When You're Ready to Embrace Your Inner Bitch: Bad Girl Books
There's a reason good girls finish last.
Because a lot of times, doing what we think we're supposed to do means throwing the race.
Good girls are so busy paying the bills, getting dinner on the table, and maintaining the image of the archetypal mother, symbolizing unconditional love, selfless patience, and the compelling need for a refillable prescription for anti-anxiety medication, that they never even make it to the starting gate. With a job description like that, it gets pretty hard to imagine a walk around the block, let alone a race to the summit of our highest personal peak.
But what if we good girls started to give them all a taste of their own medicine? What if we found the courage to misbehave? What if we slipped into a pair of scuffed stilettos and stretch capris two sizes too small and, just for once, got really out of line?
The bad girl books in this chapter are about unmanageable women who pushed the limits and stood their ground. They're brash, bawdy, foul-mouthed, unladylike, and often on the wrong side of tipsy. But their misbehavior teaches us that if you want to be good — and we mean really, really good — you've got to be willing to be a little horrid.Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward AlbeeGeorge and Martha, sad, sad, sad.
Martha, the heroine of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
, is a blowzy, obnoxious, disappointed, desperate, and sadistic alcoholic, who is, despite her shortcomings, one of the most vicariously thrilling bitches in the history of the American theater.
What woman doesn't long to experience Martha's primitive abandon, if only for a moment — to be able to get drunk, and we mean really drunk — to loll about barking orders at our husband with a martini in our hand, gin trickling down our chin, stuffed into a catsuit two sizes too small stretched over our aging but profuse seductiveness?
Okay, so maybe most of us would stop short of doing the hootchy-koo with the history professor who is married and twenty years our junior. But which one of us wouldn't love to be able to toss off a line like "if you existed I'd divorce you" without batting a false eyelash?
Martha's not just a bitch, she is the bitch goddess — a plump, fickle, spoiled, foul-mouthed, and irresistible Circe, randomly bestowing her favors or turning men into pigs, according to her whim. So while Martha is a pathetic, desperate, and drunken grotesque who brutalizes her husband because he has committed the unforgivable sin of loving her, Martha is heroic too. Her sheer unmanageability — her willingness to not only speak her mind but to slur it at full volume from the front porch in a sleepy suburb at midnight — is the act of defiance that liberates us all.
Read this one when you're feeling the need to perform a group exorcism. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
chases all the demons into the light of day.Points to Ponder
1. Discuss the use of flowers in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
For example, what is the significance of snapdragons and strolling Mexican flower-sellers in this play? (Hint: They are not just thrown in for set dressing and multicultural appeal.)
2. Putting the inevitable hangovers aside, do you think that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
has a happy ending or an unhappy ending? Why?Bad Girls We'd Like to Have Over for Girls' NightThe Wife of Bath
Chaucer's classic bad girl taught us that things would be much better for everybody if husbands the world over just shut up and did what their wives told them for a change. She has a standing invitation to any of our get-togethers.Lady Macbeth
Shakespeare's legendary power bitch would be fun to have around if we wanted to defy right reason and overthrow the divine right of kings. But there are hazards whenever you stand in opposition to nature. So if things go awry, and fair becomes foul and foul becomes fair, we wash our hands of the consequences.Madame Defarge
It's always nice to have a motherly type around who can knit a secret code into an afghan, just in case you need to launch a spontaneous revolution, or the temperature drops suddenly.Maggie the Cat
While a cat on a hot tin roof is not the most relaxing element to introduce into an evening of self-rejuvenation, something about that faded Southern belle ambience just helps the hours, and the bourbon, flow sweetly.Molly Bloom
James Joyce's symbol of eternal regeneration and the undiscriminating receptiveness of female fecundity is welcome at any of our soirees. You can ask Molly anything — she always says yes, yes, yes.Salome
We'll invite this veil-dancing bad girl if we've had a bad day and are in the mood to serve somebody his head on a platter. Gone With the Wind
by Margaret MitchellThe green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor. Her manners had been imposed upon her by the gentle admonitions of her mother and the sterner discipline of her mammy; her eyes were her own.
Sixteen-year-old Scarlett O'Hara knows from her mammy's and mother's teachings that her job in life is to be a graceful lady who quietly runs the business of her husband's plantation. But Scarlett also realizes that the real fun is in the husband catching, and at this she's an overachiever extraordinaire. When she's in her characteristic Southern belle overdrive, Scarlett knows just when to show her dimple, how to sway her hoopskirt, and how to wrangle a marriage proposal out of a man and then keep him dangling while scoping out the other possibilities. And when we see her manipulate the entire male population of Clayton County that afternoon at the Wilkeses' barbecue, we realize that whatever her challenges, Scarlett's going to rise to the top and become the CEO of her own life.
So survival isn't always pretty. All of us who've been in that wretched and barren garden at dawn, rising from the spewing of our own bile to shake a fist at God and declare that we will never be hungry again, know that sometimes a gal has to lie, steal, cheat, and kill to get where she's going. It's just that most of us don't take that quite as literally as Scarlett does. She steals her sister's beau, backstabs her best friend, throws herself at a married man even though she's already got Clark Gable at home, slaps around the help, allows her sadistic foreman to starve and beat her workers, treats her children like annoying little rodents, and if you try to come between her and her goals, she'll blow your head off, search your pockets, and bury you out in the arbor. So don't mess with Scarlett!
Yet despite how much we love and admire Melanie, a well-bred good girl who, inspired by Scarlett, finds an inner strength to stand up for those she loves, it's Scarlett who draws us in. Frankly, we wouldn't trust Scarlett O'Hara with our man, our money, or our friendship, but somehow, we can't help loving her. She's the part of us that's the spoiled, selfish brat, who can't be bothered worrying about what other people will think or whether their feelings will be hurt. She moves full speed ahead, taking no prisoners, on a linear course to her own goals, unimpeded by kindness or grace.
Much as we embrace those two virtues, we know there are times when we've got to access our own inner Scarlett and go forth unapologetically. No wonder many of us return again and again to Gone With the Wind
. Granted, some of us get more than a little obsessive about our Scarlett than others. This novel of survival is a touchstone that reminds us that we can't do it all and be a paragon of feminine nurturing at the same time. We may discover Gone With the Wind
in adolescence, when it first hits us little Ophelias that being nice and achieving our goals are often mutually exclusive; or we may discover it later in life, when dealing with a great loss or betrayal that leaves us feeling furious and powerless. Either way, Gone With the Wind
is there to remind us that the bitch prevails, and what's more, she deserves to be loved.Points to Ponder
1. Will Scarlett ever feel, like Rhett, that it's time to incorporate grace into her life? And do you even want her to?
2. What's the real reason that Scarlett is singing the morning after Rhett ravishes her?Notes from Nancy's Reading Journal
Personally, I finally recognized my addiction to Gone With the Wind
after I'd read the book more than twenty-five times; don't even ask how often I've seen the movie. It all started when I was twelve and my grandmother brought me to a Saturday matinee. As soon as I got back to school, I checked out the book, read it straight through, took it all in for about five minutes, and started over again at page one. I was thrilled to discover that there was more to Scarlett and her world than the movie could begin to fit in, even at a four-hour length, and I learned one of the great truths about chick lit: The book is almost always more satisfying than the movie.
Another thing I learned from reading Gone With the Wind
over and over is that a great book tells a story many different ways. I'd read it from Scarlett's point of view one time, and Rhett's the next; I'd read it to try to imagine what it was like to be a Confederate watching my world crumble, then I'd read it and identify with the slaves, whose choices were so limited. I'd put it aside for a few years, then rediscover it. I'd be disappointed at its racism, then I'd reread it and be amazed by Margaret Mitchell's psychological insights. The last time I read it I was shocked to realize what an incredible bitch Scarlett was. Hmm, where had I been? Probably envying her gumption so much that I was willing to overlook her mean streak. Maybe next time I'll just delight in her quintessential badness.
Which brings me to the most important thing I learned from Gone With the Wind
: Depending on where you are in your life, a great book, even if you've read it so often you've memorized sections, will always have something new to teach you. The Portable Dorothy Parker
by Dorothy ParkerThat woman speaks eight languages and can't say no in any of them.
Just like that little girl with the cute little curl right in the middle of her forehead, when Dorothy was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was usually about six sheets to the wind, evil-tempered, and had a tongue like a machete.
This is true of Dorothy's life as well as her writing. Both were either inspired or disastrous. Dorothy wasn't a great writer so much as she was a great character, and somehow the stories of her scathing wit and epic rudeness have become as complicated and important a masterpiece as any of the greatest works of her day.
Perhaps what is so captivating about Dorothy Parker for women, in her day as well as our own, is that while her bons mots are glib, her subject matter deals openly and honestly with our greatest heartbreaks — lost dreams, faithless partners, the sting of rejection, the folly of infatuation, the endless, unquenchable thirst for love, and of course, sex.The Portable Dorothy Parker
, a compilation of her poems, epigrams, and short stories, is a record of Dorothy's take-no-prisoners outlook on life. It is less a literary anthology than a reference book for bad girls in training. Dorothy Parker was desperate, indulgent, vengeful, and more often than not just on the wrong side of sober, but she was also passionate and brave and honest and intelligent, and perhaps most important, she was funny.
When you're feeling downtrodden, turn to Dorothy for a reminder that there is nothing that can't be faced down with a show of bravado and a really good one-liner.Reality Check:
Dorothy Parker's writing career began in 1916, when after several unsuccessful attempts to be published in Vanity Fair
, she finally hit on the voice that would catapult her into the public eye and typify the rest of her professional and personal life. The poem was called "Woman: A Hate Song."
"Woman: A Hate Song" was a vicious attack against popular notions of femininity. The piece was so venomous that the editor convinced Dorothy to publish it under a pseudonym. Apparently the literary public's palate at the time tended toward the carnivorous, and Dorothy's provocative poem was a hit. Shortly thereafter Vanity Fair
published the sequel. It was called, appropriately, "Man: A Hate Song." This time, however, Dorothy published under her own name, and an American bitch goddess was born.Dorothy's DartsYou can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think.I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I'm under the table,
After four I'm under my host!Look at him, a rhinestone in the rough.Every year, back comes Spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants.He is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing.Too Good for Her Own Good: Searching for Self and Intimacy in Important Relationships
by Claudia Bepko and Jo-Ann Krestan
A lady can't even be appropriately assertive without feeling bad or being treated badly. If a lady gets too upset, she goes to a doctor who will give her tranquilizers that will help get her back to being calm, kind, and patient. If she gets too emotional, somebody will undoubtedly tell her to stop being hysterical. If she does get angry, she'll have to show it by crying. If she cries, somebody will tell her to calm down.
For those who were paying attention, the codependent's creed, first described in 1987 in the pages of Codependent No More
by Melody Beattie, sounded an awful lot like the good girl's rule book: focus on others needs, don't confront, lie in order to protect his feelings, and vehemently protest that you don't want to impose — why, you're perfectly happy sitting in that creaky wicker chair with the straw that pierces your back and smells faintly of cat. Many of us find that we don't need an alcoholic lover to inspire us to take on the role of doormat. We lower our heads and pick up our boss's theater tickets, readily forgive our friend for standing us up for the third time, and let our brother-in-law ruin every holiday by insisting on watching the football game on TV at full volume — all in the name of being nice. We smile, we apologize, we forgive seventy-times-seven times, and we allow everyone to stomp on our heads with their jackboot demands.
"We've seen too many women adopt the label codependent only to feel that they're sick for doing what they've been socialized to do," say the authors. "Codependency can sound like an indictment of who women are rather than how they behave. It implies that they love too much, that they make foolish relationship choices, that they are controlling, intrusive, martyrs. It tells them that they need to be improved." Probably we're all just a little tired of perpetually being on the self-improvement treadmill and are ready for the Jacuzzi, the sauna, and a massage. And while we're at it, a refill on the almond tea and jasmine aromatherapy, okay?Too Good for Her Own Good
may be a self-help book, but it's not aimed at making us better wives, mothers, lovers, workers, or friends. Instead, it's all about how to feel happier and more in control of our lives — the irony being that when we take care of our own needs, we find we have more energy for our relationships. It's refreshing to read a book in which the authors acknowledge our tendency to hand over a pound of flesh without its even being requested. Bepko and Krestan trash "the code" that tells us we must always be lady bountiful — attractive, in control, unselfish, endlessly self-negating, and working at all our relationships at all times, while never complaining or feeling overwhelmed. In its place, they give us guidelines that acknowledge our own needs: Be comfortable. Be direct and unapologetic. Be responsive and firm. And tell your brother-in-law that there's a TV in the basement for his viewing pleasure — and a lovely wicker chair for him to park himself in.
Read this book when you need to get back into the driver's seat of your life. Really, once you conquer your fear of being a bad girl, you'll be amazed at how much better you feel.Points to Ponder
1. What part of no don't they understand?
2. Are you trying to be a good girl, giving in to codependency, or are you just turning the other cheek? And is there any difference?Can I Get That Printed on a Coffee Mug?Compulsions are a container for rage.
— Claudia Bepko and Jo-Ann KrestanBad Girl BitesHe had a big head and a face so ugly it became almost fascinating.
— Ayn RandMy specialty is detached malevolence.
— Alice Roosevelt LongworthI'd rather be strongly wrong than weakly right.
— Tallulah BankheadI'd marry again if I found a man who had fifteen million dollars, would sign over half to me, and guarantee that he'd be dead within a year.
— Bette DavisThe lovely thing about being forty is that you can appreciate twenty-five-year-old men more.
— Colleen McCulloughIf a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.
— Erma BombeckGood girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.
— Helen Gurley BrownLead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself.
—Rita Mae BrownMoll Flanders
by Daniel DefoeNothing is more certain than that the ladies always gain of the men by keeping their ground and letting their pretended lovers see they can resent being slighted, and that they are not afraid of saying no.
Defoe's Moll Flanders was the ultimate at-risk youth in the days when being snatched by the gypsies was a step up in the world for a lot of poor kids from London. Born to a mother on death row in Newgate Prison, Moll is a gentlewoman at heart who manages to survive with a sense of dignity, honor, and self-awareness that's astonishing given how little her world seems to care about her. So can you blame anyone for her wicked, wicked ways? Sure, she boffs her patron's son, dumps her kids with the relatives when her first husband dies, goes on a mad spending spree the first time she gets a little gold in her pockets and ditches her creditors, turns whore and thief, and ends up mugging prissy little schoolgirls who ought to know better than to walk the streets without a chaperone or at least a little training in martial arts. Moll is, as she admits, quite a bad girl, but let's face it, the world of eighteenth-century England didn't offer her a lot of options, did it? And Moll is apologetic — sort of. Defoe's protestations that Moll's tale serves as a warning to young ladies everywhere may have satisfied his stodgier readers' objections to reading about a woman who defies all the rules of a so-called civilized society, but we aren't fooled. He revels in the hijinks of this totally lovable pickpocket and whore.
And for all Moll's excuses to the reader, you can't help being glad she had a chance to live life to the fullest and triumph in the end. Read Moll Flanders
, and you'll realize you don't need to make up lame excuses to justify taking care of your own needs.The Inferior SexThe trouble with some women is they get all excited about nothing, and then they marry him.
— CherIt is really asking too much of a woman to expect her to bring up her husband and her children too.
— Lillian BellWhen women are depressed, they eat or go shopping. Men invade another country.
— Elayne BooslerMen are nicotine soaked, beer besmirched, whiskey greased, red-eyed devils.
— Carrie NationI love the male body; it's better designed than the male mind.
— Andrea NewmanHaving Our Say
by the Delany Sisters with Amy Hill Hearth[E]ven as a tiny child, I wasn't afraid of anything. I'd meet the Devil before day and look him in the eye, no matter what the price.
— Bessie Delany
We believe it's the noblest of aspirations to want to grow up to be a feisty old lady. In Having Our Say
, we meet two such people — centenarian sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany — but it's Bessie that really inspires a gal to develop her crotchety side.
The maiden ladies, as they call themselves, tell the story of their lives and how they experienced racist America in the twentieth century. As a piece of oral history, the book offers a fascinating glimpse of Jim Crow, Harlem in the 1920s, rural African American life, and how two professional women, one a home economics teacher and one a dentist, managed to carve out careers for themselves despite racism and sexism. Sadie and Bessie struck up friendships with the likes of Paul Robeson and Booker T. Washington, taught basic nutrition to the poorest of the poor, and managed their own home and finances until they were past one hundred years old. And you've got to admire women who not only refuse to be enslaved by the reach-me-anywhere-anytime attitude of our cell-phone-infested era, but who won't even install a telephone. If people want them, they can just make the time to drop by like civilized guests.
Now, as sisters, Sadie and Bessie got along so well because they complemented each other perfectly. Sadie, the teacher, led a life of quiet dignity, and when faced with blatant discrimination, she preferred to take the passive-aggressive route and play dumb, all the while secretly laughing at her tormenters. Her sister Bessie, however, refused to temper her emotions, despite the consequences. She confessed, "I'm afraid when I meet St. Peter at the Gate, he'll say, 'Lord, child, you were mean.' " That's because Bessie was always, to put it bluntly, quite the pisser.
For whatever reason, Bessie just didn't have the temperament to follow the lead of her hero Martin Luther King, Jr., and practice quiet nonviolence. Her favored forms of protest were to yell, scold, or accuse. She even nearly got herself lynched once when, after a drunken white lout insulted her, she told him where he could get off.
Bessie's strength came from an unshakable sense of self. "You see," she said, "I think I'm just as good as anyone. That's the way I was brought up. I'll tell you a secret: I think I'm better! Ha!" As her sister Sadie said, "She thinks it's her God-given duty to tell people the truth. I say to her, 'Bessie, don't you realize people don't want to hear the truth?' "Having Our Say
will show you that there is more than one way to fight oppression without losing one's dignity. For some, silent stoicism is the path. For others, it's choosing to be a bad girl. Sassing back without giving in to fear of reprisal allows them to fight for their rights and the rights of all people to be treated with respect. Both Sadie and Bessie Delany proved that a bad girl can be a very good thing, so read this when you need a little inspiration for your battles.Points to Ponder
1. How are bad girls punished?
2. What's wrong with passive-aggressiveness? It works pretty well, doesn't it?Auntie Mame
by Patrick DennisLife's a banquet and some poor suckers are starving to death.Auntie Mame
is not really Mame's story at all. It's the story of young Patrick, the scion of an elevated but eccentric East Coast lineage, who is orphaned at ten years old. Patrick is shipped off to his auntie Mame to be brought up in a world far removed from the stolid, country squire life that he enjoyed with his conservative father.
Although this is Patrick's coming-of-age tale, Mame, characteristically, steals most of the focus. Well, how can you ignore a woman in an embroidered golden silk robe, jeweled slippers, and a bamboo cigarette holder? Like the cocktails she sips in startling quantities from sundown to sunrise, Mame is intoxicating, extravagant, and one hundred proof. Yet despite this epic bad girl's extravagant fashion sense, her unorthodox philosophical views, and her unquenchable thirst for bathtub gin, Mame still manages to excel at all of the traditional roles normally reserved for good girls — i.e., she's a great wife and mother — but of course, never before noon.
Read this one when you want to feel fabulous. Spending a few hours with Auntie Mame is like slipping on a pair of sequined slippers, pouring yourself a well-chilled martini, and nibbling bonbons.Dorothy's Darts
On Katharine Hepburn's acting: She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.
Dorothy Parker's suggestion for her own epitaph: Excuse my dust.Notes from Bev's Reading Journal
My mother was an Auntie Mame
wannabe. I swear she was. Although we lived in a hypercivilized bungalow in Stamford, Connecticut, circa 1965, and never rubbed elbows with the New York Gilded Age intelligentsia, I felt the atmosphere of Beekman Place nonetheless.
Sure, there was a swing set in the backyard, and one of those above-ground pools, and a front door with those little triangular inlaid windows, and avocado-colored appliances. But there was also chrome, and glass, and an Eames chair, and highballs, and of course, those cocktail dresses my mother used to wear with all those amazing sequins. And one Halloween I distinctly remember a bamboo cigarette holder.
My mom was mesmerized by the New York mystique, and she communicated her fascination to me, so Mame fit right in with our mutual fantasy life, and we resonated like wind chimes to this book, each in our own way. Well, we both had issues. I was adopted and transported to the suburbs, but I had been born in a hospital in New York City not far from Mame's pied-à-terre, and I had often dreamed that I was the exiled heir apparent of some exotic urban empress. And my mother had a bad girl streak a mile wide that her staunch Lutheran father did his best to restrain with stoic disapproval and a one-way ticket to a Lutheran college in North Overshoe. But my mother's rebellious spirit was unquenchable.
So Auntie Mame
was right down my and my mom's alley, and we devoured the book together and saw the play twice, and Mame became an elemental part of our shared history.
For both of us, I think, Auntie Mame
represented a more integrated view of womanhood. She helped my mother and me, and I'm sure many more continued ... mothers and daughters just like us, to understand that we could be bad girls and still be good girls. Mame was a complicated, self-fulfilled role model who gave us permission to take off our sensible oxfords, thrust our feet into gold jeweled slippers, and feel fabulous without feeling guilty.
To this day, my mother and I still aspire to be Mame. And both of us, after our own fashion, have come pretty darn close. I live in a pied-à-terre in New York City (read: walkup), and while I don't make bathtub gin, the pyrotechnic-theme bacchanalias that I throw around my joint week in and week out are legendary in my eccentric circle. And lately, I've taken to calling everyone darling, and my friend's daughter Lily has taken to calling me Auntie Bev. And so will Nancy's son Dante, when he finally grows teeth and can get his mouth around hard consonants.
As for my mother, well, she works at the Denver Art Museum teaching kids how to appreciate alternative art, and some weekends she can be found tramping through the remote pueblos of northern New Mexico in search of a new and highly touted Native American potter.
Oh, and she still loves sequins.The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hester Prynne wasn't even a Puritan, but it was just her luck to end up living among that stiff-collared lot when she found herself a young widow with a major jones for that hot stud of a preacher boy, Dimmesdale. One short fling later, she's standing on a scaffold before a community of judgmental, dour, self-righteous men and women who heap scorn on her for daring to indulge in an illicit affair (which is a bit hard to hide when you're a single gal with a three-month-old in your arms). The New England townsfolk hate being faced with a woman who not only takes their punishment but flaunts it. A plain old scarlet A on her bodice won't do for Hester, so she embroiders a dazzling gold A on a piece of rich red cloth. What really infuriates them about Hester, though, is that she won't point the finger at her partner in sin. Without her help, they can't separate out the sinners from the saints and remain secure in their black and white world.
True, Hawthorne's eighteenth-century prose style can be daunting, but his story of a woman who refuses to play scapegoat for a community, and who takes responsibility without flagellating herself, is a terrific reminder of the power of individual conscience and the danger of groupthink. Read this when you need to remember that love means never having to say you're sorry.Points to Ponder
1. If there were a letter on your chest, what would it be, and what would it look like? And would you wear a sweater over it?
2. Why doesn't anybody notice that Hester's kid looks an awful lot like that new preacher who keeps babbling vaguely about his own failings?
Excerpted from Bibliotherapy by Nancy Peske and Beverly West. Copyright © 2001 by Nancy Peske and Beverly West. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.