The Bitch Is Back: Wicked Women in Literature

The Bitch Is Back: Wicked Women in Literature

The Bitch Is Back: Wicked Women in Literature

The Bitch Is Back: Wicked Women in Literature


Sarah Appleton Aguiar is an assistant professor at Murray State University.


There's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society— outside of a kennel.

—Joan Crawford in The Women (1939)

Important tasks facing early “second-wave” feminist authors were to refute literary misrepresentations of females as dimensionless, to subvert preconceptions of objectified characters, and, of predominant importance, to create memorable women full of complexity and character. These feminist authors strove to render their protagonists and supporting female casts with complete, full strokes; to grant them not just existence but subjectivity as well. And they succeeded.

But somehow, somewhere along that road to subjectivity, mixed with the refuse discarded at the curb, something had been lost. That vital woman, empowered with anger, wit, ruthless survival instincts—the bitch—had been banished from the pages of feminist fiction.

In a 1994 lecture, Margaret Atwood pointedly asked: “But is it not, today— well, somehow unfeminist—to depict a woman behaving badly? … When bad women get into literature, what are they doing there, and are they permissible, and what, if anything, do we need them for?” Atwood laments the absence of evil women in women-authored literature—the Lady MacBeths, Medeas, and Jezebels—replete with the “scurvy behavior often practiced by women against each other” and “the Seven deadly Sins in their female versions” (“Spotty Handed”). Indeed, reading late-twentieth-century fiction by women, readers such as myself have been hard-pressed to find even a hint of feminine wickedness among the scores of virtuous victims of oppression, the searchers for identity and self, the liberated, illuminated, empowered, and subjectified heroines. Alas, what happened to the village gossips, calculating gold diggers, merciless backstabbers, sinful sirens, evil stepmothers, deadly daughters, twisted sisters, hags, bags, and crones? Where, oh, where had Scarlet O'Hara been hiding?

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