Bitch by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women
by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Doubleday. 288 pp. $23.95
Elizabeth Wurtzel’s first book, Prozac Nation, published in 1994, generated considerable interest and earned for its author a certain notoriety. Wurtzel, a pretty girl then in her mid-twenties, wrote in a flamboyant yet oddly engaging way about the experience of growing up in New York between divorced and warring parents and undergoing a severe form of depression that began in childhood and lasted for more than a decade. In spite of these seemingly overwhelming problems, Wurtzel managed to excel in school, write prize-winning journalism, and spend two crazy, unsupervised years as an undergraduate at Harvard—before finally attempting suicide and finding proper care. She was one of the first persons to receive the newly-approved antidepressant drug, Prozac, which effectively, even miraculously, rescued her from her ordeal.
Strikingly, although Prozac Nation received more than its share of media attention, including an article in Vanity Fair accompanied by a picture of the smirking author lying in a pool of prescription pills, the reviews of the book in liberal publications were uniformly hostile, in one case (Newsweek) being so gratuitously nasty as to amount to a kind of smear. All the critics made the same point: although Wurtzel claimed that her story was in some way symptomatic of the situation of young people in general, and especially of girls, in reality hers was nothing but (in the words of one of her critics) a “self-obsessed case study.”
The charge was not altogether without merit. Prozac Nation took its place in a fairly recent genre of intimate, harrowing accounts of the mental plight of young women and had nothing of significance to add to the debate on Prozac other than to illustrate the fact that some people truly needed it. On one subject, however, Wurtzel did venture out of the self-enclosed memoir form. What all the negative reviews chose to ignore was her dramatization of the effects of divorce and the breakdown of the family on many members of her generation:
Sometimes I think that I was forced to withdraw into depression because it was the only rightful protest I could throw in the face of a world that said it was all right for people to come and go as they please. . . . My father had a child that he didn’t have too much trouble walking away from; it seems only natural that so many of us have pregnancies that we can abandon even more easily. After a while, meaning and implication detach themselves from everything. . . . Pretty soon, it seems unreasonable to be bothered or outraged by much of anything. . . . In a world where the core social unit—the family—is so dispensable, how much can anything else mean?
Considering how insistent, even repetitious, Wurtzel was on this point—namely, the often disastrous consequences of sexual liberation for the children of the liberated—it is almost laughable how her reviewers insisted on ignoring it, and on painting her instead as nothing but a callow exhibitionist. (She is certainly that.) And now her second book has been greeted with a similarly dismissive response, on similar grounds and with a somewhat greater degree of justification.
The front cover of Bitch shows a supremely confident, topless Wurtzel raising a middle finger to the world. This gesture of bravado is fully in keeping with the flagrant displays of carelessness that characterize the prose within (“I want to be whom I am,” “men with Indo-European accents,” and the like). Where her first book, at least, showed signs of having been edited, and her persona, though verging on the obnoxious, was held in check by the demands of consecutive narration, this book is entirely a product of Wurtzel’s decidedly nonlinear imagination. It is, moreover, so steeped in the themes and trivia of popular culture—she once served as a popular-music critic for the New Yorker, and is given to sentences like, “And so it is not surprising that [Madonna] is the leap between Patti and Chrissie and, eventually, Courtney and Liz”—as to give the impression of a guided tour through a moronic inferno.
The ostensible subject of Bitch is the seductive, disturbed, and dangerous woman—a female type with which Wurtzel has long been fascinated. One of the first representatives of the genre to capture her attention as a child was Bernadine Dohrn, a member of the Weathermen, the 60′s underground movement; young Elizabeth idolized her because “for all her intellect she couldn’t help her hypersexuality.” And then there were the “sexually compelling Bible women” Wurtzel learned about in her Orthodox Jewish schooling: Bathsheba, Jael, Delilah. What she first admired in Delilah—“the ability to project lust and allure”—is what she would come to admire years later in female defendants on trial for sex crimes.
There follows a collection of campy and slightly off-kilter tributes to these and other female celebrities, including Amy Fisher, the teenager convicted of the attempted murder of her lover’s wife; the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath; the actress Margaux Hemingway; and the exhibitionist and Andy Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, concluding with a meditation on the fate of Nicole Brown Simpson. What all these women supposedly have in common is that they acted at the promptings of their own outsize desires and paid the price, coming to inevitable bad ends in their encounter with the social forces arrayed against them.
In Wurtzel’s view, those forces include, needless to say, masculine privilege, conventional morality, and the law. But, as in Prozac Nation, they also include feminism, which in Wurtzel’s judgment is guilty at best of misinterpreting and at worst of condemning what these women represent, and so diminishing the full range of female prospects.
One thing they represent is, of course, unbridled sexuality, Wurtzel’s earnest defense of which puts her in the company of other recent writers disappointed with the sexually repressive turn taken by at least one branch of the feminist movement. Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe, for example, have condemned the new feminist preoccupation with sexual harassment and date rape, expressing alarm over the fact that promiscuity is no longer the instrument of self-discovery that it was in the early days of the women’s movement; to the contrary, many girls have ceased to look to sexual experimentation as a rite of passage to womanhood and, worse, are experimenting instead with things like prolonged virginity.1 This disturbs Wurtzel as well:
What good really have [the successes of feminism] done if we still get the feeling that we have to control our urges and suppress ourselves in the interest of courtship and love?
But that is hardly Wurtzel’s only gripe against feminism. As a type, the bitch is more than a free sexual spirit; she is emotionally vulnerable in a way that feminism specifically deprecates and disallows. Thus, Amy Fisher, the fifteen-year-old who shot her lover’s wife, was not only depressed but also, as Wurtzel construes her, a good deal more sensitive and interesting than her intended victim, the “troglodyte” Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Why, then, did feminists line up behind Mary Jo rather than Amy? Wurtzel, here reverting to a theme of Prozac Nation, suggests an answer:
Amy Fisher was a grim . . . reminder of . . . so many girls who have gotten the worst of the promises of liberation—promiscuity, pornography, prostitution in the suburbs.
Finally, Wurtzel’s catalogue of complaints against feminism includes another, quite novel and revealing, charge. Two of her bitch heroines are the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, both of whom committed suicide. These two, she writes, “had the force and talent and beauty to turn their emotional disasters and hysteria into . . . art.” But now feminism, by “politicizing [female] depression”—that is, by defining depression strictly as a function of the unequal power relations between men and women—has radically impoverished the possibilities of such feminine self-expression.
Once women are instructed to view their emotions—especially those unique to them as women—in the light not of their nature but of their political situation, they cut themselves off, Wurtzel writes, from “artistic expression drawn from despair—which was the task of confessional poetry.” She particularly bemoans this loss because nothing on her own cultural horizon—which seems confined, in the way of poetry, to girl bands and performance artists—offers the aesthetic satisfaction to be found in these writers.
It is easy to belittle the hidden assumptions here: that, on the one hand, the poetry of Plath and Sexton constitutes high art, and that, on the other hand, anyone in his right senses would look to popular culture as a medium of serious instruction and communication. But to the extent that Wurtzel’s fascination with popular culture is not altogether mindless, it does in fact seem to be related to a desire for just such instruction and communication—that is, for a genuine education of the feelings.
Elizabeth Wurtzel is articulate enough about the disturbances of her life, and of the times in which she grew up, to allow one to conclude that she could not have been left at more of a loss for examples of how to behave, or of what kind of woman to be, than if she had come from Mars. In turning to popular culture for images of glamor and significance, she finds women who can also be, however absurdly or meretriciously, vehicles for the expression of emotion. In this they do indeed have a wholly feminine significance—and not just for her—that is nowhere to be found in the contemporary landscape, a landscape marked by the continuing failure of feminism to shape women in its image.
1 See Wendy Shalit, “Daughters of the (Sexual) Revolution,” COMMENTARY, December 1997.