The Long Tail of the Bitch

Allison Yarrow on her new book, 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality

You could say it began with a Buzzfeed quiz. Remember those distractions, now relics from a seemingly cushier time on the internet? This one, in 2015, called “Which 90s Bitch Are You?” grabbed my attention. Soon after, I learned that an inaugural music festival of 90s artists was in the works. And Hillary Clinton, whose seemingly outsized role in the White House had angered voters that decade, was pursuing the presidency. In various forms, the 90s were returning.

When I revisited the stories of 90s women—Anita Hill, Marcia Clark, Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, and Monica Lewinsky, to name a few—the decade really came into focus for me. Whether women reached for power, were associated with sex or scandal, or simply showed up in public, famous and infamous women during the 90s were bitchified—they were made into bitches in media narratives, and hated on by a deeply sexist society. Thanks to the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle—the new, biggest media stage of all at the time—these stories of women looped constantly. When women made the news they often stayed there for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years. And then they were blamed for overexposure they didn’t ask for.

I came of age during this decade, and I internalized these harsh characterizations of women in the 90s. Thus, revisiting the period wasn’t just about understanding the era that shaped the millennial generation; it was about reconnecting with my own history. What I saw with distance and context was that girlhood was essentially being poisoned by these portrayals of women. The new research on girlhood during the decade showed that girls were losing their self-esteem thanks to unrealistic demands placed upon them by media and society. Girls in the 90s were sold the specter of the “perfect girl” and encouraged to achieve “Girl Power” by purchasing magazines featuring sex tips, and consuming entertainment that celebrated sexually available girls who placated boys. I recognized the struggles of 90s girls in my own upbringing, and realized that these messages about what women could be seeped into girlhood, and shaped not only our perceptions but also the people we would become.

Today, we’re in the middle of another media revolution— social media is as pervasive as it is addictive. And women are still victims—of harassment, abuse, and worse. History has repeated itself again. Maybe we shouldn’t be so shocked that we sit squarely in yet another feminist backlash. But there is hope. We must know our history. If we look honestly at the history of the 1990s, and what the decade did to women, we can prevent history from repeating itself again. We can teach our children and ensure that they know how to detect gender and racial bias, and racism and misogyny in media and in society, and call them out.

In the introduction, Yarrow lets us know that the term bitch is “a gendered insult with a long history of reducing women to their sexual function,” a weapon used “to restrain women and strip them of their power.” Despite its resurgence and apparent rehabilitation in terms like “resting bitch face,” Yarrow finds hollow this attempt to reclaim the term as a signifier of women’s power.