” I would have been like, “Yeah, oh my God, I know.” This time, I just didn’t respond. A day later, I got a text message from him and he wrote something like, “Sorry, clearly you didn’t like that.” And I responded, “Yeah, I don’t really like commenting about how women look when they’re talking about important issues.”
Three years ago, even two years ago, I would have participated in tearing down another woman. Even though I didn’t want to, I would have felt compelled to because I had participated in the past. This time I just thought, “No. I’m in a different place now and I see things differently.” I have hope in a way that I didn’t have hope before that we can all do our part to slowly dismantle the misogyny embedded in our culture.
As told to: Melissa Batchelor Warnke