Friday, October 20, 2006

Bitches and Chicks

Manchester Bitch-Lit event last night and Waterstone's packed out for it. This time I wasn't performing, but could sit back and enjoy: delicious performances from Rosie Lugosi, Chris Scholes and Sherry Ashworth.

The tour is over for me now, though there will yet be events in Newcastle, Leeds, York and London. It's been interesting to compare the different events and the different audiences and audience discussions. The 'Bitch-Lit' idea really seems to have struck a chord: events have sold out, with people placed on reserve lists or turned away. (If you still want to go but find it sold out, then reserve a place, because at Manchester some people who had booked failed to turn up - though you might need to turn up on the off-chance.)

In the book and at the readings editors Mary Sharratt and Maya Chowdhry have pointed out that generally in literature female protagonists are allowed to be less trangressive than male ones, or if they are transgressive they must be punished and/or realise the error of their ways. A condition for submissions to this book was that protagonists must not be punished for their behaviour, but must triumph in their transgression. The idea was to counter the censorship on women writers - that sense that you'd better make sure that, in some way at least, your female protagonist can be seen in a good light. The female heroes would be autonomous, answerable to no one, and thus an antidote to Chick-Lit, where your heroine is usually pathetically desperate to get her man (well, that's what they say - I've never read any Chick-Lit myself).

At Sheffield, and especially at Ilkley, you could see that the audiences, mainly female - there were only three men at Sheffield - were really taken by this. 'We're celebrating female badness!' said Mary at Ilkley, and many in the audience grinned and nodded. I have to say that I didn't feel entirely comfortable with this sentiment, though of course it was not completely serious, rather a provocation. I wouldn't exactly celebrate or condone my protagonist's behaviour, I'm simply inviting the reader to understand the extremes of behaviour to which her situation has driven her. At another point (in the book's introduction) Maya says that the women characters in the book are not victims 'lashing out in self-defence'. 'I don't intend to be a victim,' my protagonist says at one point, but it depends what you mean by a victim, and you could say that her act of revenge makes her one, a slave to her vengeful emotions, and as desperate, in a different way, as any Chick-Lit heroine, to get her man. As Suzanne Elvidge, another reader at Sheffield, said to me in the bar afterwards, several of our protagonists are indeed, in this sense, victims lashing out.

As I said, though, in the Q & A at Ilkley, the real difference with this book is that it blows a breath of fresh air over the taboo subject of female badness, and does this largely by reclaiming the word Bitch. As I said then, if we can't say a word then we can't begin to discuss the issues around it, but once you reclaim the word you can break the taboo, and begin to discuss the concept of female badness more rationally.

Most of us were agreed that there has been a real taboo. At Sheffield we were asked if we felt liberated by the book into censoring ourselves less when we write, and even Sophie Hannah said that she did. Sophie is one of the most straight-speaking and independent-minded women I know, and one of the most balloon-pricking of satirical writers, yet she said that it has made her more determined to resist editors' pleas to 'make her protagonists nicer' (and thus, in Sophie's opinion, less lifelike).

Interestingly, however, when I asked Rosie the same question in the Q & A last night, she said that she had been developing in that direction anyway in her writing, and Sherry said that she had never felt censored, even though she writes books for teenagers, an area in which language is inevitably strongly policed by editors. I suppose, however, it depends how far you are already censoring yourself, and Sherry did indeed admit that although she had never been troubled by the b-word, she still found herself shocked by the use of what she called the c-word, a fact which many of the Manchester audience may have found shocking in itself.

It was a different kind of audience last night in Manchester, much more mixed in age and gender. A nineteen-year-old student in a red bakerboy hat said that she felt we were perhaps making too much of it all, and it was the same on the English degree course she had just started, as soon as you get to a woman writer people start on about the feminism thing, it really didn't mean a lot to people of her age and it irritated her, and furthermore she read Chick-Lit and enjoyed it and didn't see anything wrong in it. She clearly felt that there wasn't an issue, as the editors were making out.

The fact remains, however, that when Mary went on Women's Hour to talk about the book, Jenny Murray avoided using that word, as did many of the writers who rang up to inquire about submitting...

5 comments:

Adrian said...

I was with a group of Italian language students a few weeks ago, and one guy asked me whether "bitch" meant "whore" or "prostitute" - I said, oh God, no it doesn't mean that. But it is entirely derogatory - that being a "bitch" is about behaviour rather than a personality trait. I guess that's why it seems uncomfortable the "reclaiming" of the word. For instance, is Linda Fiorentina in "The Last Seduction" a bitch? I'd think she was far more interesting, and calculating than that word implies(similarly, Lady Macbeth.) Then of course, its a word with common currency in rap music, where it is used almost as a synonym for "woman." (They always refer to bitches and hos,so clearly bitches aren't whores, at least!)Yet in the 70s it was clearly a misogynistic term, the Rolling Stones' "Bitch", Elton John's "The Bitch is Back", Joan Collins in "The Bitch." Whereas nowadays its probably only gay men who really use it!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, at Ilkley one of the questions was: did we think men could be bitches too? I didn't think at the time to mention that when I was telling my gay hairdresser about the book, he absolutely assumed it was a book about men, and was completely disappointed and slightly baffled when I told him it was a book of female protagonists.

Elizabeth Baines said...

And it's interesting that you think the word 'bitch' doesn't include the idea of being calculating, as this is precisely how most of the contributors (if not all) interpreted it. But this is precisely the point: if a word is taboo, it's just surrounded by inchoate and private associations/emotions and we can't rationally discuss the connotations.

Bournemouth Runner said...

You're probably right - and I was just being a bit too nice! - but calculating behaviour is unequivocally bad - rather than excusable "heat of the moment" behaviour.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Not so sure about the 'unequivocally'. Can't people be placed in situations where it's their only choice of behaviour? The idea of traditional 'women's wiles' is a case in point.