A Difficult Woman: Why Elizabeth Wurtzel Is A Narcissist Who Still Matters

Hugo Schwyzer responds to former feminist icon and author Elizabeth Wurtzel’s cringe-worthy essay in New York magazine.

“I don’t want to end up like that.”

So tweeted my 25 year-old friend Danni in response to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s rambling, wince-inducing Sunday night essay in New York Magazine. A young feminist icon in the 1990s for her books Prozac Nation and Bitch, Wurtzel has spent much of the 21st century marginalizing herself from progressive conversations in which she was once centered. After years of complaining about the priorities of the Third Wave feminists who drew inspiration from her books (see her infamous 2008 essay The Bitter Ashes of Burned Bras), Wurtzel has turned her gaze inward once again, with seemingly disastrous results.

“I am a free spirit,” the 45-year-old Wurtzel declares near the end of what Slate calls an “incoherent” essay; “I do not know any other way to be. No one else seems to live as I do. In a world gone wrong, a pure heart is dangerous.” That sort of grandiose, adolescent self-pity mixes freely with the flashes of incandescent prose that made Wurtzel a role model to a generation. It’s no surprise that the most critical response to Wurtzel’s essay has come from those who were her biggest fans. Kerry Cohen (a Role/Reboot contributor), notes in the Huffington Post that Wurtzel helped inspire her own memoir, Loose Girl. “Wurtzel named a truth for us that psychology wouldn’t touch,” Cohen says, “but until she has something new to say, something that is still truly about our generation, I wish she would stop.” The once-celebrated enfant terrible has become the embarrassing aunt who never grew up.

For several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I assigned Wurtzel’s second book in my women’s studies course. The subtitle of Bitch was “In Praise of Difficult Women,” and I wanted my students to read her fierce defense of women who refused to play by the rules. In a world where so many girls are raised to be people-pleasers, Bitch was a manifesto for those who were tired of being told that they were too loud, too hungry, too ambitious, too horny, too angry, too much. 

Though my students usually sell back their books at the end of each semester; they rarely sold back Bitch, choosing instead to pass it on to friends and younger sisters. What my class loved best about Wurtzel was her insistence that in a confusing, bewildering, painful world, the best choice was to be authentic, even when that authenticity infuriated others. The implied promise was that all of that honesty and boldness would pay off in the form of a more deeply fulfilling life. My students—most of whom grew up in far less privileged circumstances than Wurtzel—ate it up.

Wurtzel doesn’t repudiate her old call to prioritize autonomy and adventure over security, but she does acknowledge that it has all come at a price. “Convention serves a purpose,” she has decided; “it gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis.” And Wurtzel is in one hell of an ongoing crisis: “I have spent an amazing amount of my life in tears,” she writes. One can almost imagine the glee with which anti-feminists might read that. If it hasn’t been written already, somewhere some pious defender of traditional gender roles is cobbling together a schadenfreude-drenched column in which Wurtzel appears as the ultimate object lesson about the dangers of feminism. Indeed, part of the fury at Wurtzel now is that her self-indulgent train-wreck of an essay provides such an easy cudgel for social conservatives to use against progressive young women.

As exasperating and bewildering and narcissistic as her essay is, there’s a way in which Wurtzel is doing something more important than indulging herself at our expense. Her work is defiantly at odds with the dominant writing today about gender, defined as it is by long Atlantic articles that eventually become books. This is the era where ambitious women are advised to settle for Mr. Good Enough, warned that their own achievements have brought about the end of men, and sternly reminded that they can’t hope to have it all. Yes, it’s an era of incredible feminist activism, but it’s also an age in which even many progressive women’s voices encourage women to diminish their expectations. To Wurtzel, that emphasis on sober compromise is at the heart of what’s led to our “world gone wrong.” She may be more self-absorbed than ever, but she’s also doing what she’s always done: playing the lonely contrarian.

Wurtzel and I were both born in 1967, the same year as doomed Generation X icons Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain, and Anna Nicole Smith. Those of us who are still alive are now unequivocally middle-aged, closer to 50 than 40. We’re at the point where, for many of us, “settling” is at the heart of who we’ve become, as our ambitions narrow and our waistlines broaden. We’re at the point in our lives where a refusal to grow up and act our age is embarrassing to our juniors, and most of us know it. So if there’s anything inspiring about where Wurtzel is now, it’s that she’s refusing to live by the rules of growing older. She won’t act her age, even at the considerable risk of appearing pathetic to those who idolized her. If only her self-regard weren’t quite so high, that defiant refusal would be considerably more heroic.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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