When I was a teenager I was given a Russian book on etiquette called How to be a Girl (or a similar title). It was quickly and unceremoniously thrown in the bin. Today I remember that moment sparking thoughts about what it meant to be a woman, where the rules of womanhood came from and how they are presented through culture.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
My thoughts about this subject have been brewing for a long time. Initially, Playing the Bitch was a project about unlikeability. Why must women be likeable? What does likeability even mean? These questions kick-started an attempt to define a character type I had seen and adored for many years. I saw powerful images of powerful women whose personalities and agendas were defined entirely by themselves, and who were not necessarily nice people. I always had an element of guilt in admiring them. These women are not femme fatales, nor victims; they are something different: more powerful, sassier. I couldn’t find a better word for them than ‘bitch’.
I realise the word ‘bitch’ is offensive to many people. It has powerful connotations that vary depending on generational and cultural factors, but it is perhaps the most powerful gendered word for a powerful gendered character. We could argue ad nauseam about whether this word has been reclaimed or whether it can be reclaimed. Personally, I use it (sparingly) with friends as a term of endearment and empowerment.
My intention is not to provoke but to pose a question I can’t answer by myself: what makes a screen ‘bitch’? In recent years there’s been much talk about male antiheroes who connect with audiences in spite of their failings. Their names have become iconic: Walter White, Don Draper, Tony Soprano. These are not good men, but they are good characters. Who are the female equivalents? Are there any? Should there be any?
Harriet Craig, Eve Harrington, Miranda Priestley, Crystal Allen, Alexis Colby, Claire Underwood, Amy Dunne, Madeline Ashton, Lucy Spiller. How have these characters created a particular type that we can recognise across film and television? These ultra-manipulative women, such as Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction or Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, have created distinct images of women with agency. Not positive images, but powerful ones that are both shocking and refreshing to watch, due in part to cultural expectations placed on women in real life and on screen.
Watching women in ruthless pursuit of their own agenda creates a particular brand of enjoyment that this season is designed to explore. As much as we are drawn to men with layers of complications, desires and goals, I believe we are drawn to female characters who unapologetically follow their own agendas. The reasons behind these agendas are specific to each film (greed for Bridget in The Last Seduction, revenge on a lover for the Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons, celebrity for Suzanne in To Die For), but there is a shared set of traits and a shared viewing experience that connects them.
This is not a selection of films about women behaving badly – it’s about a very particular type of character. Women who are not submissive, who make themselves noticed, who are self-serving and often selfish; women who hustle and lie and do what they need to do to get what they want; not good women: good characters.
The season is designed to consider the ‘nastiness’ of female characters as a reaction to patriarchal systems. It’s about empowering subversive female figures that disrupt norms while being unafraid of using questionable methods to achieve their goals.
We’ve looked throughout film history, from the pre-Code Hollywood era to the peak bitchiness of the 1940s to the contemporary take on the neo femme-fatale. This is not an exhaustive list – and there are many titles that I would have included that are missing because of the difficult but necessary decisions that go into cinema programming. Curating this season has also laid bare the limitations of cinema – of who’s been traditionally allowed to portray a ‘bitch’ on screen – and how this is now changing, especially on television. Thanks to characters like Cookie Lyon in Empire and Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder, we are starting to see that powerful screen bitches are not just the domain of the privileged white woman.
This season is one part of a larger conversation: what does a screen ‘bitch’ look and behave like – and is this the word we want to use to describe her?