Courtney Love, Hilary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Marcia Clark, Tonya Harding and The Spice Girls taught women as much about how to be as how not to be.
In her new book, 90s Bitch: Media, Culture and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, author and journalist Allison Yarrow shows how the “bitchification” of women continues and how being called the b-word still stings for most all of us.
The 90s landscape of power—whether through television, popular culture, politics or media—was shifting to include more women. But women were diminished through sexualization, demonization and cruel dismissals meant to reduce and undermine them to powerlessness.
“Bitch does not have a 21st century version,” Yarrow says. “It still is meant to objectify and silence women. I wanted to dig into the history of the word itself.”In her new book, 90s Bitch: Media, Culture and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, author and journalist @AliYarrow shows how the bitchification of women continues and how being called the b-word still stings. #GenderEquality Click To Tweet
A veteran award-winning journalist, TED resident and grantee of the International Women’s Media Foundation, Yarrow says the use of the word dates back to ancient Greece when men called women dogs in heat who begged for sex. Later, “It was called the worst appellation for an English woman, worse than whore,” says Yarrow.
The contemporary use of the word is often referred to in “resting bitch face,” “Boss Bitch,” or the word as a verb, meaning to complain. “I am skeptical whether we have reclaimed the word,” says Yarrow.
Growing up in Macon, Georgia, Yarrow says her 90s childhood spanned from when she was 8 until she was 18. She came of age when Madeleine Albright was one of the most powerful women in the world, and Monica Lewinsky was in a relationship with the leader of the free world; both of them “bitchified” in the media.
“I was returning to the 90s with nostalgia,” Yarrow says. But her research and digging found a darker, less liberated and more oppressed way women were achieving notoriety and progressing to parity.
Billboard magazine recently had its own nostalgia week saluting women in country music, highlighting the female superstars of the 90s. “Spearheaded by crossover queens Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks, the late-‘90s country female movement also included Jo Dee Messina, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack and LeAnn Rimes. The genre had seen its fair share of female superstars prior — Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire, to name a few — but the ‘90s brought the women of country to a worldwide level, reaching a pinnacle point in 1998.”
As in the swath of popular culture, the promise of equality in the 90s in music was not sustaining.As in the swath of popular culture, the promise of #equality in the 90s in music was not sustaining. Click To Tweet
“The extent to which women were limited in their progress was shocking,” says Yarrow, who worked at NBC News, The Daily Beast and also as a facilitator with The OpEd Project (where we were colleagues) after graduating in 2005 from the University of Georgia.
“My prescription for parity,” Yarrow says, “is we need to investigate and interrogate the story of this history. And if we don’t know what the 90s did to women, then parity is even farther away from us.”
Looking at the legacies of Marcia Clark, Tonya Harding, Anita Hill and Lewinsky, is to look at women who were diminished, sexualized and nearly destroyed for their outspokenness. “Any woman who was reaching for power was absolutely subject to this,” says Yarrow, who produced the documentary, “Misconception.”
“The forward motion of the 90s seemed to build on the 80s, a decade of hallowed female pioneers in diverse fields. Sally Ride traveled to space. Geraldine Ferraro secured the vice presidential nomination of a major political party. Alice Walker and Toni Morrison won Pulitzer Prizes for their epic, women-centered fiction. Madonna smashed barriers in music, entertainment and popular culture,” Yarrow writes in Time. “Because these firsts and many others were so widely celebrated, society assumed these trailblazing women would also cut a path for all women to advance in work, entertainment, politics and culture in the years to come. At last, the dream of gender equality would be realized.”The landscape of power in the 90s was shifting to include more women. But women were diminished through sexualization, demonization, and cruel dismissals meant to reduce and undermine them to powerlessness. #GenderParity Click To Tweet
And while the decade of the 90s was pre-24-hour news, pre-social media, pre-virality, the media revolution now allows for women’s narratives to be labelled even more quickly and negatively. Think nasty women. Think social media’s ubiquitous sexist, violent trolls.
The emerging 90s research on girlhood that was emerging was also pathologized, with new insight into self-harm for girls. “The unrealistic perfect girl ideal was everywhere,” Yarrow says.” Only now do I realize how limiting that was.”
Ironically, this was a time of the Riot Grrrl, and the unleashing of female anger and rage. The Girl Power Myth, Yarrow says, is that it was self esteem from the outside in, not the other way around. The mother of two daughters ages 3 and 1, Yarrow says there is a lot to learn from the 90s and much to avoid.
“The misconception is the 90s fixed sexism and it was a time for girl power,” Yarrow says. In reality, she says, “Girl Power was a shopping spree.”
Bustle magazine recently reported on an AskReddit thread comparing 90s sexism to 2018 sexism. “As we progress as a society, the hope is that, with each passing year, things turn out a little bit more equal than they were the year before. That often isn’t the case, unfortunately — but it can still be worth looking at how things have changed and how they haven’t,” writes Lucia Peters. “Indeed, as a recent AskReddit thread discussing how everyday sexism in the ‘90s differed from the sorts of everyday sexism we experience in 2018 makes clear, things can change for the better… but sometimes, they don’t change as much as we think they do.”
In the decades since, acknowledging that some women refer to each other affectionately with the B-word, Yarrow maintains, “I still think the word is inseparable from the context and the way you see it used still makes people uncomfortable.”
Yarrow adds, “I’m not the language police. I don’t advocate to get rid of any word. Words are used to sublimate and we have to look closely at the context and the people using it.”