Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel (Quartet, pounds 12.50)

Tuesday's book

Already a (male) commentator in this newspaper has had a go at Elizabeth Wurtzel as an "all-round Bit of a Handful", speculated about her nipples and denounced her as a Manhattan opportunist. The only surprise is that he didn't call her a bitch, because in every other way he proved her point. Her 1994 bestseller Prozac Nation established Wurtzel as a Bad Girl hung up on depression and fellatio. In Bitch she analyses other bad girls - biblical broads, Lolitas, trophy wives, suicidal depressives and groupies. They assert their sexuality. They are strong and independent. But they are also feared and blamed for using sex to bring men down.

This is, of course, old hat, as Wurtzel knows from the range of feminist writing she quotes. But her numerous analyses of recent films and contemporary "difficult" women show how little things have changed. Patriarchal constraints on women are no longer political. Now they are internalised as each woman's personal problem, to be addressed via therapy and self-help books. Anyone who wishes for a popular feminism pitched between Natasha Walter's inanely rosy pragmatism and Andrea Dworkin's apocalyptic visions will welcome this book.

Wurtzel vacillates between celebrating the bitch persona (Bette Davis) and cautioning against it (the Long Island Lolita, Amy Fisher). Similarly, her wild and woolly prose had me yo-yoing between admiration and admonition. Her survey of the sexual politics of popular US culture is encyclopedic. Sometimes her insights are striking. Women are forced to be manipulative and to exploit sex when they lack access to more direct forms of power. But "sex, itself, in a workaday sort of way, is just sex. And if you use it as a weapon, the only person you will wound is yourself". She also reminds us that date-rape victims don't know how to say "no" because they don't know how to say "yes".

Sometimes she can seem off the wall. An account of why OJ's wife Nicole Brown Simpson stuck with her abusive husband ends with Wurtzel romanticising domestic violence on the basis of her own sadomasochism. There is also an almost exclusive focus on beautiful women, plus a peculiar assumption that a college education is necessary for women who want to get a life. Panic over being left on the shelf makes Wurtzel strangely unquestioning about marriage and children.

In the end Bitch leaves me feeling too English. Overblown and under-edited, Wurtzel's prose often reads like a drug-induced stream of consciousness. Nor does the provocative nude photo emblazoned across her cover seem altogether wise. I doubt if Bitch will give the word a positive overtone - at least in British English. Yet a nation which in 1996 voted as its favourite post-war poem Jenny Joseph's "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple" - a dismally tame vision of female rebellion - badly needs more Wurtzels.

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