Award-winning journalist Allison Yarrow is a former deputy digital editor at the Forward and a National Magazine Award finalist who has also written for, among others, The New York Times, the Washington Post and Vox. She was a TED resident and author of an ebook about the sex abuse trial in Brooklyn of ultra-Orthodox counselor Nechemya Weberman.
She returned to the Forward offices to chat with the Forward’s executive editor Dan Friedman about her new book “90s Bitch” which analyses the media’s treatment of women in the 1990s, including prominent Jewish women.
Dan Friedman: Welcome back Allison!
Allison Yarrow: Thanks, it’s good to be here.
Tell us how you came to write the book.
I saw, I think it was a Buzzfeed quiz, which asked “Which 90s Bitch Are You?” This must have been 2014 or 2015 and I realized we were heading for 90s nostalgia. So I started to go back and look at the decade. I grew up from 8 to 18 in the 90s so I went back with a nostalgia lens, but I found was shocking and dispiriting. But illuminating. Women who had power, or who were reaching for it, in politics or news or the media were “bitchified.” The media narrative was, in general, that any women who stood out, were “bitches” or “sluts” whose access to power was unearned. So I wanted to go back to investigate those narratives more deeply.
This is not a promotion of the term. I’m not reclaiming it. The word and its derivatives were used in 90s to undermine women. I went to look for definitions of the word — one of the first I found was in old dictionary of 1890s slang, “bitch” was described as the “most horrific appellation” you could apply to a woman.
But the origins are Greek and Roman. Calling a woman a “bitch” is not just calling her a dog, but is defining her in terms of her wild sexuality — begged for sex like dogs in heat. Even modern use is tied to these ancient definitions.
There’s no real reclamation of the term. “To Bitch” is to complain; “Boss Bitch” is someone who abuses her (unearned) access to power; “Basic Bitch” is someone who is skewered for her consumer choices.
And of course men don’t get accused of having, “resting bitch face.”
No. Monica Lewinsky by the way. Her own lawyer — Howard H. Ginsberg — compared her to a “caged dog with her 24 year old libido.” So the idea is there even when the word itself isn’t used.
So how did this “bitchification” happen?
Is started with cable news. After the first Gulf War, the cable news stations had set up a 24-hour news cycle infrastructure which needed constant content. And they found Hollywood was cheaper than war. In this media revolution women who made the news, stayed in the news.
And women were covered using a cache of sexist stereotypes. Bad Mom, Bitch, Angry Woman and Too Manly to be Real Woman (Janet Reno). They also used the Erotomaniac after the success of the movie “Fatal Attraction” seeded the trope of a woman who could threaten men with sexuality and could get violent when thwarted. You see this used in the treatment of Lewinsky, of Anita Hill, of Marcia Clark.
Three of the personalities you discuss were prominent Jewish women. Monica Lewinsky, Monica Geller (well, Courtney Cox!) and Roseanne Barr. Two of those are right back in the news. Let’s start with Lewinsky.
So, as I said, she was portrayed as a “bitch.” In the immediate aftermath of report the media painted her as the perpetrator. They said she “wore lipstick as early as 12,” they chased her to her hairdresser — she even had to change hairdresser. The LA paparazzi even ran into her car when she was visiting her father there. Despite her intelligence she was pictured as a ditzy, predatory White House intern.
But she was also blamed because she was ambitious and, in interviews, she owned her sexuality. That was key. In 1997, the median age of marriage was 25, there were new possibilities to delay marriage, there was new access to birth control. Women had more choices and, even if there were problems with how they were shown, in “Living Single,” “Sex in the City” (which just celebrated its 20th anniversary), “Allie McBeale” alongside Monica Lewinsky showed a new kind of woman with a new kind of power; and media pushed back on it harshly.
Because, in the 90s, women by and large weren’t telling their own stories. Over the decade, women characters on prime time only gained one percentage point, from 38% - 39%. So a sexist society foists these stories on its audience and for a young woman, there’s no space to be yourself.
Women were 24% of executive producers, 31% of producers, 21% of writers, 16% of editors and just 3% of directors by the end of the 90s.
Wow, that’s all, by the end of the decade even?
Yup, those are the figures for the end of the decade. I don’t know what those figures are now.
Its amazing that Roseanne and Monica Lewinsky are so topical again. Why do you think that is?
For Monica, it’s because we haven’t fully reckoned with her story. We’ve heard so much more about Clinton’s side. Even in the recent “Today Show,” interview — right in the #MeToo moment — he didn’t apologize, he got defensive.
But we’re too obsessed with getting that apology from him rather than interrogating the news media that shaped an entire generation, that’s when my generation came of age, and how we learned about ambition and possibilities for ourselves as women.
One interesting thing to note about Lewinsky is that, because she is Jewish, a lot of the media portrayals of her played into JAP stereotyping: the tony private school that she attended, her hair and nail appointments were reported on to feed this storyline of a young woman who was Jewish and with money. That was another way of disparaging her.
And Roseanne Barr is back too. She was a very different type of person, working-class, comedian, self-made, someone who seems to be in charge of her own destiny. And, in terms of the show, in charge of her own portrayal. How was she dealt with in the 90s and why is she news again?
Something funny that happened between me writing the book and it coming out was that Roseanne reappeared, became a sensation and flamed out.
What’s important to remember about Roseanne from the 90s is that she shaped American comedy at that time. Just as much as Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, David Letterman — and she isn’t credited with that.
She had an incredibly successful television show based on a persona she’d developed doing standup across the country. This domestic goddess nudnik overweight, clipping coupons in frumpy sweats mouthing off at her children and threatening their lives for the sake of comedy. One of her kids says “I’m going to go jump off a cliff,” so she says “Well take your brother and sister with you.”
Housewives really were drawn to this humor at a time when you couldn’t critique this domestic goddess trope. She had a number one show for years and the first time she was number one, the studio execs sent her a chocolate number one. She says that the stars of other number one shows got Bentleys and Porsches as gifts and she says that she and George Clooney threw up in the air, hit with a baseball bat and sent a picture to her bosses.
So, if it’s as she tells it, there’s a clear sense of sexism in that story!
It was a really important show, but she was maligned for being overweight and for being crass. Her most famous joke — and I love it — is, “To people who say I’m not feminine, I say to them, Suck my dick!”
So the trope of the manly woman who is not feminine enough to be a woman applies to Roseanne.
We want to bring back “Roseanne” because of 90s nostalgia, but it’s ironic that Roseanne was able to shoot herself in the foot because of her free unmediated voice.
Yes, it’s difficult to remember that even so recently there was nowhere to hear directly from people. Her “suck my dick” joke was part of a routine but you were beholden to what television news media, news magazines, newspapers and radio said about you, they were in charge of the narrative that we were all fed and which we internalized.
There was no room to push back. There was no Twitter to push back on.
So, what can we do from here?
We have to make sure that ‘90s nostalgia doesn’t become ‘90s amnesia. We’ve had the “Roseanne” reboot, “Miranda” from “Sex in the City” [ed: Cynthia Nixon] running for governor of New York and a Murphy Brown return in the fall. But we need to be Jewish — we need to know our history and learn from it, here in America.
We need to understand the real history of bitchification in order to hold today’s media accountable.
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.