Cue Joan Crawford in The Women, from 1939. ‘There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society – outside of a kennel’.
It is now, Joan. The word is bitch and it has been off the leash in popular culture for at least 30 years. It’s very flexible – noun, verb, adjective. ‘Life’s a bitch’, ‘she’s bitching about her boyfriend’, ‘bitching haircut’. And the variations – beeatch, beeotch, bayotch. It’s now a term of affection, like bastard: ‘I got some fine bitches by my side,’ says Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids (2011), when her girlfriends converge for the pre-wedding dinner. It can describe a power relationship – the ‘door bitch’ or ‘make you my bitch’. There’s even a specific kind of assault, the ‘bitch slap’.
In movies, there is one dominant kind of bitch – the teenage version. Ten years ago, Lindsey Lohan starred as a home-schooled kid thrust into an American high school in Mean Girls, a comedy that has come to define a generation. Tina Fey wrote the script, adapting a self-help book called Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman. Lohan plays a sweet girl who grew up in Africa; she’s adopted by The Plastics, the dominant female clique run by Rachel McAdams, with Lacey Chabert and Amanda Seyfried (in her first film) in support. These three beauties wear expensive clothes that pass for fashion in the school; they shop without need or economic hindrance; they bully and victimise everyone (including each other) without challenge. Lohan’s character infiltrates the group in order to wreck it. Of course, becoming a Plastic makes her change too. Bitchiness is contagious.
The film had a major impact on teenage girls in 2004, partly because it dealt intelligently with the reality of girl-on-girl bullying, but it was by no means the first successful teen bitch comedy. Ten years earlier we had Clueless, written and directed by Amy Heckerling (that’s unusual in itself – many of these comedies are written and directed by men). Alicia Silverstone was hilarious as Cher, a spoiled 16-year-old brat with a heart of gold. That’s the variation: she ought to be a bitch, but she isn’t. Cher adopts new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy), a sad duckling with rough-edges and no taste in clothes. Everything goes wrong as Cher and her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) make the new girl over. Tai becomes the new school bully, a bitch created by Cher. The script reimagines Jane Austen’s Emma, and it was as influential in its time as Mean Girls, ten years later.
In Clueless, we see the rise of the mobile phone as a networking tool. The bitch teen film would be nowhere without this accessory: it’s the weapon of choice. Cher and Dionne talk by phone across the school corridor, ten metres apart; kids talk on their phones in class. In one scene, Cher sits down for dinner with her father, a high-powered lawyer (Dan Hedaya) and her ex-stepbrother (Paul Rudd). A phone rings. All of them reach instantly for their handsets. Heckerling was more perceptive about the disruptive power of this new technology than any of us knew.
Does the rise of the mobile phone parallel the rise of the bitch teen movie? I think so, and one may even be propelled by the other. The first commercially available mobile phone came out in 1983, just as the American teen movie was exploding. There had been teen movies before, of course, particulary in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, but the trend took off again in the early 80’s, with Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (82), Risky Business (83), Sixteen Candles (84), The Breakfast Club (85) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (86), not to forget Pretty In Pink (86). Most of these were male-dominated, but they established a new frontier. Teenage audiences would embrace teenage movies that were about teenage problems, if they were funny. It’s true that getting laid was the main problem in the boy movies (hence Porky’s and its sequels), but the late John Hughes took the teenage movie into girls’ hearts and lives, especially when he discovered how good an actress he had in Molly Ringwald.
Ringwald and a coterie of great young actors gave us more realistic teenagers based on American archetypes: ‘a brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse’, as the trailer for The Breakfast Club put it. By 1988, the backlash had set in. Heathers, written by Daniel Waters, turned the high school drama on its head by adding a body count (like Carrie, but satirical). Winona Ryder as Veronica is adopted by three archetypal bitches, all named Heather, who control the school social ladder in the same way that Rachel McAdams and her pals would 15 years later in Mean Girls (directed by Mark Waters, brother of Daniel). Ryder wants to kill them and Christian Slater, her new boyfriend, thinks that’s a good idea. So they do.
Heathers is the mother of all modern teen bitch movies, the one that sets the pattern: expensive clothes, rampant bullying, Machiavellian power plays, unlimited affluence, a complete absence of parental authority, and incompetent teachers. That’s the thing about the teen bitch movie: they’re not just about teenagers. In part, they’re about the failure of one generation to nurture another. Parents are literally absent from most of these movies. The kids are raising themselves and doing a bad job of it. Life’s a bitch, after all.