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Bitch Is The New Black: Getting under your skin

Helena Andrews’ Bitch is the New Black has been optioned as a movie. Which it feels more like to me in any case, in so much that a movie can be satisfying with little tidbits of revelation, music swells and jumpy pacing as long as the overall product isn’t abominable.

Andrews’ book reads like a movie treatment: reasonably funny, occasionally heart-tugging, but mostly a formulaic addition to the “woman of a certain/age/means/entitlement memoir” genre. Groundbreaking because she is one of the first, and most certainly the youngest, black authors to get this kind of push; the feeling that yes, black women too can present themselves as a collection of quirks and semi-entitled rantings is not as comforting or entertaining as I thought it would be, but she does have a distinctive voice.

For me, the hard part of really reading or appreciating this book is its publicity. I’m careful to say publicity and not hype. I first really got a heads up on Andrews due to what can only be described as a genteel hatchet job posing as an article in the Washington Post. It was the latest in the newly profitable genre of “sad successful (but really bitchy and over-entitled don’t know their place that’s why no one loves them) single black women” pieces that have become a monthly requirement since the media presence of Michelle Obama.

This one had been special because it was the first time one had been so readily attached to a single woman and been so blatantly devoted to using said woman to pathologize all black women. By the time you could separate Andrews from the author’s Stretch Armstrong-like reaching for a diagnosis on black women, you may not have liked her, but you got the sense that whoever she was she had gotten under some skins. They’re looking for the answers to black women and she has been latched on to as that certain kind of sister. Andrews’ book seems to waffle on whether or not she agrees with them.

The first essay, “Dirty Astronaut Diapers” is an interesting opener, named for the website she started in honor of love-lorn astronaut Lisa Nowak. She captures in a slightly more mean-spirited way (and definitely more funny) the way almost every one I knew talked about the case. Part prim schoolmarm, part dishy journalist, the line, “Why are they so many exclamation points in this correspondence?” left me in a fit of giggles. You have to be a special kind of siditty to ask that question and still imbue it with the kind of wink wink filth that leads to a discussion of penis size right after.

Combined with her one liners regarding a disappearing ex– “What in the name of bearded carpenter Jesus?”–it’s a fun read. Those moments, her one-off quick-witted questions and dialogue with friends are easily the best moments in the book. They aren’t the people I would be friends with, but it illustrates the kind of easy-breezy banter that evolves among black Ivy Leaguers, of a certain mien (I am a Black Ivy Leaguer, not of that mien but it’s a required fluency I believe), it is a crackling cultural peek into a very interesting group. My own familiarity with such people makes it not a great point of interest but I’m sure that it would be a good peek into the lives of the mythical “young black it crowd”.

However it’s an ominous throwaway line in this essay that signals the moments when this book goes downhill and fast. Page 13, second paragraph, she starts off: “But as black women…” and then an offhand flippant parenthetical “(and I speak for all black women because I can)” that re-reading sent out all sorts of klaxons. Because when Andrews tries to speak for black women even flippantly, or tangentially to her own experience, the narrative stumbles. Because when it comes to other black people that aren’t of her milieu, Andrews doesn’t ring so much false as snippy and kind of lazy. Faults not so bad in and of themselves but really and truly a slog to read through.

“Chasing Michelle” is supposed to be a fish-out-of-water story of her desire to write about Michelle Obama, a story she angles for as a black reporter. It meanders wildly, with touches on black death rates in horror movies, three pages on whether or not she’s looking for a husband, to a classist condescending description of Rayetta, the girl who drives her around every day. She quickly writes Rayetta off as a person to talk to, only to find that Rayetta has met Michelle Obama. Her response is “Michelle was ours damn it!”

Who is this we if it doesn’t include Rayetta? The next paragraph basically describes we as everyone younger than Roots, so why is Rayetta eliminated? She’s not good enough for Ms. Andrews, wrong degree, not smart enough, etc. Rayetta is dismissed and invented in Andrews’ head. She records Rayetta’s interview and writes herself properly chastened. And never in any way brings up that again.

“A Bridge to Nowhere” continues much the same. She mocks a boss from hell and you spend most of the time wondering why exactly the boss is that bad. A bit neurotic, a bit sharp and rude, but none of the actual tasks seem that outside of the realm of assistantship. And she has a chapter called “Trannygate” with a straight face. It’s flip and snippy and for someone who spends a lot of the book telling us about her Ivy League degree it never seems to move out of high school level self-indulgence, peppered with little notes of ‘you ain’t perfect’ that are supposed to be deep insight, but instead read like mild comeuppance.

They’re made more aggravating by the chapters written about her mother, and her friend’s suicide. Less snappy and flashy, they do not try for this overarching, speaking-for-the-black-folks narrative; instead they give real insight to a thinking, growing person. Her account of her stalker manages to be both funny and harrowing and sharply voiced in the way of a college student. You can’t decide whether to applaud her, hug her or go upside her head one time as you hope she gets good sense.

The problem for me at least is that it doesn’t seem to go beyond that ultimately. These have-it-all successful sisters don’t seem to be anything but college students playing adult with the right accessories. And for someone claiming and then not claiming, back and forth, to speak for the young gifted and black, that’s a problem.

Andrews jokingly asides in the first essay that she speaks for all black women cause she can and then eliminates, often in the most nasty way possible anyone who has the wrong fashion, accent, college pedigree, or way about them. One of her exes calls her “perfect girl” and it rings in her head as an insult, a denial of her humanity. However, Andrews’ triumphs and desires seem solely based on beating, besting or one upping people. Her boss, her cad of an ex-boyfriend, because she has something to show or has earned it somehow, though we’re not exactly shown how, how else are we supposed to see her?

However, it’s no worse than your average memoir by any other 30-year-old social striver of any race, where most of the interest in reading is figuring out how they got there and why. Andrews has the benefit of a distinctive voice, decent wit and the gumption to be the first widely publicized black woman in the genre. For that I applaud her. I’m just not exactly sure that it’s something applause worthy and the book very rarely helps you figure out why.

A fun read that is supposed to show us the inner workings of the new “women of the moment,” it succeeds in so much as it proves that women of a certain class can be smart, caustic, entitled, demanding, alternately narrow-minded and broad-thinking, AND black at the same time. However seemingly fixated on her romance foibles, and a narrative that often asks us to think of everyone who’s not her as expendable or half-formed–especially when directed at a group, black women, she claims to want to give some sort of presence to.

Frustrating because of glimpses of deeper thought, the book is ultimately mostly distinguishable by the freshness of a black perspective. We too can reduce ourselves to funny, made-for-a-movie characters that seem to demand applause for being better than us ’cause they said so. New faces in really worn-over territory, perhaps, but here at least she got to say her words herself.