Is it possible to tell your girlfriends the hard, honest truth without being labeled a bitch? Laurel Hermanson explores.
Bitch: “An insult propagated into Old English by the Christian rulers of the Dark Age to suppress the idea of femininity as sacred.” —Clare Bayley, “Bitch: A History”
My husband and I once had friends over for a dinner party. We were sipping wine on the back patio when Etta James’ “At Last” began playing in my carefully curated CD rotation. One man took his wife’s hand and said, “This was the song we danced to at our wedding.”
I said, “You and about a million other couples.”
Right away, I knew it was awful. Everyone stared at me and there was an awkward silence while I’m sure they were thinking, What a bitch. This happened almost a dozen years ago, but I remember it because it was such a bitchy comment, and I didn’t apologize.
What a bitch. How many times have you said these words, or heard them, or worse, had them directed at you? I’ve called women bitches, and I’m sure plenty of women have said the same of me. It feels good to dismiss someone you don’t like with one simple word. Yet, while we all have our bitchy moments, we don’t deserve to have that label slapped on us unless we’ve really earned it.
I’m not talking about men who call women bitches, or the double standard suggesting strong men are assertive while strong women are bitches. I’d rather explore the social and cultural dynamic between women, and whether or not we appreciate the difference between kind women who are sometimes thoughtless, and women whose layers of bitchiness run so deep they overshadow any good qualities.
Not too long ago, a friend mentioned that I have an edge which may be off-putting to some people. I was surprised. I thought I had matured and improved the filter that catches my thoughts before they become words. So I starting paying more attention to my language, and I found myself sounding caustic or tactless when trying to be funny.
Rarely is my humor intentionally mean-spirited, but there is a line between dry and acerbic, sarcastic and mocking, or even funny and not funny. And that line is constantly shifting in one’s mind based on mood, social setting, or how well they know a person. I imagine a few people who might have become friends decided I was a bitch before getting to know me.
Bad jokes aren’t my only missteps. I once had a close friend who was in a difficult relationship. I had heard awful stories of how this man mistreated her, and I’d been supportive for years. But during a phone call when I was busy at work, I became impatient. I said, “Why do you stay with him? Do you really expect him to change? Honestly, I’m starting to lose respect for you.”
Those thoughts had been in my mind for a while, but I had kept them there because I knew they would be hurtful. But that day, rather than supporting her, I criticized and judged her. Afterwards, I told myself she needed tough love, some real honesty to help her see she was making a choice to be unhappy.
At the time, I was newly married. I had a good job and a busy social life. I was pleased with my place in the world and the decisions I had made to get there. I was still young enough to believe that anyone could be happy if only they made the right choices.
Decades later, I’m still ashamed of the part of myself that thought it was OK to be so cruel. Regardless of how close we were or how honest we’d always been with each other, my honesty didn’t help her “see” anything but the end of our friendship. I don’t blame her. And all those great choices I’d made didn’t deliver lasting happiness.
My perfect life fell apart eventually, and at times I felt judged by good friends. They may have been trying to help, but I wasn’t any more interested in their honesty than my friend was in mine. When one girlfriend questioned my decision to date after my divorce, suggesting I should focus solely on my daughter, I thought how easy it must be for someone who’d been happily married since college to judge me. Bitch.
Sometimes when I’m with girlfriends we gossip about mutual acquaintances, but that gossip can quickly devolve into unkindness. Call it a guilty pleasure, but in the moment we rarely feel guilt outweighing pleasure, or we wouldn’t do it. Most of us know at least one woman we love to hate, one we consider a true bitch. If we have no real ties to the woman, venting among friends—giving and receiving validation that this person is that awful—can be cathartic.
That’s what I tell myself, anyway. But then I see something like this, from Roxane Gay’s funny and insightful “How to Be Friends With Another Woman” on Jezebel.com: “Don’t tear other women down because even if they’re not your friends, they are other women and, well, this is just important. This is not to say you cannot criticize other women but understand the difference between criticizing constructively and tearing down cruelly.”
If we’re honest with ourselves, we acknowledge our own bitchy behavior and strive to be kinder next time. (There will always be a next time.) And we explore our motivations.
When I join in criticizing another woman, it’s usually because certain traits in that woman—narcissism, hypocrisy, dishonesty—bring up my issues of jealousy, resentment, and mistrust. Sometimes it seems there’s nothing left to say other than, God, she’s such a bitch. While that may feel good, is it healthy to linger in such a negative vein? If they really are bitches, they don’t deserve our emotional energy. And again, they are other women. (See above.)
One dynamic that confuses me is when a woman maintains a public pretense of friendship with another, yet privately trashes her. I can only speculate why women do this. Some friendships are truly dysfunctional: corrupted by power imbalance, codependence, or abusive behavior.
Maybe the disempowered friend believes the other woman will help her professionally, socially, or personally, or fears retaliation if she ends the relationship. Perhaps the codependent woman feels incapable of making difficult life decisions without her friend’s input. Friendships may be abusive if one woman is demanding, controlling, manipulative, and bestows just enough affection to keep the other hanging on.
As in dysfunctional romantic relationships, ending platonic friendships may be scarier than the reality of staying in them, clinging to what few affections the other woman provides, yet always hoping for more. Psychology Today published “Toxic Friends: When Friendship is No Longer Healthy,” an interesting take on how to recognize and end toxic friendships.
Friends drift apart, emotionally, geographically, socially. We have arguments that are too damaging for the relationship to survive. When I think of women who used to be in my life—in big, meaningful ways—I often feel regret. Sometimes I miss them. With the exception of a few, however, I don’t think of them as bitches.
Those ex-friendships that bother me years after they ended are a different story. I don’t hate those women, but in my not-so-proud moments I call them bitches or psychopaths or narcissists. But this is the heart of it: In my better moments I understand that they are either mentally ill or suffering from emotional damage that makes it impossible for them to enjoy true intimacy. They might think the same of me, and maybe they’re right. I have to acknowledge that I’m damaged enough to make some friendships more complicated than necessary.
If we can find compassion in the fact that some women are incapable of forming strong, lasting female friendships, our hatred can turn to empathy, our bitterness to acceptance. I don’t know that we must forgive them or forget how they hurt us, but we don’t need to perpetuate the cultural dynamic that paints difficult women with the broad brushstroke of bitch.
I have a network of close girlfriends who I think of as my extended family. Yet I still struggle with how to talk to those in difficult or unhealthy relationships. I consider this, also from Roxane Gay’s piece: “Tell your friends the hard truths they need to hear. They might get pissed about it but it’s probably for their own good. The other day my best friend told me to get it together about my love life and demanded an action plan and well, it was irritating but also useful.”
I can’t imagine repeating the words I said to my friend years ago. Now I say, “I see you making choices that I don’t understand, and I’m worried about you.” But even this has backfired. Why can’t I tell those hard truths and still be a good friend and a good woman? I’d like to believe that my close friendships are solid enough that I can say what I’m thinking in a compassionate way without the risk of losing them. But I fear they will decide I’m a bitch.
Am I a bitch? I don’t know. Maybe that’s not even the right question. If I can find compassion for those women I used to consider bitches, maybe I should allow myself the same kindness. Perhaps the answer is to stop trying to label other women and ourselves, and to avoid casually throwing around such a loaded word.
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.