Author Allison Yarrow on her book, 90s Bitch

Wmc Fbomb Allison Yarrow 62218
Credit: Allison Yarrow

From Hillary Clinton to Anita Hill to Monica Lewinsky, even those of us who were born in or after the 90s know that these women were infamously skewered by the media in that decade, their categorization as “bitches” at the time persisting far past it. But why were these women, and so many others, maligned by the media, vilified by popular culture, and objectified in the marketplace during this decade?

Feminist writer Allison Yarrow seeks to answer that very question in her new book 90s Bitch.

Yarrow talked to the FBomb about how and why this “bitchification occurred,” as well as its implications for current and future generations of feminists.

How did you first approach analyzing the media’s portrayal of women in the 90s?

When I returned to investigate the decade, I did so with a lot of nostalgia; I was really returning with my memories from my own 90s childhood. I was 8 to 18 years old during the 90s, so I remembered the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the Anita Hill hearings, the Rodney King riots, and the OJ Simpson trial. I also remembered that had strong feelings about many of the women [central to those events] like Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and Marcia Clark (the lead prosecutor of the O.J. Simpson trial). I had this notion in the back of my mind that [these women] were bitches, but I realized it couldn’t possibly be true that all of these individual women who I knew about in the 90s were bitches. There had to be something else at work that was framing this for me.

I’ve been a journalist covering gender for 13 years, so when I turned my journalistic lens on this decade, and excavated a lot of news articles and different documentation from the time period, I found that women who had power or who were reaching for power or who were in politics were systemically what I call “bitichified.” They were undermined, objectified, and maligned for simply being in public. That was universal — that was [the treatment of] any famous or infamous woman at the time. That trickled down to girlhood and nonfamous women, too.

Why do you think the “bitchification” you describe occurred specifically in the 90s?

In the early 90s we saw a media revolution: the onset of the 24-hour news cycle and the promulgation of cable news. After the Persian Gulf war, CNN and others created this infrastructure that allowed for broadcasting around the clock. In the 90s most people were getting the news from cable TV, newspapers, magazines, and the radio. With television, people were getting the same story at the same time, and that was really new. It’s hard to imagine today when we get news in dribs and drabs from different places. But everyone sat down and watched the news at the same time.

That [media revolution is] what underscored and allowed bitchification. Women who made the news in the 90s stayed there for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years and it really solidified the bitchified portrayals of women.

In the book, you describe the evolution and increasing commodification of “girl power” that took root in the 90s. How did that occur and how do you see its legacy in our media depiction of feminism today?

The 90s saw the rise of the Riot Grrrl movement, which was this incredible political and musical movement of women that started in the Northwest. The movement emerged out of the punk rock scene, and the goal was to protect women at punk rock shows where women were getting hurt. There was this kind of call to action: “Girls to the front.’” Not only was Riot Grrrl about music, but it was also about using music to create art around anger. What the Riot Grrrl movement did was give female anger a place in the consciousness.

That movement started off underground and fringe, but then you saw news articles in places like Seventeen magazine. Many reporters were unclear about what Riot Grrrl wanted to do. They were critical of the fact that they didn’t shave and there was this stereotype that was ascribed to them that they were not “real women,” which is what you often see when women show up and have a voice and are angry in public. Still, there was a lot of news coverage and some Riot Grrrl bands were getting really popular. Then you saw musical artists like Hole, Courtney Love, and Alanis Morissette gain mainstream success while being associated with Riot Grrrl anger.

Once [these women were] in the mainstream, marketers became really excited about selling women this idea of female anger which ultimately became “girl power.” Women have always been an underestimated and untapped source of power and consumerism. We are a group with tremendous resources, and marketers are really interested in getting us to allocate our resources for their interest.

Do you see a significant difference in the way women are portrayed in the media today versus how they were “bitchified” by the media in the 90s?

Bitchification is absolutely still happening today. While I think people are much more savvy news consumers today, and spotting sexism may be easier now than it was in the 90s, I think it takes distance and context to really see the spread and the effects of sexism. It’s now easier for us to go back to the historical record and see bitchification at work in the 90s. We can now clearly see and call sexism on the way the media talks about Hillary Clinton’s makeup, hair, and clothes, but not the male candidate’s makeup, hair, and clothes, but I will also say that I’m sure there are ways in which our news media coverage today is sexist that will take [our country] years to parse and identify.

Many of the male political and cultural figures in power in the 90s are still prevalent in our culture today, and yet many of them actively participated in the bitchification of other women. We revere men like Bill Clinton despite his treatment of Monica Lewinsky and Joe Biden despite his treatment of Anita Hill. Do you see any value in holding those individual actors who promoted bitchification on a high-profile level accountable? And why do you think as a culture we’ve largely forgotten this history?

Let’s start with Bill Clinton. The 22-year-old intern blamed for the affair with the president of the United States, which, saying it out loud, sounds patently ridiculous. I remember at the time, the tenor of the humor [surrounding the scandal] was very celebratory of Clinton’s sexuality — you saw  bumper stickers like “one more whore and we get Gore” and “my president slept with your honor student.” I think the idea that he deserved back slaps while she deserved blame underpins that we’re still really focused on what Clinton thinks of the matter, which given that he’s no longer the president of the United States, is telling.

What I want to see instead is a vigorous investigation and interrogation of the media narrative that rendered Monica Lewinsky to blame for the scandal. In recent years, we’ve begun to hear Monica Lewinsky’s voice for the first time, but we still need journalists and critical thinkers to identify what exactly about that media coverage was so sexist.

In terms of the Anita Hill hearing, it was a panel of white male senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee who didn’t seem to understand what it was like to be a victim or a woman, which was so evident from the way they questioned her.

I’ve talked to so many people, and this was my own memory also, whose only real identification point for Janet Reno is the Will Ferrell impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live. And that seems on the surface like “it’s just funny, it’s just humor,” but it’s really damaging when you have the first woman attorney general of the United States remembered because she’s being played by Will Ferrell in a dress when she was an incredibly important figure.

I think it’s really important to hold power accountable and remind people of these stories.

Why is it valuable for young women to read this book and apply what you describe to the current feminist movement?

Now, post-2016 elections, we see that the majority of Americans voted for a woman president [who didn’t win], and the #MeToo movement is still very present. I think people are looking around and asking why these things are still happening. I think some of the answers [can be found by] returning to the 90s and understanding the sexism of that history. I think knowing the history will guide feminism forward, because when we know our history we’re much less likely to allow it to repeat.

In this book, I also not only looked at the bitchification of public women, but compared that treatment to the emerging research on girlhood during that decade, which was being discovered and discussed in the 90s for the first time. We were really beginning to examine how young girls were losing their self-esteem at greater rates than boys, how eating disorders and cutting behaviors were on the rise. The ways in which public women, famous and infamous women, were being bitchified in the broader media narrative had real implications for real girls growing up in the 90s: They internalized that bitchification and felt limited in their idea of what women could be. It underscores how important it is for young women to be critical news consumers and use their voice in real time and speak up and speak out.

It was very cool for young people to be apathetic in the 90s; apathy was really in vogue, whereas now activism is really in vogue. It’s not cool to be apathetic anymore, which is really good, but at the same time I’m always wary of a social movement that sells things. The goal is for us to show up and to fund when we can and act but not to buy iconography and swag of activism. Any time there’s a “you should buy a T-shirt that says…” I’m suspicious of that.

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Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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