MARCH 14, 2018
TWENTY YEARS AGO, Doubleday published Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. The author, Elizabeth Wurtzel, made it clear that her aim was less to rehabilitate the words bitch or difficult through the stories of famous (or famously difficult) women, than it was to reveal the misery of their possibly glam, but ultimately unfulfilled lives. Any woman, she argued, living with intensity in a patriarchal society was bound to be “somebody’s idea of a bitch,” and behind the glamour of living a bad-girl life, serious despair unto addiction and death often lurked. The cover sported a half-naked picture of Wurtzel, herself. It was like a bomb went off. Her book was loved and loathed in equal measure, but immoderately. She was hailed as a standard-bearer for next-gen feminists; she was called out as dangerously anti-feminist. She was, unsurprisingly, called a bitch. No doubt she knew she would be, and may have reveled in it, but her ultimate point — that in our society, living a full-blooded, appetitive life while female carries heavy costs, if not downright existential risk — seemed a little lost in the din.
Fast-forward two decades, one internet, one presidential impeachment, one first African-American presidency, one stunning failed presidential bid by a woman (and not just any woman: see “one presidential impeachment,” above), one election to the presidency of a proudly self-professed sexual predator, and one #MeToo movement later, comes another book called In Praise of Difficult Women. The subtitle — “Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules” — offers clues to the creative mash-up author Karen Karbo pulls off. Is this a collection of biographical essays? A self-help book? A feminist polemic, snatching a weaponized word out of the trigger-happy hands of the patriarchy?
Yup, it’s all of the above. It’s also a memoir of sorts. With occasional anecdotes from her own life, Karbo delves into her personal relationship with each of these women, an idiosyncratic list to be sure, but all of them important touchstones for her. She calls them by their first names. “I love these women,” she says in her introduction, “because they encourage me to own my own nature […] They tell us, by their words and deeds, that it’s all right to occupy our humanity.” And while J. K. Rowling or Amy Poehler, though badass, may not be everyone’s idea of heroic, the point is that these women speak to Karbo, in the ways they resist convention, oppression, even, at times, sense and taste, in favor of self-determination.
Each chapter is devoted to one heroine and subtitled with a trait that describes her: Exacting (Nora Ephron), Unrestrained (Margaret Cho), Competitive (Billie Jean King). Associating each woman with one particular attribute is, of course, a device, and might seem reductive, but, for better or worse, it’s also clever: it allows Karbo to focus her social commentary, to tease out threads in the narrative of each woman’s experience, and to offer a cogent “life lesson.” For example, the refusal of J. K. Rowling to tone down her feisty nature is an opportunity, Karbo writes, for us to join her “in a thought exercise. That thing you hate about yourself? Accept it now. Make no excuses for it.” On the bravery of actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox (Undaunted), she observes, “It’s not overstating things to say that just walking down the street as a transgender person in America is to risk your life,” and tells us we could all stand to learn from how “with grace and a hell of a lot of dignity, Laverne welcomes her detractors.”
But what if the woman is someone like Edie Sedgwick (Decadent), someone who seems to have invented style over substance, who was, as Karbo puts it, “a fragile girl, wounded bird division,” whose famous excesses led to a famously premature death? Is that a lesson any of us wants to learn, however fabulous Edie was? Karbo, herself, is conflicted about it, but she comes to the conclusion that “Edie lives on in our imaginations because she made a life out of doing nothing but being Edie.” Of course, that’s what unites Karbo’s heroines: they vigorously, fiercely, come hell, come husbands, make lives out of being themselves.
That Karbo looks squarely at the contradiction inherent in someone like Eva Perón (Fanatical), the humiliations suffered by Josephine Baker at the hands of her own country (Gutsy), or the controversy at this point almost synonymous with Hillary Rodham Clinton (Ambitious), is one of the book’s great strengths. She even admits that Lena Dunham (Imperfect) can annoy her at times. Acknowledging that difficult women may get on our nerves, she offers this: “Here’s a radical notion: That’s okay.”
Many of the best chapters are the ones about women who are dead. The narrative arc of their lives is complete and Karbo excels at painting vivid historical portraits: Frida Kahlo is “a fervid and erotic provocateur dispatching updates from the land of female suffering.” (I broke out in a sweat just reading that sentence.) However, unlike those profiled in 1998’s Difficult Women, among Karbo’s heroines, surprisingly few died the tragic death often associated with the archetype. Case in point: The life of Coco Chanel (Imperious) — on which Karbo is an expert, having written The Gospel According to Coco Chanel — ended in triumph, with a new devoted American clientele and a life fully lived. But even the tragic, drug-related deaths of women like Sedgwick or Janis Joplin (Defiant) or Carrie Fisher (Droll) this book asserts, don’t invalidate how exuberantly these women lived. Karbo’s heroines who are still with us carry on in just that way. Jane Goodall (Determined), Rachel Maddow (Brainy), Angela Merkel (Inscrutable) are our assurance that being difficult — read “fully human” — is not the sole purview of historical figures (or men), but an ongoing birthright and project for us all.
This is, ultimately, a friendly book, and delicious details abound: those eyelashes on Elizabeth Taylor? She was born with two sets. And this: Apparently, the term “gender discrimination” was coined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s secretary when she observed that the male justices, “like a dog distracted by a squirrel,” would be unable to concentrate on Ginsburg’s argument in a brief, given her frequent use of the term “sex discrimination.” All that sex, you see. Which just goes to show, being difficult isn’t just for the famous. That secretary is going on my list.
From the DIY font on the cover, to the retro illustrations of the heroines, to the publisher being National Geographic (Nat Geo! Will there be capybaras?), In Praise of Difficult Women is designed to cozy up with when your difficult woman cred is falling short and you need some inspiration. What with Cheryl Strayed on the foreword, it’s sometimes a touch hard not to catch a whiff of the marketing machinery in all that cozy, but as heroine number 12, Relentless Helen Gurley Brown, would likely be the first to say, books unsold are books unread: if there’s a more or less happy marriage of art and industry at work in this project, well, then, mazel tov. Bottom line, Karen Karbo is a bona fide scholar of women’s history with the benefit of a genuine voice; her tone, like a consciousness-raising coffee klatch led by your history geek girlfriend, is inviting and funny and, yes, even bitchy in all the right places.
And yet Karbo confesses that she, like so many of us, is not a particularly difficult woman. (I relate. In the Where Will They Be in Twenty Years? section of my high school yearbook, my classmates decided I would win the Good Girl Award for the 20th Century.) Many of us could use some of the Bravery of a Martha Gellhorn, or the Self-Assurance of a Vita Sackville-West, even the toughness of an Elizabeth Taylor — minus one or two husbands and less jewelry to insure. Still, one wonders whether those of us mostly keeping our heads down, trying to keep the drama to a minimum, aren’t the social glue making it possible for the people being themselves out loud and all over the place to do their funky thang.
In any case — and even though 2018 is practically a geological age away from 1998 in internet time — as Karbo reminds us in a footnote, “every generation has to refight the battle to defend the notion that women deserve the same things as men.” That, she says, is an essay for another time, but here and now in that fight, Karen Karbo is an evangelist of good news for the rest of us: agency and self-determination are possible. Not that a bomb is likely to go off with the publication of this paean to famously difficult women. Still, for a recovering good girl, exhausted by the cultural bombs going off left, right, and center, a gentle dose of heroine therapy feels like sweet relief.