The Bitch is Back

Elizabeth Wurtzel damns "difficult" women with lame praise

As much has already been written about the cover of Elizabeth Wurtzel's new book, I'll leave readers and oglers to look and judge for themselves. Needless to say, in the extended adolescence that seems to define our culture, such a brilliantly brazen packaging stunt marks its author as the fast-living, fucked-up teenage tart that everyone loves to hate. This is especially true in the great big high school that is New York City, capital of the media world and home to Wurtzel.

In the literary glamour sweepstakes, Wurtzel is now a two-time winner (or is that loser?). For her 1994 memoir, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, Wurtzel posed in affectless, strung-out grunge glory, appearing not so different from the CKOne models she mocks in her new book. Apparently that first photo--er, book--was sufficient to command a $500,000 advance for her latest title, Bitch: In Defense of Difficult Women (Doubleday). One has to wonder where Wurtzel will go next, having bared a slice of midriff for her memoir and posed topless for a work of nonfiction. Will we get a full-frontal nude shot if she turns out a full-on novel?

To be fair, Wurtzel can be a lively and engaging writer, and reading this cleverly coined "bitchography" is a lot like listening to a know-it-all girlfriend serve up celebrity dish and amateur film analysis along with a multitude of tossed-off opinions. For instance, in a chapter concerning Nicole Brown Simpson, Wurtzel goes on and on and on about the whole O.J. trial--like we need this--then takes a lengthy detour to discuss what it did for Geraldo's career (and Kato Kaelin's), all on the way to going in-depth with Nicole herself. We never find out if O.J.'s ex did, in fact, qualify as a bitch, and if so, how this figured into the tragedy--though we do know that Wurtzel found Nicole incredibly beautiful and really wishes she had gone to college. Confronted with this kind of pointless rambling in numerous passages over more than 400 pages, I took to muttering, "C'mon bitch, where's the beef?"

Wurtzel offers her thesis in an introduction so full of contradictions it reads like a ping-pong game. On the one hand, she champions bitches as strong women who will behave however they damn well please, no matter the cost. But lest the bitch lifestyle seem too attractive, she observes, somewhat redundantly, that "these bad girls live miserable unfulfilled lives, lives of great style and utter misery." She rails against The Rules, while also admitting that the advice in this how-to-catch-a-man best seller "seems pretty sound to me"; she makes proclamations such as "If a woman is good enough to be good, she is also good enough to be bad."

Yet contrary to the book's subtitle, Wurtzel isn't praising difficult women so much as complaining (whining, some might say) about the difficulties that all women (and sometimes men) face. Her analysis in this respect consists of warmed-over feminist findings from five, 10, 30 years ago that unfortunately still hold true today: Did you realize that men earn more money than women for the same work, and that men age better than women, partly because people are obsessed with beauty? And isn't it so unfair how men who sleep around aren't sluts, but rather studs?

In all, her premise is as conflicted as the larger culture's attitude toward bitches; as Wurtzel rightly acknowledges, the public is equally fascinated by and intolerant of them. By the end of the introduction, the reader has no idea where Wurtzel is going. I only stuck with her because I was supposed to write this--and I'm not the only critic who bitched about whether it was really necessary to read this book in order to review it.

After such a mind-boggling introduction come five lengthy chapters, each with its own poster-woman--from Delilah to Hillary Clinton--and an epilogue-cum-journal-entry confessional in which (surprise) Wurtzel herself is the star. In "Hey Little Girl Is Your Daddy Home?" she takes on Amy Fisher and the problems of adolescent girls in general. The main point, which is hardly original, seems to be that out-of-control teenage girls are treated much worse than their bad-boy counterparts. But it's difficult to understand what is so praiseworthy about a rebellious, frustrated, angry, hormone-addled teen--basically, an average kid--who went over the edge and shot her lover's wife. Maybe there's a special bond between the author and her subject, since Wurtzel quotes passages from My Story, Fisher's tell-all, that describe the teenager's longtime depression.

Turning to other more famously depressed damsels in the next chapter (the mascot this time is the especially sad but not-so-famous suicide, Margaux Hemingway), Wurtzel makes good points about how the culture romanticizes mental illness. Though she successfully emphasizes that mental illness is a terribly ugly, unglamorous thing, she ultimately can't resist giving it a rosy glow, professing admiration for Anne Sexton "making her pain everyone else's problem." In contrasting the aimlessness and ultimate despair of Margaux Hemingway with Sexton and Sylvia Plath, two of Wurtzel's heroines who seemingly did battle with depression via their literary brilliance, the author iterates her belief that beauty and bitchiness alone don't take one very far. "[S]ex is really not much of a weapon in the end," she writes. "You need to have some talent and brains or nothing will work."

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