Confessions of a middle-aged "Bitch"

The party girl of memoir, Elizabeth Wurtzel, grows older but not much wiser.

By Amy Benfer
Published May 27, 2009 3:27PM (EDT)

Back in the '90s, when Elizabeth Wurtzel became the poster girl for a certain kind of entitled (Harvard-educated), messed-up (depression, Prozac, speed) post-feminism, plenty of critics wondered if she would have wound up with so many magazine covers and book contracts were she not so blond and waif-like. Writing in Salon on Wurtzel’s second book, “Bitch,” Lily Burana called her the “Marisa Tomei of literature” -- a woman who “invokes wrath” because she “plays up the cuteness while creating mediocre works that those less attractive, less connected, or simply less lucky probably couldn’t dream of seeing so richly rewarded.” Burana wrote: "All Wurtzel would have to do to shut everybody up is write a really great book. Unfortunately, she hasn’t.”

I count myself among those interested to see what age would do to the party girl of memoir, so I was curious what Miss Liz had to say in an essay in this month’s Elle about the horror of losing her looks. Let’s just say it’s not pretty.

Women’s beauty is a strange beast: It changes the way people deal with you, and at the same time it's still virtually taboo for a beautiful person to write about what it’s like to be beautiful. Beauty is a thing to be observed from the outside, not commented on from the inside. There’s plenty of smart writing to be done from inside a beautiful woman’s head -- ah, “House Of Mirth” -- and I can imagine a great version of this particular essay. Unfortunately, Wurtzel hasn't written it. She comes off as someone who has gobbled up the most hackneyed clichés of the beauty myth and come out the other side none the wiser. It’s a strange, sad piece that doesn’t even quite have the zing of schadenfreude.

There’s a certain type of woman who may start off as a funny-looking kid, lurking on the margins of beauty, and thus learn a thing or two about its dangers, developing a few character traits as compensation before blossoming into a great-looking woman. Not our Elizabeth. She would like you to know that she was always a pretty girl, “a remarkably adorable child,” and a “hot number" [emphasis hers] as an adult, whose publishers “put me half-dressed on the covers of my books to sell them” (like the aforementioned “Bitch,” in which Wurtzel appears topless). Having the slim, blond American good looks of the most conventional sort -- she’s a dead ringer for the Barbie-cheerleader archetype Rachel McAdams plays in “Mean Girls” -- Wurtzel naturally deduced that she “was meant to date the captain of the football team” and says, “I was given to believe that love would be easy, men would be elementary, and I would have my way.”

Such fantasies are acceptable in, say, a high school girl, but surely a young, well-educated woman who once seemed to want to cast herself as Sylvia Plath as played by Christina Ricci (the latter did, in fact, play Wurtzel in the movie version of "Prozac Nation") shouldn’t be too surprised to find out that sometimes the football captain develops a drinking problem, while his pretty blond wife ends up popping speed. Surely by college she had read “Ariel” and John Cheever? “Alas,” she writes, “love has been complicated.” And: “I have been in far too many scenes that could have happened in a John Cassavetes movie, or an Edward Albee play.” Did she not happen to notice that the women who played the parts in those films and plays -- Gena Rowlands, Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few -- were also exquisitely beautiful, and that their beauty didn’t seem to do them a bit of good when it came to guaranteeing everlasting happiness?

In the middle part of the essay, we meet Wurtzel’s proverbial One Good Man, a sensitive guy named “Gregg” in a Sonic Youth T-shirt whose caretaking extended to rubbing the 20-something Wurtzel’s feet with peppermint lotion from the Body Shop (oh, love in the mid-'90s!). Of Gregg’s other qualities, less is known, but he certainly made his lady look good: “People met him and liked me better because I was going out with him.” (Also: He was way better than the guy who later chased her with a frying pan down Topanga Canyon.) Of course, she cheats on him: “I was temporarily credentialed with this delicate, yummy thing -- youth, beauty, whatever -- and my window of opportunity for making the most of it was so small, so brief.” When they finally break up, he curses her: “I was your only chance at happiness -- now it’s over for you.” And a decade and a half or so later, she seems to still believe he was right.

But it's manifestly unclear what she thinks that “chance at happiness” was. Nowhere in the essay does she seem to pine for the conventional marriage and children that define so many essays by single, 40-something women. Instead, what she appears to be mourning is the ability to command center stage.

Perhaps even more bizarre in an essay that is allegedly about losing her looks, Wurtzel isn’t willing to concede that she’s lost hers. At 41, she claims to be free of wrinkles ( “Thank God for La Mer and Retin-A and Pilates” and, oh, “hot sex!”); her hair “honey-highlighted for years now, has the swank length of mermaid youth.” She writes: “I am much sexier now than I used to be -- I suddenly have this voluptuous body where I used to just be skinny and lithe” (just!). And guess what? She’s got even more men than she used to!

Still, she laments, “Now that I am a woman whom some man might actually like to be with, might actually not want to punch in the face -- or at least now that I don’t like guys who want to do that to me -- I am sadly 41.” What could be more shocking than mourning the dudes who want to punch you in the face and the loss of the desire to find men who will do that? Perhaps when she writes that when she loses her looks entirely, “there won’t be much point to life anymore.” And of sex and sexuality, “Without that part of me, I’d rather be dead.” But this, to me, is the saddest line in the piece: “I am past my perfect years.”

I’m not sure what is weirder: That this woman seems to believe that being pretty -- even when she was, by her own admission, wildly depressed, druggy and hanging out with guys who chased her with frying pans -- made her “perfect”? That she seems still not to get the most basic aspect of sex: that plenty of people can want to fuck you, and still not respect, love or even like you? That she she doesn’t seem to get that loving someone is exactly the opposite of believing they are “perfect”?

Mind you, this isn’t me trying to chastise a scarlet woman for failing to, you know, find a man and learn the true beauty of lifelong monogamous love. Plenty of people are perfectly happy sticking with sex mostly for the adventure and living and working alone, and a female writer (she now has a law degree, too) could do much worse. But it seems that, rather than becoming a little wiser and a little smarter, now that she can no longer rely on her ingénue status, she is instead pining for the least interesting parts of herself -- the generic blond beauty of a 25-year-old who looks awesome in a string bikini. Rather than comparing herself to Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, as she does in her essay, perhaps she should look for role models a little closer to her chosen profession (Susan Sontag?). Maybe then she could finally shut up her critics with a really great book.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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