Sometimes in life, a book or song or film of such epically bad proportions falls into your lap that you find yourself practically obsessed with the magnitude of its “failure to launch,” trying to comprehend the unlikely combination of lazy editing, awful directing, and personally skewed authorial worldview that allowed the mess to ever coagulate and be foisted onto unwitting consumers.
As you may have guessed, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women is just such a confusing, arresting, infuriating piece of work. With no reservations, I dub this the worst non-fiction book I’ve ever read, and that is counting dry philosophical texts, half-hearted defenses of post-modern poetry, and a Christian devotional book titled The Quiet, Gentle Woman.
[pullquote]I dub this the worst non-fiction book I’ve ever read, and that is counting dry philosophical texts, half-hearted defenses of post-modern poetry, and a Christian devotional book titled The Quiet, Gentle Woman.[/pullquote]
There are two primary flaws that drown out Wurtzel’s occasional good points and contribute most directly to the hair-rending nonsensicality that is Bitch–first, Wurtzel has admitted that she wrote the book on days-long drug binges, entering rehab shortly after its publication. And when you read the book, you don’t doubt her story for a minute.
That’s because Bitch reads like someone on speed who told their editor to fuck off “˜cause they love run-on sentences and misplaced commas, and basically cramming as many modifiers and synonyms and clauses as possible into one single sentence, it’s like the best thing ever when you are using drugs and writing this sample sentence to illustrate what Wurtzel, who won the 1986 Rolling Stone College Journalism Award and throws extraneous details around like feathers in a pillow fight, sounds like.
The second factor is that Wurtzel wears her priorities inside-out and backwards. She’s privileged, but aside from braggadociously mentioning her Ivy League education at every possibly opportunity and admitting that, despite being a whopping 30 years old, “I am still pretty,” she never acknowledges that privilege has informed her life experiences in a positive way. She also adapts victim-blaming tactics (at one point, beginning a sentence with “I don’t mean to blame the victim,” which is a sure sign the author is about to blame the bloody victim) and appears to lack the empathy switch that causes sane, self-aware people to shy away from sentences like:
And at certain times if [Nicole Brown Simpson] made you really mad, I am sure that you would want to punch that face and make it go away. You would just plain want to bash it in.
And worst of all, priorities-wise, Wurtzel glorifies domestic violence, abuse, mental illness, and suicide. She usually manages to tack on a caveat after dozens of pages of disease-worship, as when she backtracks from sighing that barbiturate-addicted, anexoric Edie Sedgwick’s glittery eye makeup makes her “an ideal role model of what to do with yourself if depression is all you are” and that, by contrast, Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs of the non-famous homeless and addicted constitute a “tired theme” and “some politically correct gesture”¦so overdone that it doesn’t make us feel anything except occasionally grossed out.”
Wurtzel must have realized how awful she sounded, because she adds this very special “but”:
These street people”¦are smelly, filthy, lousy, shameless, plainly unappealing. And yet, their schizophrenia or manic-depression or alcoholism is no less worthy of sympathy than that of a gorgeous heiress”¦They look the way Anne Sexton feels.
Of course, this idea is extrapolated to illustrate how white, middle-class, accomplished, educated women tend to inspire disbelief vis-Ã -vis their mental illness, because they aren’t “smelly.” A true observation, of course, yet this entire book is an observation about the beautiful and the white and the wealthy, with the primary focus of every single chapter being one or two of the aforementioned women (with Amy Fisher being the only non-wealthy exception to the rule, but don’t worry, she’s still white and good-looking, though as Wurtzel helpfully demurs, she “would have made the cheerleading squad, but never been voted homecoming queen”).
[pullquote]This entire book is an observation about the beautiful and the white and the wealthy, with the primary focus of every single chapter being on one or two of the afore-mentioned women.[/pullquote]
Bitch is less a unified book and more a collection of rambling essays, five to be exact: the first retells and interprets the story of Samson and Delilah in an attempt to illuminate female sexual power; the second defends Amy “Long Island Lolita” Fisher and explores the peculiar pressures of adolescent girlhood; the third is a paean to depressed poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton; the fourth is a snide take-down ofHillary “Akin to a Woman Working in a Steno Pool” Clinton and opinion piece on politicians’ mistress; and the fifth (and by far most disturbing) is an immature exploration of violence in romantic relationships and ultimately a victim-blaming fiasco that stomps all over Nicole Brown Simpson’s grave.
Before we dive in to some of the meatier portions of the text, a brief caveat: I really wanted to like this book. When I was compiling a list of feminist texts to read, Bitch’s title and presumed content stood out to me as a much-needed vindication of loud, brassy women, a potentially encouraging handbook for women striving to break out of patriarchy-endorsed, mousey, silent roles.
Unfortunately, Bitch is more of a compilation of esoteric pop culture references, a jumble of classic cinema titles, Liz Phair lyrics, and descriptions of cheekbones, spilling over the top of attempts to dissect and attach meaning to particularly privileged women, with a great deal of contradictory arguments and half-finished thoughts sprinkled on top.
[pullquote]Unfortunately, Bitch is more of a compilation of esoteric pop culture references, a jumble of classic cinema titles, Liz Phair lyrics, and descriptions of cheekbones[/pullquote]
The Delilah chapter, as I shall call it, frustrates from the beginning because its basis is a Biblical story, of which readers can have only one of two opinions: a) it’s literally true or b) it’s a mythologized tale that can be read as an indicator of institutionalized, religious misogyny. Wurtzel takes a third, unconvincing approach, re-telling the story in a variety of contradictory ways, casting Delilah as first aggressor then victim then champion, and finally reading individual meaning into each of her separate interpretations, essentially deriving meaning from her own creations.
Wurtzel claims that the Delilah story taught her “whatever power a woman created herself was a direct derivative of her potency to destroy men.” I was hoping this would lead to a discussion about the femme fatale trope as patriarchal tool of repression and fear, an invented icon that seeks to cast all women as unrepentant whores who are untrustworthy, destructive, and therefore unworthy of any position equal to men in society.
Unfortunately, I think Wurtzel buys into the myth that:
Women’s sensuality”¦seems to be so distracting, so overwhelming in its vertiginous power that no one can stand it.
While I agree with her assertion that professional women should not have to disguise and literally cover up their sexual selves (at least, not beyond what’s generally considered decent for either sex), I don’t believe women are naturally more sexual/sensual than men. Rather, the age-old over-sexualization and protection of women’s bodies and “chastity” is what has led to ridiculously outdated expectations of a “pure” appearance prevailing in our modern society, in addition to the mindset that a woman cannot be both sexy and serious.
[pullquote]The age-old over-sexualization and protection of women’s bodies and “chastity” is what has led to often-ridiculously outdated mores prevailing in our modern society, in addition to the mindset that a woman cannot be both sexy and serious.[/pullquote]
The flip side of that coin, which Wurtzel never addresses, is that being a beautiful woman (traditional, Hollywood-style beauty not equating sexiness, but being inextricably bound up with sexiness by our pop culture and our appearance-obsessed values) often translates into more career options and success than being plain does. That research-backed knowledge makes her spiteful indictment of Clinton’s female colleagues ridiculous:
As long as the President’s cabinet contains only women like Donna Shalala and Janet Reno, then as far as I’m concerned it is still half empty.
In chapter two, Hey Little Girl Is Your Daddy Home?, Wurtzel presents an exhaustive, tedious list of teenage actresses (mostly of the sex symbol variety) who had difficulty parlaying their early roles into an adult acting career. This reminded me of nothing more than the Disney starlet-churning machine, but Wurtzel gives only two examples of adolescent boys who moved onto the big leagues (citing only Warren Beatty and Dennis Hopper) and expects the reader to just automatically bite on her notion that female starlets have it worse than the males.
As someone who lived through the Tiger Beat craze of the “˜90s and the overdoses of River Phoenix and Brad Renfro, the untimely death of Corey Haim, and the suicide of Jonathan Brandis, I really wish Wurtzel’s argument had either hinged on data-based claims that teen girls are sexualized more often or with greater intesnsity than their male counterparts, or just eschewed unnecessary comparisons entirely.
Wurtzel starts generalizing big-time in this chapter, from its first page, when she claims that:
Those high school years, they are the time when anything goes, when you’re just a flimsy piece of walking substrate in search of a catalyst, and when girls, in particular, are just one man or one boy away from doing something really stupid.
It’s a fine sentiment, except for the implication that teen girls are more foolish/lovestruck/emotional than boys, and the fact that this tips off an entire chapter defending poor, young, misguided Amy Fisher’s decision to shoot Mary Jo Buttafuoco in the head:
But to be a seventeen-year-old and adequately infatuated with an older man to have committed an act of violence on his behalf–this by a girl with no police record–seems a crime that he must answer for.
What Wurtzel champions in this chapter amounts to misinformation about the weakness of women, which smacks of the myth of the “hysterical” woman. I believe women must be held responsible for their actions, and arguments about whether a seventeen-year-old should be tried as an adult or a juvenile don’t even pertain to Wurtzel’s off-base conviction that Amy shouldn’t have been held culpable at all.
I believe that statutory rape should carry the same punishment for male and female perpetrators, as both hold power over the minors they violate (Wurtzel disagrees, since teenage boys all “want to lay as many babes as possible”).
I believe sex can mean different things to different men and women, and it’s foolish to assume the experience is divided along a gender binary, whereby all women find “physical arousal not much more than a sideshow to the central emotional issues about what sex really means.”
[pullquote]I believe sex can mean different things to different men and women, and it’s foolish to assume the experience is divided along a gender binary.[/pullquote]
I’ll mostly skim over the depression/Plath/Sexton chapter for the purpose of this review, as I already quoted a bit from it. What bothered me in this portion of the book was more of what bothered me elsewhere–Wurtzel is obsessed with physical, patriarchy-sanctioned, overwhelmingly white beauty, and it stifles arguments that could otherwise have merit.
Wurtzel could have focused on how Plath’s and Sexton’s depression informed their work but also smothered it, or how the public at large mercilessly rejected them, or even how confessional poetry was such a flash in the literary pan that perhaps the very nature of reading about women’s feelings and raw experiences was off-putting to people.
Instead, she describes Frances Farmer’s descent into madness as “acting as a beauty elixir” and states that “the personality disorders and maladjustments and mental diseases”¦that accompany these gifts [brilliance, beauty, excellence, genius] are not optional features” (which I see as a glamorization of the ““isms and pain so often misrepresented as necessary to successful artistry). As just another example of uplifting sickness as somehow worthwhile and praiseworthy in its own right, she compares the “anger and sorrow and sadness” of madwomen to Cassandra’s prophecies.
Ultimately, Wurtzel blames feminism for having politicized depression by connecting the pain of “the feminine mystique” to the patriarchy.
“¦we do not have sad women in the public view. Feminism seems to have erased that possibility. Feminism occasionally seems to have silenced the silence of depression; it’s not that it by any means denies the existence of this obvious malady, but by politicizing it, it has destroyed the personal possibilities–and the political is not always personal.
I see where she’s coming from, particularly since she uses Courtney Love as an example (Bitch was published when it seemed like Love had made it onto the straight and narrow for good and all, before Twitter re-publicized her rants and raves). But as someone who’s struggled with depression myself (not clinically diagnosed), I never personally felt like I had to blame my misfortune on the patriarchy or I had to reform or else I was letting my “sisters” down. Wurtzel famously chronicled her own depression in Prozac Nation, so in this instance, I just have to assume we had very different experiences with the disease.
“The Blonde in the Bleachers” totally excoriates Hillary Rodham Clinton, questioning her commitment to Bill, her assistance with his career, and her admission that family was her top priority. And in a moment of complete “hindsight is 20/20,” I had to laugh at a paragraph that basically said HRC’s dreams were dead, that she’d never be President, that she’d never even be Secretary of State. HA.
[pullquote]I had to laugh at a paragraph that basically said HRC’s dreams were dead, that she’d never be President, that she’d never even be Secretary of State. HA.[/pullquote]
It’s not all bad though–I agree with Wurtzel that “government “¦ is the last arena where wives play a role as wives per se,” and that the idea of salary for the First Lady would be a viable way to reward and recognize her contributions.
However, I think Wurtzel is of the opinion that the paycheck defines the value of the work, and, by extension, the person. She doesn’t believe that stay-at-home wifehood is a viable choice, nor is stay-at-home motherhood if it extends beyond the first few years of a child’s life. The idea that men might choose these roles, that ideally we would enter into a social contract where either spouse has the ability to choose to work or not to work (which is obviously linked up with economic status too) and be respected in that decision, seems not to occur to Wurtzel.
It’s not doing anyone any favors to discredit all women who stay at home, particularly when Wurtzel’s examples of Ivanka Trump and other socialites consist of either rich women who eat bonbons all day or rich women who do their husband’s work for free–not every spousal/parenting arrangement is that simple or easy to decry.
Wurtzel admits that many mistresses feel that outing their lovers is the only way to secure a “nest egg,” and defends that decision as pragmatic and necessary, but she really rakes Paula Jones across the coals, poking fun at her appearance and intimating that the general “She’s not that good-looking, why would [Clinton] want her?” reaction was appropriate. Finally, she subtly victim blames with the assertion that “it’s a bad idea to go up to the executive hotel suite for a rendezvous of any sort with a man who was previously unknown” and the unhelpful and frankly insulting advice that Paula “make peace with her misery herself.”
Most women don’t need to be told that going to a stranger’s hotel room might not be wise, that the man who exposed himself to them probably isn’t going to apologize and mean it, that we shouldn’t allow others to mix our drinks or stand too close to us at bars. But the reality is bad things happen even to those who avoid any situation with even a hint of not-right-ness, and jumping to would-have/should-have proscriptions does blame the victim and is never right. Never ever.
In an unrelated but charming sentence, Wurtzel says that if the US can’t or won’t pay First Ladies, they should “import one of those swishy walker types, like Jerry Zipkin or Truman Capote.” Ahhh, I love the smell of casual homophobia in the middle of an otherwise primarily misogynistic book!
The last chapter, “Used to Love Her But I Had to Kill Her,” demonstrates Wurtzel’s complete lack of a grasp on the concepts of consent (she makes fun of safe words, at one point, calling them “the super-no”), how abusers control victims, and complicity in assault.
Throughout the book, Wurtzel talks about “the date-rape phenomenon,” which is meant to imply she does not believe it is a real thing, but only a silly bauble feminists illogically defend. In this chapter, she just out-and-out calls it “date rape hysteria and domestic violence media saturation.” She calls a rape victim an “idiot” and advises women who are invited up to professional athletes’ rooms to “be willing.”
[pullquote]She calls a rape victim an “idiot” and advises women who are invited up to professional athletes’ rooms to “be willing.”[/pullquote]
In a twisted point of view that admits jealousy of a woman who was stabbed to death, she also refers to O.J. Simpson as Nicole’s “Heathcliff” and their relationship as Nicole’s “moment of great, big, gigantic love.” Wurtzel conflates spanking and erotic violence with domestic abuse, and frankly, it is disturbing to read, particularly when she claims that a “sick” woman can “choose” to remain in an abusive relationship and enjoy it:
I have accepted this dance, I have agreed to take the waltz, I am willing to engage in the games of manipulation and fear and injury that I will call love. I will accept the risk. I will sustain physical damage and I may die. But it is worth it.
This is exactly the sort of misdirection and the prettification of violence that women buy into before they wind up dead. Wurtzel doesn’t seem to understand how women could not be complicit in their abuse and claims that battered women who return to their abusers or do not leave after the first blow are “easier to despise than they are to defend.” She straight-up blames Nicole for staying with O.J. for seventeen years, and says it doesn’t matter that her leaving him is what triggered her murder–”this argument fails to account for the time each woman stayed.”
Wurtzel truly believes that abused women “succumb to their dehumanization” because “at some point, there was a moment of choice.” There is no discussion of how choice is manipulated by fear, by necessity, by self-loathing, by any of the hundreds-odd other negative emotions an abuser will make you feel, and the legitimate, justified terror of being hurt worse or even killed if you try to walk away.
You guys, I did not even read the epilogue, which would probably have been just as poorly written, unfocused, and illogical as the rest of this drivel. I felt like I already wasted too much time on this privileged, self-centered, rude (of Hillary Clinton she writes “And she has thick calves”, apropos of nothing), misogynistic, victim-blaming jerk.
[pullquote]I already wasted too much time on this privileged, self-centered, rude, misogynistic, victim-blaming jerk.[/pullquote]
In reality, Bitch is not defending women whose difficult, loud, reactionary behavior is the perfect antidote to female suppression, it’s advocating for a very simple motto: “Pretty means never having to say you’re sorry.” Bitch is full of contradictory advice that encourages women to throw temper tantrums in Bloomingdale’s, to be utterly selfish, to value men-approved looks above all else, and to treat others with a disdain and lack of remorse that Elizabeth Wurtzel herself would probably dub “gorgeous,” “breath-taking,” “bitchy.”
I prefer my feminism to be about changing the world for the better for all women, not just the white, wealthy ones. I prefer not to be told that I chose my own abuse, that I can only meaningfully pursue patriarchy-sanctioned ideas of success, that “as I get older”¦my real power will diminish.”
So thanks, but no thanks, Elizabeth Wurtzel. And I don’t think the word “bitch” means what you think it means.