Unknot your knickers. This is not a piece about derogatory female descriptors, the politics of which have been hotly debated in recent weeks, thanks to conservative talk-radio hosts and a couple of new television titles that employ the b-word, including Don’t Trust The B**** in Apartment 23, which premiered this week on ABC and CITY-TV. If you object to the word bitch, by all means sub in “harpy,” “Queen Bee” or the name of the girl who spread that herpes rumour about you in high school. Regardless of what we want to call this female archetype, the fact is that the entertainment sphere is seeing a lot of her these days.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon. The rhymes-with-witch has been played to Oscar-worthy, era-defining, tracksuit-sporting perfection several times over (Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Joan Collins in Dynasty, Jane Lynch in Glee, respectively). But we do seem to be in the middle of a modern mean-girl golden era.
Last month, I and seven million other viewers watched as the TV season’s most infamous instigator – The Bachelor’s Courtney Robertson – submitted to a televised lashing at the hands of her former cast mates on the Women Tell All episode, which is basically a class reunion where the discarded suitor-ettes come together for closure and/or retribution and/or one last chance to get their face on TV.
With glistening eyes and uncharacteristically submissive posture, Robertson, the woman who had previously played the Cruella de Ville to this pack of lovesick puppies, apologized, begged for forgiveness, and insisted that in real life she is a sweetie pie – a disappointing about-face, to say the least. As a card-carrying bitch, Courtney (whose 15 minutes are still very much in play on the tabloid racks, thanks to an ongoing are-they-or-aren’t-they relationship with Bachelor Ben) had been the most compelling reason to tune in to what has otherwise become a pretty stale set-up.
I’m not saying I wanted to hang out with her. But watching as she systematically eviscerated the competition through a series of intimidation tactics, lies and skinny dips made for sinfully delicious entertainment. To see her cowering felt like that horrible moment when we learn that the Great and Powerful Oz is just an ordinary old man. “Bring back the bitch,” I wanted to scream – and apparently someone was listening. Because while Zooey Deschanel’s kittens-and-cupcakes revolution dominated the entertainment dialogue of the fall, this current crop of delightfully snarky and spiteful femmes proves that a bitch will always claw her way back to the top.
At her worst (read: best), she is even capable of saving an otherwise mediocre show, as has so far been the case with Kristen Chenoweth’s Carlene Cockburn on the new and not particularly great GCB (that’s Good Christian Bitches – think Desperate Housewives with church and semi-automatics). Tanned and toned and dressed in outfits befitting a Toddlers and Tiaras contestant, Cockburn is a former ugly duckling turned grade A b-word who delivers one liners (“Cleavage makes your cross hang straight”) so we almost see the smoke coming off her imaginary finger pistol.
The same can be said of another collagen-dependent, prime-time she-devil, Revenge’s Victoria Grayson, played to pinched perfection by Madeleine Stowe. Often seen staring out the window of her Hamptons megamansion (silently plotting the downfall of the villagers below), Victoria is as self-serving and calculating as they come, happily backstabbing a BFF and exploiting her own children in service to her modern-day wicked-queen agenda, which mostly involves avoiding social disgrace and financial ruin.
Returning next week after a nearly two-month hiatus, Revenge was a viewer favourite out of the gate, its popularity probably having a lot to do with the fact that it is unapologetically lowbrow – a juicy nighttime soap in a sea of new shows chasing Mad Men prestige or Modern Family hilarity. If these critical darlings are dinner, Revenge is dessert, and Grayson is the (poisonous) cherry on top. The timing didn’t hurt either. Seeing the one per cent depicted in spoiled and self-obsessed opulence is an affirmation of Occupy Wall Street-fuelled fury, even if the baddies in question seem more concerned with tan lines than tax breaks.
At the other end of the financial spectrum, bitchery also abounds. As with the leading ladies in Two Broke Girls, Whitney and Are you There, Chelsea?, the titular bitch in Don’t Trust the B**** In Apartment 23 is a mean girl of limited means, hence the need for a roommate (read: victim), which is the premise of the pilot. Voted one of the most promising new shows of the season, Don’t Trust the B**** is a classic Betty-and-Veronica set-up, except that in this case, Veronica (a.k.a. Chloe, played by the awesome and appropriately raven-haired Krysten Ritter), steals Betty’s rent money, screws her fiancé and also happens to be BFFs with Dawson from Dawson’s Creek – James Van Der Beek, playing a hilariously douchey version of James Van Der Beek.
Real-life Chloes have been making headlines a lot these days, “bitch” in certain circumstances being a synonym for bully. This may also account for the fictional mean-girl fetish: We love watching women at their wickedest in entertainment, because in real life the proposition has become entirely too risky. You can barely tune into a talk show these days without encountering a set of teary-eyed parents talking (most frequently to Anderson Cooper) about their child who was the victim of schoolyard torment or the cyber equivalent. The new and beyond-heartbreaking documentary Bully reminds us that being cruel to one another has become a matter of life and death. Better to indulge an appetite for evil in the no-risk/high-reward realm of fabricated insults and scripted smackdowns (and of course, I’m including the catty realities of the aforementioned Bachelor franchise and the just-released Real Housewives of Vancouver under the “scripted” banner).
The small screen is not the only place bitches are finding a berth, by the way. This season, two live-action reboots of Snow White are in theatres, and both pay homage to a character once reviled for her meanness: the Wicked Queen. Mirror Mirror stars Julia Roberts in a role that makes good use of her signature cackle; in Snow White and The Hunstman (out in June), Charlize Theron plays the villainous spell-caster to Kristen Stewart’s butt-kicking Snow.
Making a promotional appearance at WonderCon last month, Theron was told she plays evil really well. Her response – “That’s because I’m a bitch” – was tongue-in-cheek, but it was also a celebration of the kind of woman she excels at playing and loves to play: calculating, mean and occasionally (as in 2003’s Monster) murderous. Theron continued: “Picasso had his blue period, and this is my bitchy period.” Amen to that.
Special to The Globe and Mail