Joanna Briscoe: Confessions of a total bitch...

Slagging other people off is, it turns out, good for us. Praise the devil!
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Name: Joanna Briscoe. Current employment: writer. Interests and hobbies: reading, travel, photography and bitching. How I'd enjoy augmenting my CV with that little truth nugget were it culturally permissible. Gossiping, cackling, slagging off, and indulging in in-depth analysis of others' inexplicable personality traits is a very rewarding way to spend one's idle time, and surely the majority of us devote more hours per week to this particular area of interest than to pilates classes or the opera. I may conduct a hasty poll at the school gate to prove my point.

I'm a bitch. Most of my friends are bitches. And now, praise the devil, bitching is good for us. Women in particular excel at the sport. Kate Figes, a highly intelligent, dues-paid feminist, says so, and if a cultural commentator I respect rather than some patriarchy-pleasing slapper with an eye on the tabloids claims something potentially dodgy, then all the more stimulating. Figes's The Big Fat Bitch Book is due to be published at the end of January and will air some truths about this form of female bonding.

The subject bristles with feminist compromise. We may want to reclaim the term, but if any man calls a woman a bitch, my own hackles rise. Too many cat-fighting, witch-burning connotations come attached. Bitching should be a private activity among a select number of consenting women, and there's all the difference between a covert exchange of gleeful analysis, and the kind of intentional undermining to one's face that some people rely upon to feel less shit about themselves. Ban 'em from the caff, I say.

Since we now see images of David Gest or Kate Middleton more regularly than we do our neighbours, the daily soap opera of life can just as easily incorporate A-listers' marital woes as discussions about our mutual friend's ghastly new boyfriend. So we bitch about Victoria Beckham because publicity addicts like her seem to be fair game, and because, gratifyingly, the average woman of modest income looks considerably better than her even after she's spent thousands of pounds dicking around with her appearance. Gasping and gawping at someone who looks like an anorexic lady-boy but still wants to shove her Vaselined pout at as many lenses as possible serves to make us feel like gloriously curvy, comparatively sane females with proper jobs.

That's essentially what bitching's about. We bitch to feel good about ourselves. We bitch to establish, indeed temporarily falsely elevate, our own positions in the universal pecking order before life's stresses and neuroses drag us down. Bitching is an unpleasant little buoyancy aid. It's quite fantastically enjoyable - a little illicit, sullying, potentially shocking, and ultimately bonding, but I'm not sure it's empowering, because guilt and faint self-disgust almost invariably drag in its wake. Still, the discomfort is worth it ... I've been known to text my best school-parent friend across the playground: "The control freak w. supply teacher style wardrobe is three feet behind you. Look now."

Yes, very grown up. But like moaning and whingeing, mindless bitching is cathartic. It defines the boundaries of your gang. It inspires the cheapest and sharpest jokes. It provides free relationship counselling as you let off steam to your inner circle about your partner. The pressures on women to be good, even in the age of bad mothers and binge drinkers and celebrity crotch-flashers, are subtly, onerously vice-like, and bitching challenges that.

At heart I do feel that we'd be better off without it, that higher pursuits would purify the soul. Given to extremes, however, I suspect that deprived of the daily critical commentary and analysis, so readily fuelled by texts, emails, and the school run, I'd have to go the other way and get me to a nunnery. But then just think of the temptation to take the piss out of the Mother Superior, encourage the virgins to cop off with each other in monthly Sapphic orgies, and generally pass notes, whisper and snortle. "Sister John!" one would hiss. "Who would you rather? Father Joseph in his cassock or the verger's catamite in the refectory?"

Straight men generally don't get it. There's the odd girly-tuned wonder who's perfectly manly yet skilled in the art of the juicy observation, but these are nature's freaks. Men so often consider gossiping women simply vicious, given to hubble-bubble conspiracy or liable to break out in a hissing brawl of shoulder pads, heaving chests and talons like Krystle and Alexis Carrington. They wish. Women are more likely to give it the verbals like Paris and Nicole. When was the last time you decked anyone? We're more likely to analyse a nuance of someone's psychosexual make-up than do the non-bitching male equivalent: punching each other, goading each other to heart attacks on the squash courts or beating each other into a muddy pulp in the name of a friendly five-a-side.

So the bitch will come side-swiping out of her closet this year. Oh goody. The thing is, if you live by the dagger, you die by it. You have to be tough. You have to accept with style that people are bitching about you too. Well, hopefully they are.

Joanna Briscoe's novel 'Sleep With Me' is published by Bloomsbury. Rowan Pelling is away

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