Finally, the Bitch Has Her Day

From Reese Witherspoon as Election ‘s high school overachiever from hell to the Blair Witch bully who sends her sniveling

From Reese Witherspoon as Election ‘s high school overachiever from hell to the Blair Witch bully who sends her sniveling cohorts to their doom to Nancy Marchand’s Mafia hit mom on The Sopranos , have there ever been so many nasty, conniving, ball-busting females in leading roles? Or so many whimpering men on the run? Ashley Judd cuts a homicidal swath through Double Jeopardy and Eye of the Beholder . Then there’s Gina Gershon’s corporate Insider mugger and Jessica Lange’s revenge-mad queen in Titus . And Annette Bening’s uptight, sex-depriving wife, Sharon Stone’s abusive muse and Catherine Keener’s snippy office worker. Nineteen ninety-nine was a banner year for bitches, and that’s without a single grand-opera turn by such queens of mean as Christina Ricci, Glenn Close and Kathy Bates.

Should we be insulted or exhilarated by these displays of talons and claws?

There have, of course, been grand grotesques of the female persuasion in life and literature and art since time immemorial. Playwrights and poets, architects of popular culture, haven’t needed feminism (or movies) to supply the male imagination with images of scary and wicked women. Lysistrata, Clytemnestra, Medea, Shakespeare’s viragoes and murderers. Even Hera, the mad schemer, in the perpetually unmanning anxiety to which she subjected her lordly Zeus, showed how insecure the alpha male can be when faced with the strange combination of women’s low prestige yet mysterious power.

Victorian writers were in a quandary. The home-and-hearth goody two-shoes was the ideal-docile and devoted, the perfect little wife-yet the schemers and heartless beauties won their sneaking admiration. Thackeray’s endlessly sniveling Amelia is, morally and technically, the heroine of Vanity Fair (and the pallid tribute to his idealized mother), but Becky Sharp is infinitely more arresting and memorable. Trollope begins The Eustace Diamonds , about the rivalry between a gentle governess and the cunning widow whose dubious possession of the vexatious jewels propels the plot, with these words: “It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies-who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two-that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length as we might do if we loved her.” This ‘unloved’ woman thereafter appears on practically every one of the 900 pages of the two-part novel, while the sweet and honest Lucy Morris must be palmed off with the occasional admiring bromide as she waits quietly and patiently for the hero to come to his senses.

It was no accident that the Victorians, those Jekylls and Hydes of divided consciousness, enshrined the two extremes. Heroine was synonymous with virtue, yet notions about the “new woman” were in the air, pressing on Trollope (his own mother had gone off to America with a group of feminist utopians) and infiltrating his characters and his commentary.

Today, there are good bitches and bad bitches. Most male film critics don’t acknowledge this, assuming that women would-and should-be offended by the purely malignant versions of themselves, especially in the film noir genre. In fact, most of us adore these lethal spider women, respect their guts, their boldness, their giving as good as they get. And feminism seems to have upped the ante, adding career and status and, yes, empowerment to the mix. Take Ms. Bening’s character in American Beauty , who is reduced to nasty housewife caricature, while Kevin Spacey’s cipher-in-revolt is given a rounder, more interior viewing. But what a caricature! She fills the screen, tackles nastiness (and housecleaning) with a kind of insane, comic glee.

Bad bitches, in my book, are not so much unredeemably wicked as they are unforgivably insipid and therefore dramatically uninteresting-representing male hostility (or self-hating female contempt, as in the women of Patricia Highsmith) and not much else. The pathetic, the ugly, women so base or unlovely or clueless you want to look the other way, the ones who suffer from a flatness of imagination on the parts of their creators or misogyny unrelieved by humor, lust, ingenuity, empathy, complicity.

Good bitches are the others, the women we love to hate or hate to love, the ones that, however morally deplorable, are dramatically interesting, artistically successful. They usually earn our respect along with our ambivalence, and they generally have qualities we might prefer to those of the more modest heroine: beauty or wit or style, intelligence and audacity.

There’s always the underlying implication that a woman with any intelligence, any real spirit, looking at a world which allows so little room for her unconventional urges, is bound to become a little warped, her talent and ambition twisted by anger and resentment.

In today’s lurid melodrama, the male view of the bitch tends to be grander, wilder, more outsize-what he’d be if he were a woman, while the bitch imagined by female authors is more realistic, even domestic. In the women’s terrain of A Map of the World (adapted from Jane Hamilton’s novel by Polly Platt and Peter Hedges), the bad bitch is Chloë Sevigny’s promiscuous waitress mom, the good bitch, Sigourney Weaver’s housewife-nurse, an angry, intellectual woman out of step with the gossipy community and hence vulnerable to their lynch mentality. By contrast, in Stephan Elliott’s voyeuristic Eye of the Beholder , Geneviève Bujold’s detention-house mistress runs a bitch-in-training program borrowed from La Femme Nikita wherein female felons learn to talk tough, carry guns and wear wigs. As one of these wayward girls “rehabilitated” to return to the outside world and destroy men, Ms. Judd’s testosterone-outfitted warrior woman seems to have more to do with male pulp fantasy than with anything interesting in the secret lives of women.

The secret and not-so-secret life of women are terra incognita to Oliver Stone, but the babes in Any Given Sunday -Cameron Diaz as the club owner and Lauren Holly as the wife of aging quarterback Dennis Quaid-while not in-depth specimens or likably nasty, are at least interesting twists on old stereotypes. What if-Mr. Stone seems to ask-the female owners of sports teams weren’t sun-wrinkled, Scotch-swilling, foul-talking dames but their equally foul-mouthed but luscious daughters? What if, in the male action picture (where “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”), the little woman, instead of begging him not to go into battle, threatens him with clenched teeth to get his sorry sagging-ass body onto the football field, or else!

Sure, the new breed of postfeminist bitch is fun for a moment’s provocation, but isn’t there more to it than that? Finally, the Bitch Has Her Day