The journalist Allison Yarrow remembers seeing an online quiz that surprised her. It invited users to learn “Which ’90s Bitch Are You?” At the time, she was surprised — “I hadn’t really thought of the ’90s as returning for reassessment or nostalgic treatment” — but it sparked the idea for her new book.
In “90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality,” Yarrow examines the cultural narratives — some as old as civilization itself — that found powerful expression in the era’s addiction to the 24-hour news cycle, reality television, and popular culture. What she discovered was a persistent and pernicious trend toward reducing women to a set of stereotypes, many build around the idea of the “bitch.’’ The term dates back to ancient Greek and Roman texts in which women are compared to dogs begging for sex, Yarrow said, a way to “reduce them to their sexual function.”
“When I began to look at the media coverage in particular, it became very clear that any woman who made the news in the ’90s, whether she had power or was reaching for power, whether she was in entertainment or politics or the news, she was pretty systematically bitchified,” Yarrow said. “It didn’t matter if it was Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, Courtney Love, Anita Hill — even fictional women, they faced the same treatment.”
Although the 1990s also saw efforts to turn a slur into an affirmation, Yarrow said, “I think the term is still problematic.” And the conversation around it remains relevant, she added. “I started researching the book right around when Hillary Rodham Clinton announced she was running for the presidency,” Yarrow said. “And when she lost, it became very clear to me that a lot of the stereotypes that were ascribed to women by the media narrative and by society in the ’90s absolutely played out in the election. They’ve been the same for eons.”
Yarrow will be in conversation with Steve Almond at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.