By Elizabeth Stuckey-French
One of the drawbacks of writing from the perspective of a wicked female character is that a woman writer might fear being labeled as a bitch herself. I don’t think the same problem exists for men. Do people assume that Donald Ray Pollock or Dan Chaon or Denis Johnson or Tobias Wolff are just like their awful characters? Don’t think so. My own short story “Junior” is about a pre-teen who tries to drown a younger girl in a swimming pool. After the story came out in The Atlantic, a man who worked with me at ACT in Iowa City said to me in the hallway, “Remind me never to go swimming in the same pool with you!”
When I’ve talked about “Junior” in my undergraduate classes, I mention that I wrote it because I wanted to explore what it would be like to act on a random violent impulse instead of just thinking about it. I ask my students: “Can you think of when you’ve felt or even acted this way? You know, when you have a violent impulse?” About half the students, usually all women, claim to never have had a violent impulse in their lives, until I add, “Well, what about those of you with siblings? Never wanted to strangle your brother or sister?” Then there’s some giggling or sheepish smiles. Nobody wants to acknowledge that young women have any nasty or mean thoughts, but we all know better.
In fiction, it seems, only girls and old women are allowed to be bitches. We give them more leeway to misbehave, to perform cruel acts, make off color remarks and to hold politically incorrect views. Take the narrator of Gish Jen’s story “Who’s Irish,” an old Chinese woman who denigrates her in-laws and her son-in-law, makes bigoted comments about the Irish and blacks, believes children should be spanked, including her granddaughter, and ends up poking her granddaughter with a stick, leaving bruises. My students all love this character and I do too, because after all, she’s just an old lady, and her adversaries, including her Irish in-laws and her pampered granddaughter, deserve the honesty and abuse she dishes out.
In Eudora Welty’s hilarious story “Visit of Charity,” a Girl Guide goes to visit a nursing home in order to earn a badge and ends up shut up in a room with two old ladies, roommates who hate each other and are in the middle of a fight that we quickly realize will never end. The two old women insult each other and wish each other dead, and who could ever be offended? It’s a fascinating train wreck and besides they’re old and useless and hidden away and they’re only bothering each other and a little girl.
There’s a category of bitch I’ll call the stealth bitch. Usually an older woman, her bitchiness is layered over with so many good intentions that we sometimes don’t recognize how nasty her actions actually are. She certainly doesn’t. I’m thinking here of a couple of female characters Flannery O’Connor created during her final illness—Julian’s mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation.” Maybe knowing she was going to die freed O’Connor up to create these two marvelous bitches but I suspect her sense of humor was wicked enough to have done it all along. At any rate, these two women manipulate their children, look down on others, express or at least hold overtly racist opinions, and are sure they have everything figured out.
One of my favorite fictional bitches of all time is Serena from Ron Rash’s novel by that name. Serena is an unabashed, unapologetic bitch from hell. Serena comes from old money and is lovely to look at. She’s smart and an accomplished athlete and loves to kill animals, including some members of her family. There’s no explanation in the novel of how or why she got to be such an evil bitch, just some hints about a fire that killed the rest of her family and suggestions that she might’ve had something to do with it. They probably had it coming. How thrilled I was to read about a woman in her late twenties--old enough to know better but not over the hill-- who saw some butts that needed to be kicked and kicked them. The novel is set in the late 1930s, and at the beginning Serena has recently married a wealthy owner of a lumber company in the Appalachian Mountains, a company trying to strip the forests as fast as possible before the area gets turned into the Smokey Mountain National Park. Serena sets out to drive away her new husband’s business partners—and even have one of them killed—meanwhile taking over the company’s finances. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but Serena does set out to eliminate some other people she feels are in her way and has some success. Some of the fun of this novel is that all the men are greedy, self-centered, smug, sexist, pleased-with-themselves prigs, so they have it coming. Up until her final evil deed we’re cheering her on and feeling guilty for doing so. Serena was, however, written by a man, so nobody would ever accuse Ron Rash of being like Serena.
I think that it’s hardest for a woman to write about a nasty woman character when that character is a mother, because in our society a mother is supposed to be a saint. Once a woman becomes a mother, she gets shoved into a pigeonhole and is expected to stay there, at least until her little charges are out of the house. There have been many fictional mothers who are careless, self-centered, passive-aggressive, manic-depressive, trapped in abusive marriages, but a mother who is bad because she just feels like being bad? I’m having trouble coming up with any.
My new novel, coming out next spring, is called The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady. The main character is a woman in her late seventies named Marylou, who has finally hunted down the man who gave her a dose of radioactive plutonium in a secret government experiment in the 1950s, radiation that she is sure caused her daughter to die of cancer at age nine. When years later she discovers where the evil doctor lives, she decides to move into his neighborhood and kill him. I believe she can do this because her daughter died and she is now an old woman herself. Some of my early readers had problems with Marylou however. They thought it was okay to want to kill the Doctor who preformed the experiment on her, but when Marylou decided to torment his three grandchildren as well, well, that was too much. Making Marylou a kind of surrogate grandmother who was also bitchy and vengeful was too much. Fortunately, my editor didn’t agree.
All this talk has made me want to write about even more bitchy narrators, ones who are bitchy to men, women, and even children. A true bitch masterpiece has yet to be written. We need Serena written by a woman. Or a woman’s version of Tobias Wolff’s “Hunters in the Snow”, about three assholes. Bitches in the Snow. Now that could be a great story.
ELIZABETH STUCKEY-FRENCH is the author of the novels The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady forthcoming in February and Mermaids on the Moon and the short story collection The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where she teaches fiction writing at Florida State University. You can find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=121430124551057&ref=mf