As I watched the Duchess of Sussex give her extended acceptance speech for Best Performance As A Victim — played as a cross between Bambi and Beth from Little Women — my overwhelming feeling was of disappointment. Readers may recall that I once wrote long and loopy love letters to her in this very magazine, embarrassing in their unctuousness — ‘Meghan Markle has rescued her prince!’ — but I went off her when her bid for secular sainthood started. The allegations of tiara tantrums brought me fresh hope. Could it be that behind that innocent face, all damp eyes and trembling lips, lurked a superannuated Mean Girl? She’d have made such a good one. And we bitches could use the recruits.
Looking back, I don’t blame myself for growing up to be a bitch. It was my parents’ fault for letting me spend wet weekends watching all those Golden Age Hollywood films, usually starring Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis, and culminating in The Women, the 1939 sparkling cyanide of a comedy by George Cukor. At one point Joan Crawford, as a shop girl cutting a swathe through the married men of a higher social circle, rounds on their spouses and informs them: ‘There’s a name for you ladies — but it isn’t used in high society, outside of a kennel.’ Even the 12-year-old me knew what she meant.
Then there was glam rock. When I wasn’t mainlining Hollywood, I was staggering around in silver platformed boots at the local teenybopper disco to songs like ‘The Bitch is Back’ (Elton John) and ‘Queen Bitch’ (David Bowie) absolutely delighted that men could be bitches, too. The following morning I would lurk in my purple bedroom with the curtains closed and calm my Babycham hangover with nuggets from the twin titans of literary bitchery, Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker. The great luxe soap operas — Dallas, 1978–91 and Dynasty, 1981–89 — were just around the corner and in their spotlight were a brace of brilliant bitches; Sue Ellen Ewing, played by Linda Gray, and Alexis Carrington Colby — not so much played as taken out like a Borzoi on a long lead by the ultimate bitch-goddess, Joan Collins. She summed up the difference with which men and women are treated: ‘I wouldn’t be “nice” to studio heads and it gave me a reputation of being a bitch because being witty and hard was accepted in men like Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde but not in a young woman.’
Indeed, Miss Collins was both the personification of the word in show-business (her comeback was in the 1979 film of her sister Jackie’s novel The Bitch) and also an arch admirer of the woman who took the b-word into politics, Margaret Thatcher, who won her first general election in the same year. There was a 1979 song by the Village People called ‘Ready for the Eighties’ (ironically, it would be their last hit) and as ambitious women squared up to the new decade, we really knew that if we couldn’t cut it in the world of work then all our glittering quips counted for nothing. The 1980s was the decade when the bitch came out of the bedroom and into the boardroom, her eye on a prize somewhat more prestigious than some other woman’s rich husband. It was as if seeing Mrs Thatcher enter No. 10 suddenly gave substance to our discontent. Ambition was now not a curse but a benediction. When the young Madonna was asked about feminism and answered ‘I believe in everything they do, but I was too impatient — I had to do it for myself’, she crystallized the bitch doctrine; not anti-feminist but fast-track feminist, open to anyone tough enough to walk the tightrope without a safety net, trusting that they might fly.
The 1980s were also useful in clarifying the fact that the left is no friend to women. The ditch the bitch placards carried on anti-Thatcher marches showed their hand then. But it wasn’t until the modern left embraced wokeness that the bitch really had her talons clipped. Wokeism is not a revolutionary but a reactionary movement, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the modern left’s attitude to women’s issues. Every other oppressed group is told to riot. Women: #BeKind. The social commentator Laura Bishop told me: ‘While shopping for my kids I noticed that there are so many items of clothing which say Be Kind. They are all in the girls’ and women’s section. Every. Single. One. It’s like indoctrination.’ And it’s not like men aren’t more in need of reminders to Be Kind, as rapes and domestic murders continue to be this country’s most thriving areas of endeavor. Women are being castrated by being encouraged to view kindness as the best quality they can have. Though I’ve loved the book since I shoplifted it at the age of 12, I never really understood what a ‘Female Eunuch’ was for most of my life. Since the world turned woke, I certainly do.
It would be easy to be dismayed as I take stock in the dog days of my life as a bitch. But it’s best to look on the bright side — and already I hear hissings of discontent on the near horizon. ‘I just took a DNA test / Turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch,’ smirks the splendid young pop star Lizzo, while Sherry Argov’s 2003 book Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat To Dream Girl is back on the bestseller charts after going viral on TikTok with ‘Gen Z’. For a new generation of young women, accustomed to porn-sick men trying to take liberties with them, the lure of being a Hard-Hearted Hannah is tempting. So beware of the bitch; she’s back and this time — with so little to lose, as it’s all being given away on our behalf, from toilets to sports tracks — her bite will be much worse than her bark.