Book #63 of 2020 | Pretty Bitches by Lizzie Skurnick

Title: Pretty Bitches: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, and all the Other Words That Are Used to Undermine Women

Author: A collection of essays, edited by Lizzie Skurnick

Thoughts: I’d be lying if I didn’t pick this book up entirely because of the title—but I’m so glad that I did. Being a communication major in college meant that I spent four years studying language, how it’s used, and the effects it can and does have. I love reading and writing because it’s such tangible proof that words have power. And that’s the argument of this book too.

Given the current political climate, this topic has been on my mind recently as well. When Kamala Harris emerged as the likely frontrunner for Biden’s VP candidate, one criticism of her stood out to me among all others: she’s “too ambitious.” Presumably the pundit making this argument meant that she, as a former presidential candidate, wouldn’t be satisfied being second in command. But to that person, Harris’ ambitious was categorically a negative. Because to be a women with ambition is to be a woman who refuses to submit to expectations—a woman who doesn’t do what society tells her to do. And that’s scary.

While I didn’t personally resonate with every single essay, for the vast majority, I did. I personally have been called most of the words discussed, and personally have had many of the experiences discussed by these women.

Too? Yep.

Ugly? I went to high school, so obviously.

Shrill? I was an attorney in mock trial, so obviously.

Lucky? Uh huh.

Mature? Many times.

Ambitious? Yes.

Disciplined? Constantly (hello, have you seen my planner? And Google Calendar?).

Crazy? Oh yes.

Good? Yep.

Tomboy? Yep.

Fat? Again, I went to high school, getting called fat and ugly anonymously on the Internet is kind of a rite of passage.

Feisty? Oh yes.

I could go on. The point is, many of these words were deployed against me intentionally, to make me hurt, to have power exerted over me. And for the most part, that worked. Being called intimidating in early high school affected the way I showed up in the world for years, trying to shrink, make myself smaller, not to take up space. But was I intimidating? Or was someone intimidated by me?

Many of these essays point to the way these words mean different things when they’re used to describe men vs. women. Male ambition is seen as good. Female ambition is not. Or rather, it is—girls are encouraged to be ambitious, and that is awesome—until female ambition threatens men. At that point, it becomes suspicious.

I enjoyed all of the essays, but these were my personal favorites: “Too” by Adaora Udoji, “Effortless” by Amy S. Choi, “Intimidating: by Tanzila Ahmed, and “Good” by Tova Mirvis

Favorite Lines:
“Being told I was too loud and too talkative on too many occasions to count was peer pressure, a form of herding that shut me down and encouraged me not to engage. I obliged this idea that I needed to change, convinced that there was something wrong with me and that I could fix it by participating in my own life a lot less.” (p. 5, “Too”)

Too is used to launch uncertainty, throw you off your game, make you second-guess, take your eye off the ball, to subtly let you know there is something wrong with you when you start coloring outside the lines—and goodness, don’t let it be with a neon crayon.” (p. 6, “Too”)

“Maybe all the effort that goes into being effortless could be used, I don’t know, in loving ourselves and loving each other better. How transformative being honest could be.” (p. 31, “Effortless”)

“The difference is that I finally own my ugliness. I explore it. I let it lead me down dark tunnels, and when I’m done, I let go of its hand and find my way back toward that light.” (p. 45, “Ugly”)

“How do we value a woman who’s willingly rejected all the things she’s supposed to want, built a life without them, and now appears to be enjoying herself? What would it mean to credit her for doing it on purpose? How much of the way the world works, and how we value our places in it, would be diminished by that admission? So much easier, and less scary, to just say I’m lucky.” (p. 59, “Lucky”)

“Female ambition is suspicious. It comes at a cost. It’s necessary to get ahead—we’re told—but if a woman uses it to get ahead then she’s sacrificed her soul.” (p. 82, “Ambitious”)

“I am a good girl, but maybe I like looking a little intimidating too. With the piercing, I am signaling that there is a side of me that cannot be tamed.” (p. 184, “Intimidating”)

“Society has all these expectations of how women are to show up in this world. Be yourself, they say, Be less of yourself. Be independent, but not too intimidating. Take care of yourself, but make a man feel like he can take care of you. Be everything, but not too much.” (p. 194, “Intimidating”)

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