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Elizabeth Wurtzel's ode to bad girls is full of prickly contradictions.

By Megan Harlan

APRIL 13, 1998: 

BITCH: IN PRAISE OF DIFFICULT WOMEN, by Elizabeth Wurtzel, Doubleday, 288 pages, $23.95.

It is a feminist truism that while men are admired for their strength of character, a woman who sticks to her guns risks being labeled a bitch. One might suppose, judging from Wurtzel's subtitle, that her book champions those brave souls who have turned the insult into a badge of honor -- the kind who'd retort, "Yes, I'm a bitch, and proud of it."

Would that the word could so easily be transformed into a mark of feminine fortitude. The term bitch, of course, can be flung at any woman suspected of any number of transgressions -- of being too smart, too cold, too crazy, too beautiful, too successful. Throughout Bitch, Wurtzel displays a nuanced understanding of the word's real-life connotations, of all the reasons a woman might be denigrated as "difficult." This should come as no surprise to anyone who read her self-aware (if preternaturally self-indulgent) 1994 confession Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, which told how her trying behavior during her upper-middle-class Manhattan adolescence and her college years at Harvard -- tantrums, mindless promiscuity, suicide attempts -- was finally quelled by the little happy pills.

But despite the tenor of her title, Wurtzel seems unable to decide whether uppity women should be considered role models, or cautionary tales, or both. Her writing style proves equally muddled: the book is by turns a gender-war manifesto for Generation X women, a meditation on being somewhat bitterly single at age 30, an ode to tough-dame style icons like Bette Davis, a dubious exposé of bad girls' bad lives, and a pale imitation of a Backlash-style sociopolitical survey. The meandering result is full of inflated language, naive simplifications, some very witty insights, and, above all, jaw-dropping contradictions. In five essays that focus on such "icons" as Nicole Brown Simpson and Hillary Clinton, Wurtzel argues, variously and with equal passion, that bitches possess the secret to living a full life; that they are the loneliest and most pitiful of people; and that domestic violence against women is "understandable," and can even spice up a relationship.

To start things off, Wurtzel asserts that there is a revolution of defiant women afoot, that "the one statement a girl can make to declare her strength . . . is to somehow be bad." For evidence of this cultural tide, she looks almost entirely to the entertainment media (primarily women's magazines, TV shows, and movies). Her examples of female subversiveness are threadbare, randomly compiled, and somewhat dated -- Thelma & Louise, Julie Andrews's baring her breasts on screen. More recent proof comes by way of the fashion world, such as the sellout success in 1994 of Chanel's blood-black nail polish, Vamp. Strangely, other than a swipe at "good girl" Anita Hill, Wurtzel almost completely ignores women who have asserted themselves in concrete economic, legal, and political ways -- say, the women who've instigated the many gender-equity lawsuits of recent years.

Wurtzel then turns her attention to the dating scene, declaring that "most men in the end don't quite have the stomach for that much person." She complains that women receive conflicting advice on love from pop culture, choosing two dire extremes as examples: on one side The Rules, the best-selling tract that instructs husband-hunting women to play hard to get; on the other, the countless self-help relationship books that implore women to make all the compromises. In such a landscape, Wurtzel says, the "bitch persona" appeals to women for its "illusion of liberation." As well it should -- assuming that women believe they must either abide by the Rules or Love Too Much.

Though this introduction is virtually stream-of-consciousness, the two essays that follow reveal an incisive, often eloquent voice. Their subject matter is similar: in the first, Wurtzel revisits the biblical tale of Delilah to discuss women accused of using "sex as a weapon"; in the second she focuses on the saga of the "Long Island Lolita," Amy Fisher, to examine how adolescent girls are both coveted and feared for their evanescent youthful sexuality. Wurtzel wisely suggests that we often mistake female sexuality for tangible power because of the way sex, as the phrase goes, can "bring men down." She notes, "If men were truly sexuality's simple serfs, then Gennifer Flowers would be sitting behind the desk of the Oval Office." Or, for that matter, Monica Lewinsky. For pretty adolescent girls -- who are fleetingly "endowed with some unearned power to drive men wild" but, as studies show, often lack self-esteem -- the aftermath can be especially destructive.

Yet even in these essays, Wurtzel undercuts thoughtful writing with a certain callow sexism. She suggests that only beautiful women are powerful women -- or even count as women at all. Take this aside on female attractiveness and political power: "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." Spoken like a true . . . well, never mind.

Wurtzel returns to familiar ground in her chapter on women and mental illness, which opens, rather obscurely, with Margaux Hemingway's suicide, then recaps the lives of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Frances Farmer, and others to demonstrate that "depressed women, alternately distant and overwrought, are the most difficult of all." Unfortunately, she abandons her most original and interesting point -- her skepticism "that feminism was what these women needed, not lithium" -- almost as swiftly as she makes it. There's not much new, either, in a chapter on the still-entrenched institution of the political wife, which consists primarily of a rambling diatribe against Hillary Clinton and, as Wurtzel sees it, her penchant for sabotaging her own potential.

However, nothing can prepare the reader for Wurtzel's final chapter, "Used to Love Her But I Had to Kill Her," which initially explores why Nicole Brown Simpson stayed with the abusive O.J. -- but descends into, of all things, a romanticization of domestic violence. After revealing that she's never been abused but enjoys being spanked, Wurtzel conflates the pleasure she receives from sex games with what a woman must feel when her husband beats her. As for what the abusers themselves feel, she has this to say: "Men, quite simply, seem so benighted and bewildered about women, they are so unconfident in their dealings with us that the discussion of male violence against women or male hatred of women is strictly academic." Clearly, a woman traumatized by an assault from a violent husband or a benighted, bewildered rapist is just overthinking the matter.

Wurtzel considers herself a feminist, but what a brand of feminism: sometimes she nails misogyny to the wall, other times she wields it with studied flippancy. The intertwining forces of strength and womanhood, the use and abuse of female sexuality -- these are infinitely complex, knotty subjects. With too rare exception, Wurtzel doesn't so much untangle their many strands as takes scissors to them.

Megan Harlan, a New York-based writer, has written for the New York Times Book Review and Salon.

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