Bitch Please: Claiming and Reclaiming Words

anxiety, sex

In a new novel I’m currently pitching to agents and publishers, I introduce one of the main characters as an “alcoholic, bulimic bitch.” She arrives in chapter three, so not everyone gets a sample large enough to include this part, but the language makes me nervous anyway.

It’s not because I think it’s linguistically inappropriate. It fits the character, genre, temperament; the language is right. And this is both how others see her and how she often describes herself. It fits.

However, I am a man and I know that this word is loaded. Bitch. When I was a kid, it had very specific applications. Men called other men bitches to reduce them, to emasculate them, to suggest that they were weak. Not men. Sometimes it meant they were so soft that they were actually the property of the person defining them that way. You’re my bitch, you do what I say.

It was basically the same if a woman called a man a bitch, maybe worse, but with the same meaning. However, if anyone called a woman a bitch, it meant pretty much the opposite. That she was strong, tough, spiteful maybe, self-serving, unkind and uncaring. Driven beyond compromise. It wasn’t exactly a reduction of femininity, but it was reserved for a certain type of mean woman.

The polarity of any single word fascinates me. Bitch isn’t about who says it, who has a claim on it, really. But it changes meaning depending on who it is being thrown at.

Of course, my brother called me a bitch when he wasn’t calling me a runt or whatever else. My mom didn’t like that and she told him as much. It was heavier than it seemed like it should be.

The other form of the word is as a verb: to complain. And sometimes verbs become nouns because they describe a behavior that is so common it creates a condition, a type. A person who bitches too much might be a bitch. A whiner. But what does that mean? Which genders does it apply to in this context?

In high school, or maybe in college, I noticed that women were self-applying the word. They’d say, “I’m going out with my bitches,” or they’d run into some friends and say, “What’s up, bitches?!?!”

Sometimes gay men do this, too. Maybe there’s a subtle freedom in already identifying as what the oppressors are worried about being mistaken for.

In an excellent piece for The Paris Review, poet Danez Smith asks if we can reclaim a word that was never ours. They explore several other incendiary words along with discussing intent, audience, audacity.

The essay concludes:
Who owns language? Does my man-shaped body have any hold on a word that is a violence thrown at women? Where do I get off using “bitch” to capture my love for my menfolk friends? This is the danger that I live for, the bad words with definitions forever in flux, words that show us how tonal and relational English can be. Bitch, in another man’s mouth, a knife. In mine, sugar. In mine, a knife if some stranger hears it. And here is where I make an intention: to never use bitch the way it’s been used against good bitches, to drain the poison from the wound until it’s just another door to the body, a door from me to you, my good bitch.

I see this and I believe I get it. It’s real, raw, true. And I know I’m not exactly describing the character in my new novel affectionately. But she would say it about herself, I keep hearing myself say in defense. Yes, maybe, but also not affectionately. More like self-deprecation. She might say it about herself, but she wouldn’t like to hear it thrown at her like a rock.

Too many of my friends have told me about ugly pursuits made after them by creepy men. Men who are overly sweet and immediate toward strangers, who turn into monsters just as fast when they don’t get any sweetness in return. Men who think that a pretty lady or whoever is on the other end of their Hey baby is suddenly a bitch for not showing them some warmth.

I respect Danez Smith’s desire to re-frame bitch into a context where a recipient only feels inclusive affection, but the core of the word is rooted culturally, generationally somewhere else. Can it change that quickly? Or like they say in the essay, how does a stranger’s ear consider the unknown intent?

My character, Abbie, embodies all that being called a bitch can be. She’s mean; she’s bitchy, whiny; she’s also a friend, an intimate who gets to be affectionately called out for her antics. But since she’s my invention, does that mean I get to treat her the same way her friends do? Does it matter who I am?

Maybe I’ll get the chance to frame this as a discussion question or something eventually.
Or maybe I just did?

Sweetgum’s Own Voice

anxiety, sex

Author’s Note:
In a previous post, I introduced a character from my past named “Derek.” That’s not his real name, and so I’m not sure why I broke from the established (by me) convention of naming my characters after trees. I’ve done it with all the women, but not all the men. Admitting this makes me feel sexist. But instead of going back and editing the last essay to “correct” my error in judgment, I’m just going to ask for forgiveness. I’ll openly say I made a mistake, okay? Furthermore, Derek will now be known as Sweetgum, but it’s the same dude.

The cheerleading squad held tryouts in the fall and announced their picks before winter break. The new lineup became active at the start of the spring term and remained through the next semester. This meant outgoing seniors never cheered the second half of their last year. But they still painted their faces and attended spirit events.

I don’t know if this is the established schedule for high school cheerleading, or if it was just that way at my school. It doesn’t really make sense to me, but nobody asked my opinion.

During our junior year, Sweetgum and two of his buddies decided to reboot the tradition of yell leaders, the name given to male cheerleaders. We hadn’t had any of these in about four years, which means our class had gone through high school having never seen any yell leaders on campus.

It doesn’t matter that they existed at many of the other seventeen area high schools we played sports against. And it didn’t matter that men had been part of cheering squads traditionally for as long as there were cheering squads – which was what, decades? Maybe a couple centuries? I’m not going to waste my time doing the research.

But as far as the bullies were concerned, Sweetgum and his friends were weirdo jerk faggots. Why? Because cheerleaders were girls. Their chief tormentor was Sandy Smith, a soft-bodied rich kid too entitled and undeserving for a pseudonym (maybe Crabgrass applies, but at least crabgrass is useful). Sandy was a vile child who thought he was super fashionable because he shaved the lower ¾ of his head all the way around and dressed in a manner that probably annoyed his parents. He wore “shreds,” extra wide-leg jeans with the bottom hems cut off and left to fray, and oversize polo shirts (barf) to go along with his spaghetti string gold chain necklace. The kid had big teeth and tracks of braces and to imagine this pineapple head brat as a bully now is laughable. Thinking he and his friends are now all likely parents is a scary thought.

At some schools, the cheerleaders represent the elite mean girl super hot and popular visible top notch of the social structure. But at other schools, it’s just an elective club populated by some cliquish subculture or minority who like to dance and wear uniforms and flirt with jocks. My school was somewhere in the middle, but leaning closer to the first one.

The ladies on the team welcomed Sweetgum and the other two, for no other reason, than because it was nice to get some solid stalks for the base of their pyramids. They were neither attracted to or repulsed by these boys, whom they immediately adopted like younger step brothers (but not in the cliché pornographic sense, trust me).

The irony, of course, is that Sweetgum and his buds joined the squad because they wanted to be visible and get closer to girls. It was the opposite of the toxic masculinity tossed at them from Sandy and company. I truly believe if they were actually out gay men Sandy would have been too intimidated by their confidence to talk trash to them.

But it was insecurity on both sides – Sandy’s taking the form of overcompensation, while Sweetgum risked nothing to taste the sweat of the angels – that made them adversaries. They were the same, now that I think about it, except Sweetgum was courageous at a time when conformity amounted to safety.

I no longer remember the point, if I ever had one. I’m sure neither of these guys remember any of this, which makes me wonder why I’m thinking about it at all.

Maybe the answer lies in a speech Sweetgum delivered at the end of his run. I guess the idea was to encourage underclassmen recruits to keep the tradition of cheerleading in pants alive. “Nobody will think you’re gay or anything,” Sweetgum said. He said other things about it being fun and good exercise and all that, but this is the line that stands out. “Nobody will think you’re gay or anything.”

This was probably true, but who knows? Some people certainly said that being a boy cheerleader was an indication of homosexuality. There is plenty of room for a debate about gender expectations and assumed sexual orientation and all viewed through a contemporary lens. But I’m not going to indulge in that at the moment.

I will ask, why did Sweetgum think it was important to add this? It’s ridiculous. And I’ll say I know with almost certainty that Sweetgum did not mull it over first. He wasn’t the type to think before he spoke, or consider the words he said for long afterwards either.

Gay is now a lot more mainstream, of course. Maybe it’s not en vogue exactly, but marginalized voices are almost di rigueur for the storytelling industries. I don’t have a problem with that because I understand the importance of optics. And I believe in equal rights. Also freedom from social stigmas, inasmuch as this is possible, would be nice.

But here’s the thing: I’ve never been one to make much association between arbitrary activities and sexuality or sexual orientation anyway. Sexual activities might suggest one’s sexuality, but other activities? One sport versus another? Theater? Look, I worked as a Beauty Advisor and Makeup Artist for seven years. There are not many straight men doing that. Mostly it’s women. And plenty of these women, and many gay men assumed I was gay simply for being there. I wrote a whole big blog about it asserting my straightness, though I sometimes wish I hadn’t done that. I sometimes wish I was more gay, though I do recognize the fluidity of the spectrum much more now. Can one be more gay? Or less gay?

The associations have never made much sense. What’s a man’s man? What’s a sissy? Is it how you look, how you talk, what you do, who you do it with?
Is it emotional literacy relevant? Real men can cry, right? What’s a real man, though?

Cisgender heterosexual (usually white) men seem to be the ones committing the most acts of domestic terrorism in America. Is that a reach? I’m not saying it’s because they’re closeted gay or anything like that. I am observing that they don’t seem to know how to relate to each other in a philadelphian way.

A guy like Sweetgum – who by the way later joined the military after dropping out of a very good California State University – is not likely to become a mass shooter. Why? I don’t know. But I know he’s not an alienated dude.

Once Upon a Time in the Movies

booze, sex, Uncategorized
Patricia Arquette in True Romance (1993)
Patricia Arquette as Alabama Worley in True Romance.
Credit True Romance photo gallery on IMDb.com

In a recent episode of HBO’s Euphoria, the character of Cassie Howard (played beautifully by Sydney Sweeney) goes to a Halloween party dressed almost perfectly as Alabama Worley. Actually, she goes to two Halloween parties, but before the first one, her boyfriend makes her change. He thinks she looks too slutty and does not seem to get the reference.

At the second party (the next night), she hooks up with a guy who not only gets the reference, but charmingly compliments her choice and decision to wear the costume. But then he wants to go farther than she does, and when she stops him, her berates her about how worthless she is as anything other than a sex object.

That’s different from what happens to Alabama Worley in True Romance, who faces off with a hitman (James Gandolfini) in the third act, and takes a horrible beating from him. 17-year-old Cassie, who must have seen True Romance by way of a streaming algorithm recommendation would not have been thinking about that after the party, though. She’d have been thinking about how jerkish the boys in her life are, and rightfully so.

True Romance was released in theaters about nine years before Cassie Howard would have been born (Sweeney is 21).

Cassie might recall, probably much later, that Alabama ends up brutally killing the hitman with a shotgun after smashing him in the head with a toilet tank lid. It’s a rough fight, but she wins, and later saves her husband Clarence (Christian Slater) in addition to absconding with the drug money. And so she is the ultimate hero of the story and they live happily ever after on a beach in Mexico with their son, Elvis – named after the ghost of Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer) who occasionally visits Clarence when he needs advice.

Tarantino wrote the original screenplay, but he sold it, so his ending – where Clarence dies in the gunfight and Alabama gets away, but kills herself later to join him in death – was changed. Director Tony Scott said he just liked Clarence and Alabama too much not to see them happy in the end of the movie. In an early draft of the True Romance script, Clarence was writing his own screenplay, which Tarantino ultimately took out and wrote into its own script. That sold, too, and became Natural Born Killers, though Oliver Stone did some rewrites that left Tarantino displeased.

Patricia Arquette played Alabama Worley, making the character, by way of Euphoria maybe, something of a fashion icon now. But she was always an example of feminine empowerment, I would like to think. Arquette, of course, has become a vocal critic of Hollywood traditionalism, an advocate for equal pay and treatment for women in the industry.

I always liked True Romance, not least of which because I had an early sexual experience while it played on VHS in the background. It’s a pretty immature story, so maybe that makes sense. And the idea of a teenager going to a party dressed as Alabama Worley these days is not much different from me going to a party in 1998 dressed as Billy (Dennis Hopper) from Easy Rider.

Dennis Hopper directed Easy Rider, of course, and he also appeared as Clarence Worley’s father in True Romance. He is mentioned once by name in Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. When the murderous Manson followers show up in the Hollywood Hills, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) yells at them, calling the guy in the car “Dennis Hopper,” an obvious reference to the hippies in Easy Rider.

This scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in August 1969, and the murder that’s about to happen when Dalton comes out of his house would be a few weeks after Easy Rider premiered. Dalton would have known about that film, maybe seen it, and probably not liked it. Ironically, although that’s possibly the point, Easy Rider was indicative of an era of New Hollywood independent film – a major influence on Tarantino. What he did in The Nineties was a direct result of what happened in the late Sixties and Seventies.

Amusingly, if you like this sort of thing, Sydney Sweeney plays one of the Manson followers, though not one of any consequence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Maybe Tarantino is making a comment on the way acting is sort of cyclical that way. Here is a young woman who appears in a series playing homage to an iconic character written by the director of a big movie that she also has a bit part in, released that same month…

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is all about actors, of course. And it’s no accident that the bad guy character Rick Dalton plays during a major sequence in the film is designed by makeup and wardrobe to look more or less like Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider, a cowboy style hippie. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is meandering and plotless in a way that working in Hollywood often feels like, going from one project to another and hoping you’re noticed, that you’re presence is felt, that your role or the way you play it is big enough to get you more work.

In his memoir On Writing Stephen King says that situational stories are better than plot driven stories, and so he’d probably like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (also because it’s nostalgic for a time he probably enjoyed, cinematically speaking). But the situation in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is difficult to define. It’s more of a phase of life, something often vague and arbitrary, though easy enough to describe for an actor of that period.

Dalton was a 1950s TV cowboy, the lead in a long dead series, who’s now exploring other opportunities. These include guest appearances on similar shows with different leads, a stint making action and war movies, and possibly venturing into the spaghetti westerns popular in Italian Cinema at the moment.

That’s the situation. Obviously a character study, and subtle in the way that aging often is. By contrast, Dalton’s stunt double and bestie, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) entertains no illusions about a fading career. He’s resourceful and along for the ride.

To really enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you really have to love cinema, and by extension Los Angeles, and appreciate some history of both. History, that is, that pays attention mostly to the look and feel of the time and place more than the facts. Hollywood Cinema has never been overly concerned with the facts of matters anyway. The form of popular feature presentation hardly allows for it, though honesty in this method of storytelling has more room to grow.

Rick Dalton, living in the alternate universe Tarantino has created for him in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is an inside out example of most of Tarantino’s early successes. Like John Travolta, who was playing the goofy sidekick to a wisecracking baby (voiced by Bruce Willis) in Look Who’s Talking (+ sequels) before he found renewed cool in Pulp Fiction. And David Carradine was nowhere to be found before Kill Bill. Rick Dalton is waiting for a director like Quentin Tarantino to come along and make him relevant again.

Tarantino acknowledges that it probably cannot happen, since Dalton is simply a character he made up, and one who’s likely to die soon-ish, if all that onscreen coughing is an indication of anything. He is also a heavy drinker and smoker. So maybe Dalton is the reason Tarantino made his early movies the way he did. And so all that’s left is make him a hero one last time. That’s why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends the way it does.

Transparency: I loved watching Margot Robbie play Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but the story isn’t about her at all, which is why I did not mention her above. There are a lot of complaints out there about Robbie/Tate not getting enough lines, having her conversations silenced by narration, that viewers never get inside her. Those are fair commentaries. While she’s lovely to see going to the movies in Westwood by herself to watch herself and appreciate the audience’s reaction to her performance in some terrible Dean Martin schlock, that’s about all her character gets to do. But we know what will eventually happen to her, and so seeing her go about her life innocently oblivious is devastating enough. It also creates a disturbing tension about how meaningless Rick Dalton’s struggles might be, considering what’s going to happen to his neighbor. Then again, maybe not.