It’s the 21st century. In the United States, women vote, work alongside men, have legal rights and access to birth control, and obtain high education degrees. The #MeToo Movement has publicly called out sexual harassment in the workplace. Congress has never been so racially and sexually diverse as they are this moment. But despite these cracks in the ceiling, why does it still feel like women are treated as 'the second sex'? Why does every powerful woman have to contend with being labeled a bitch?
This fight is embedded deep within the roots of patriarchy. The derogatory term 'bitch' originally referred to a woman acting like a rowdy female dog in the heat. Of course, comparing a human to a hormonal animal is in no way a compliment, and overtime, the term “bitch” has taken on many meanings. As discussed in Netflix’s History of Swear Words, “bitch” became associated with a promiscuous woman and is generously applied in this context. From Regina George in Mean Girls to that fake Taylor brunette cheer captain in the music video for “You Belong With Me,” we all know a classic bitch when we see one. But these weren’t the first femme fatales in American culture.
Let’s browse through our high school reading list, shall we? The Crucible features one of the most notorious femme fatales of all time: the man–stealing girl–who–cried–witch Abigail Williams, with whom our protagonist, John Proctor, must contend. Another seductive power player in the literature canon is East of Eden’s Cathy Ames, who sets the American standard for Grade–A bitches with her heart shaped face, secretly murderous streak, and whorehouse business she uses to keep men in their place.
Both Miller and Steinbeck’s pieces of historical fiction were published in 1950s America by white men. Could these pieces perhaps reflect the male fear of powerful women? Reading these stories in the 21st century, many students find holes in these classic bitch portrayals. For instance, shouldn’t we consider both Cathy’s and Abigail’s traumatic pasts as potential influencers in their 'immoral' paths? Should we not pity these young women who, in the eyes of men, may have been wreaking havoc, but in the eyes of many female readers, are simply trying to survive patriarchal societies?
It’s become so commonplace for white misogynistic writers to demonize potential threats to male dominance that many readers readily accept the established femme fatale archetype. But looking at these characters through a modern feminist perspective, we might see Cathy Ames and Abigail Williams not strictly as villains, but also victims to American rape culture.
Flash forward to the eve of International Women's Month in 2021. In art, business, and politics, society still suppresses full female self–actualization, splintering women into multifaceted identities. In some of our most celebrated leaders in pop culture, we watch individual revolutions in the female spirit. One of the hardest roles a woman has to break artistically is the 'good girl' mold society originally scripted for her. Celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, who started careers during their childhood, are prime examples of this struggle against society’s investment in perpetual innocence—primarily, perpetual female innocence presented in youth.
Taylor Swift has taken a strong lead in redefining who she is as a woman, breaking out of the little girl mold by killing the old Taylors in her 2017 music video "Look What You Made Me Do." Much like Cathy Ames, whose girlish facade feels like a betrayal to all the men who fell for her, many fans felt swindled by Swift's change in attitude. But like the O.G. femme fatales we read about, why shouldn't Swift change her attitude? Why should Swift, a 31–year–old self–made woman, have to be exactly who she was when she was 16 years old? We don't hold the same expectations for the Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber. Female celebrities, like Swift, are faced with the decision of either avoiding or exploiting their sexualities. Why can the James Bonds of society get away with routine promiscuity, while the one–time–thing Hester Prynnes get branded with a Scarlet A for all to see?
Despite Swift’s many suggestive performances that refute her childhood innocence (particularly following her releases of reputation and Lover, with her new wardrobe in fishnet stockings and a body suit), we all still want to view her as the “Old Taylor”—little Miss Tennessee with an acoustic guitar, singing about high school sweethearts. And although the virginal youth stigma is misogynistic, artists like Swift and Cyrus have ultimately benefited from society's good girl typification. But unlike many white female artists who we try to perpetually see in a state of innocence, BIPOC female celebrities experience the opposite.
Black and Latinx celebrities are continually fighting against being overly sexualized. Pop artists such as Cardi B and Lizzo are constantly portrayed by the media as hypersexual figures. The music industry itself reinforces this stereotype by choreographing sexually suggestive songs and music for BIPOC singers. Some artists, like Lizzo, outwardly acknowledge the sexualized boxes society has pre–prescribed, singing, “I just took a DNA test, turns out I'm 100% that bitch.” In these ways, 21st–century badasses are reclaiming the once offensive term “bitch” by becoming “that bitch.”
Other artists also refuse to feed into the music industry's sexism. Billie Eilish is known for being so conservative about placing her body in the public eye that she wears overly baggy clothes. Eilish once lamented to a reporter, "Though you've never seen my body, you still judge it, and judge me for it. Why?" Pop and indie artists like Alessia Cara and Phoebe Bridgers react similarly to our patriarchal society through both their music and stylistic choices. Bridgers is most recognizable in her skeleton pajamas, while Cara wears a masculine, oversized suit and tie on the cover of her album Growing Pains, suggesting not only the struggle of growing up, but growing into womanhood in a man's world.
Looking at our fearless femme fatales of the decade, it’s time for us to reverse the stigma that comes along with being a powerful woman. Though there remain many glass ceilings to break, the cracks have been deepening more than ever, especially with the first female vice president inaugurated this past January. It’s about time to be that girl, that badass, and in Lizzo’s kind words, 100% that bitch.