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Isn’t it good to be lucky? Professional? Effortless? We all know “bitch” is an insult, but when leading women writers were asked about words that have been used against them, they didn’t choose to write about “bitch,” “slut,” or “cunt.” They chose words like “nurturing,” “sweet,”“ambitious,” “mature,” “too.”
Their responses are collected in Pretty Bitches: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, and All the Other Words that Are Used to Undermine Women, edited by Lizzie Skurnick. Each essay offers an intimate, often counter-intuitive look at the influence of a specific word on a woman’s life or sense of self. Together, they are a powerful reminder of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that language can confine us—or set us free.
Katha Pollitt explains why “feisty” is a slight disguised as a compliment; Monique Truong takes aim at “sweet.” Jennifer Weiner grapples with “fat” and Meg Wolitzer with “funny.” Laura Lippman wonders why her impressive creative output makes her “disciplined” rather than, say, “ingenious.” Afua Hirsch takes on the troubling legacy and assumptions of “professional.” Amy C. Choi rails against the false promise of “effortless.” Glynnis McNichol explores how “lucky” subtly suggests that we’ve gotten more than we deserve. But as Rebecca Traister notes in her introduction, perhaps most stunning is the simple word “too” as revealed to us by Adaora Udoji. Udoji writes about a schoolyard encounter: “I didn’t yet know how easily that word could be weaponized against me as a woman, used against any woman, pulled from the ever-ready ‘stay in your place’ toolbox.”
The writers in this powerful collection refuse to stay in their places and they certainly refuse to be silenced. As Traister writes: “When the tools of expression are turned against you—from the extraordinary cunts to the ordinary toos, the intimate fucks to the bruising bitches, the basic nice to the glorious ambitious—what becomes clear is that the thing they want is for us to stop opening our mouths at all.” Pretty Bitches is an assurance that women writers—women everywhere—will do no such thing. It’s also a thought-provoking exploration of language that invites us to reconsider the ways we describe each other and, perhaps, ourselves.
Jillian Medoff is the acclaimed author of four novels. Her most recent, This Could Hurt, landed on many Best of/Must Read lists, including Amazon, Entertainment Weekly, NY Post, Real Simple, O Magazine, and People, among others. She also wrote the national bestseller I Couldn't Love You More, Good Girls Gone Bad, and Hunger Point, which was made into an original cable movie starring Christina Hendricks and Barbara Hershey. A former fellow at MacDowell, Blue Mountain Center, VCCA and Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, Jillian has an MFA from NYU. In addition to writing novels, Jillian has a long career in corporate consulting. She’s worked for a range of employers, including Deloitte and Aon. Now, as a senior consultant with Segal Benz, she advises clients on communication strategies for all aspects of the employee experience.