AUGUST 9, 2018
GROUNDBREAKING NEW feminist books like Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele proffer strategies for navigating Trump’s America, and bookshelves are stocked with volumes celebrating high-achieving female rulebreakers, like Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding’s Nasty Women and Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud. But in 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality (Harper Perennial), journalist Allison Yarrow takes a step back, seeking to account for how we got to a place where Americans elected a confessed sexual predator and women are still, nearly a half century after Roe v. Wade, fighting for ownership of their bodies.
Yarrow argues that we laid the foundation for our current cultural moment 20 years ago, during the golden hour before we succumbed to internet culture. Despite massive potential in the ’90s for women to claim agency at work and at home, Yarrow reveals that “the decade was marked by a shocking, accelerating effort to subordinate them.” Women who gained too much power, or got too angry, sexual, or ambitious, ended up reviled by American culture. Yarrow painstakingly revisits the stories of figures like Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill, Janet Reno, and Nicole Brown Simpson, offering deft reinterpretations of the subtext that rendered them controversial in their own moment. Yarrow coins the term “bitchification,” the formula that “reduced women to their sexual function in order to thwart their progress.” Bitchification, as Yarrow theorizes it, is a socio-cultural process by which a woman makes headlines, breaks patriarchal mores, is judged by her sexuality, and sees her credibility and reputation shattered. 90s Bitch presents a convincing case that women lost political, cultural, and sexual power grabs in the last decade of the 20th century, shaping the gender inequality we’re still experiencing today.
As a ’90s kid myself, I recall that the way we treated the women mentioned above — like punch lines, rather than human beings — never sat well with me, though I couldn’t say why at the time. Like many of Yarrow’s readers, I absorbed stories like Hill’s and Lewinsky’s before I’d embraced “feminism,” a term that conjured unshaven legs and bra burning in a decade that glorified the hyper-feminine girly girl. Now I know why I squirmed: those attacks didn’t just target powerful and misbehaving “bitches” in the public eye, they targeted all women.
“Bitchification” may be a new idea, but “bitch” isn’t. Yarrow reminds us that the term has long been “the worst invective hurled at women.” Etymologists trace the origins of “bitch” to Artemis, the Greek goddess of chastity who could transform into a dog and was seen as secretly begging for sex. “From its very conception,” Yarrow explains, “‘bitch’ was a verbal weapon designed to restrain and silence women and strip them of their power.” By 1811, the word was codified in an English dictionary as a greater insult than “whore,” and by 1987, two chart-topping rappers centered the term. Public Enemy released “Sophisticated Bitch,” while N.W.A. dropped “A Bitch Iz a Bitch,” which characterized bitches as money-grubbing sex fiends who could “eat shit and die.” Over the years, women have attempted to reclaim the epithet, and Yarrow observes that “what was once a derogation is now seen as an appellation of empowerment and sisterhood.” Millennial women might jokingly refer to their “resting bitch face,” ironically embrace the label “basic bitch” — and the fashion and lifestyle implications that come with it — or don the title “boss bitch,” to signal career ambition and independence. Earlier generations started the trend, though. Meredith Brooks’s 1997 hit “Bitch” left radio stations debating whether to bleep out the word, since Brooks used it not as a slur but to signify strength and power. And a 1985 record dispute led to Madonna famously saying, “I’m tough, I’m ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, OK.” Still, Yarrow argues that attempts to use the word to capture the multiplicity of female identity will be feeble if we don’t face how the moniker still “degrades, disparages, and disenfranchises.”
Yarrow is a skillful scene setter, and unpacks trends that objectified women’s bodies, making it easy for bitchification to take root. The ’90s saw the rise of the human Barbie doll ideal, memorably celebrated and critiqued in Aqua’s 1997 hit single “Barbie Girl,” and driven by stars like Pamela Anderson and Anna Nicole Smith, whom the media (and not just tabloids) characterized as breasts, personified. Yarrow cites a story in The Economist claiming that with Smith’s breasts, “a girl from nowhere […] could do anything.” But Smith’s body was also her undoing. She began to “swell and then shrink over the years, making her a target” for cruel media scrutiny. When she died, Smith “was ceaselessly mocked for pursuing love and self-esteem from the outside in, even though it was exactly what society had instructed her to do.” This bait-and-switch tactic, which penalizes women for playing to the feminist ideal and for opting out, crops up throughout 90s Bitch.
Yarrow shows that fat-shaming was standard for fictional characters on primetime TV, too. Monica Geller of Friends fights to live down her history as “fat Monica,” while the 90210 pilot shows Steve taunting Kelly for her nose job, asking if she’ll turn to liposuction or a tummy tuck next. Yarrow posits it’s no coincidence that plastic surgery rates skyrocketed, teen diet programs abounded, and Victoria’s Secret boomed as women tried to fit the new model of beauty: “bionic, breasty, and blonde.” They were promised that “this was achievable through consumption: buy this diet or this underwear to make men want to sleep with you, because being desired by men is the path to self-esteem, power, and love.” In other words, success for American women was still about attracting male attention, but now they could achieve this success at the mall or on the operating table.
To further complicate the landscape, abstinence-only sex education made girls gatekeepers, and laid the onus of preventing STD transmission and unplanned pregnancies on them. “Boys were encouraged and even pressured to pursue sex (with girls and girls only),” writes Yarrow, while girls were “blamed and shamed for sexual consequences.” It was a lose-lose situation. Girls were taught to fear sex “in school and society, and by elders and peers,” but this advice was at direct odds with what they “were sold about sex” on TV and in magazines. It was under these conditions, Yarrow asserts, that the pattern of bitchification could take hold. If “society values female bodies primarily for their function and consumption,” it’s easy to shift the conversation away from their skills and qualifications. This reinforced the message that when women posed a threat to men, they’d be trivialized and knocked out of power. Girls waiting in the ranks learned there wasn’t a place for them.
Yarrow shows that, while the recipe was always the same, bitchification came in popular flavors, like femme fatale and frigid old maid. Much of 90s Bitch is smartly organized around unpacking these labels, with chapters on how women were punished for being too sexual, cold, angry, unfeminine, or simply too competent. To demonstrate, Yarrow opens the vault of high-profile cases that were either too hot or too cold. Anita Hill, to detail one example, was simply “too cold” to be credible in her case against Clarence Thomas. In 1991, she testified against Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court, citing the years of sexual harassment she suffered as his subordinate. Yarrow conjures the “indelible image of Hill sitting alone behind a microphone, testifying opposite fourteen white male senators performing their disbelief on behalf of disbelieving men everywhere.” They seemed bent on bitchifying Hill, a lawyer and academic. Senator Howell Heflin asked Hill if she was a “scorned woman” with a “martyr complex” and “militant attitude.” Rather than focus on her testimony, they attacked her character, labeling her desperate for male attention. A law school classmate “detailed how Hill couldn’t stomach men rejecting her.” Hill was pegged an erotomaniac and paid with her career; she relocated to Oklahoma to escape Justice Thomas’s advances, taking a job at a barely accredited institution, while Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court. Hill was punished for speaking up, and is remembered as a controversy rather than a flag bearer.
Yarrow doesn’t have to dig through right-wing sources to reveal the rampant sexism and double standards that plagued women during the ’90s, often in ways that we continue to experience today. Her research shows that the liberal bastions publishing #MeToo exposés and touting body positivity today were as culpable as the tabloids in the pre-millenium period. A New Yorker article quipped that before the Clinton affair, Monica Lewinsky’s “only other serious interest in life was dieting.” The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd called Lewinsky “too tubby to be in the high school in-crowd,” ditsy, and “pathetically adolescent,” mockingly referring to her relationship with the president as “way unique.” Dowd won a Pulitzer for her coverage. Lewinsky is only now beginning to shed the stigma she has lived with for two decades.
Even women who weren’t sexual at all could be lambasted. Yarrow traces how ruthlessly Janet Reno, the first woman attorney general, was maligned for being unfeminine. Reno, a tall, single lawyer with cropped hair, “lacked the feminine qualities and life choices typical for women, and the run-of-the-mill sexism wouldn’t work.” Instead of an ice queen or dangerous seductress, she was “a man in women’s clothes.” On Saturday Night Live, Will Ferrell implied he did Reno a favor when he played her straight in “Janet Reno’s Dance Party,” because she seemed so asexual. “Ferrell said he wouldn’t have crafted such a sketch if Reno was a ‘normal woman.’”
Conditions were even worse for women of color. Yarrow flags how concepts like the “damaged girl” trope told the story of straight white women who turned to cutting to cope with unachievable body standards. But, it left out LGBTQ women and immigrants whose self-injury might stem from other pressures, like the experience of navigating gender identity or being a first-generation American. Women of color were more likely to be perceived as dangerous than their white peers. “Unless it could be commoditized, like Alanis Morissette on the cover of Rolling Stone, public brashness and anger was unacceptable for women in the 90s, mostly because it was feared,” Yarrow explains. “Black women’s anger was feared even more.” Yarrow shows how this played out for TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who was vilified in the media for setting fire to the house she shared with NFL player Andre Rison. That Rison abused her before the blaze is usually left out; the press played up the spectacle and deemed her out of control. Further, Yarrow shows how, while white women like prosecutor Marcia Clark were attacked for being working mothers, black women were conversely ridiculed for not finding jobs: “While white mothers who worked […] were pilloried for appearing to shirk domestic and motherhood duties, unemployed or underemployed black mothers were shamed for failing to work and staying home with their kids.” For women of color, the trap of bitchification was doubly complicated, and the long-term effects of those damaging narratives and roadblocks to success are still playing out today.
The best moments in the 90s Bitch are when Yarrow swivels away from the archives to reflect on her own participation in the cultural process of bitchification. Here’s how she evaluates her teenage response to Fiona Apple’s hit music video “Criminal,” which featured an emaciated, 19-year-old Apple writhing on the floor of a house party, sarcastically confessing to mistreating men:
I was Apple’s target demographic, yet I absorbed the critiques of her and parroted them myself […] I was sold and bought into what Apple was rejecting — beauty, sexuality, and even personality shaped and policed by men. Apple’s attempt to undermine the “perfect girl” aesthetic — shaming the gaze, spilling her guts, and starving her flesh from her frame — threatened the affable, obedient, perfect-girl archetype that my peers and I were trying so hard to mirror. […] Apple was “damaged goods” — something I longed not to be. She upset me. Now I realize that was exactly the point.
That’s the real power of 90s Bitch — it looks beyond the gender war many girls didn’t realize they were fighting to show how they were implicated in their own submission.
Even worse, girls were promised a solution that turned out to be a mirage as “self-esteem” became the buzzword of the day. “We were told to ‘have’ self-esteem and, if we didn’t have it, to ‘get’ it,” Yarrow writes, “but nobody told us precisely how.” That’s where marketing stepped in. Brands promised women and girls that they could perfect their bodies and purchase confidence. Stores like Limited Too might have touted Girl Power but they diluted the movement into “a shopping spree.” Embracing girly fashions may have felt like freedom — “Choice, after all, was a feminist plank” — but Yarrow argues that we’re still paying for the loss of true empowerment.
There are statistics to back up this claim. Millennial women hold more bachelor’s degrees than men, yet they haven’t achieved workplace equality. Women’s median hourly wage is up — but it’s still only 84 percent of men’s — and they are still hired and promoted less frequently than male counterparts. Teen pregnancies have dropped, but maternal mortality rates have risen, and the United States remains one of the only developed nations without mandatory paid parental leave. While the current round of elections witnesses the entrance of female candidates in greater numbers than before, Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election “delivered an undeniable blow to American women.” In light of bitchification culture, Trump’s election was a natural development, Yarrow argues, being as he is a reflection of “the blatant and lewd sexism woven into the fabric of our society finally emerged unabashed in a modern presidential campaign, and in the White House itself.”
For those pining for simpler times, Yarrow’s 90s Bitch is an uncomfortable read and a reminder that widespread sexism and misogyny aren’t new problems — and that the solutions won’t be easy. The good news is that we can use Yarrow’s framework to reevaluate the stories we tell and the narratives we accept about women who step outside the prescribed lines of female success. In doing so, we can set aside some of our ’90s nostalgia and work toward a future of gender parity.