Being a bitch or labeled as one is something that often – whether rightly or wrongly – sticks. Meaning, if you self-appoint yourself queen bitch supreme out of confidence or someone else gives you the title out of malice it may become the only prism some will be able to view you.
Before I met author Helena Andrews or read her first book “Bitch Is the New Black,” I’d read criticism from individuals who thought she was a bitch in the pejorative sense. A profile on herself and the book had already run in The Washington Post and while some enjoyed it, many others loathed what they thought Andrews represented.
Critics argued there was nothing celebratory or novel about a black woman being a “bitch” and unceremoniously lumped her into the common stereotype of the “lonely, successful, single black woman” who was single because of her own failings.
But “Bitch Is the New Black” is not a primer on dating. Nor it is an ode to singledom. It is a memoir, chronicling Andrews’ life up to the age of 28 as she worked to pursue a career in writing. The title was taken from a popular Weekend Update sketch from Saturday Night Live in 2008 where in defense of then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, actress Tina Fey proudly shouted “Bitches get stuff done … Bitch is the new black!”
Yet the first four chapters don’t fit the cavalier, trendy title. They are heartfelt, raw, emotional essays about love and loss. They’re about men you love hard who let you down. They’re about racism and intolerance. She’s at her best when she writes about being kidnapped by her grandmother as a child because the woman thought her mother, Frances, was going to sell Andrews to a child trafficking ring. She writes humorously about what some would consider a “non-traditional” upbringing, as she was raised by her black, Lesbian, “hippy” single mom in the mostly white town of Catalina Island, Calif.
These initial chapters are very funny and compelling. You can feel her loss and pain when she is suddenly separated from her mother and you rejoice when they are reunited again. You reminisce along with her (and root for her) as she hopes a VHS recording of Keisha Knight Pulliam’s made-for-TV film “Polly” will show her white elementary school classmates that there is more to black people than just stereotypes. Andrews spouts forth fully formed and three-dimensional -- frank, but funny. Like someone you want to share jokes. A girl-woman you want to hold and tell that things will get better.
But the energy that makes the first chapters so strong does not remain for the rest of the book. Only showing up in spurts in certain stand-out chapters. Something odd happens as Andrews crosses over from child to adult and suddenly the bitch title seems a bit more apropos – albeit perhaps not in a way she intended.
There is a point early in the book when a former long-time girlfriend of her mother criticizes how she is raising her daughter. She shrieks that Frances is raising Andrews to have no feelings. And what seemed cruel and jarring in that early chapter slowly turns into an ominous cloud that looms over the rest of the book.
As Andrews gets stuck the weeds of adulthood, the stories lose emotional heft and details are relayed with little introspection, sometimes devoid of empathy. Attempts at humor sometimes turn from charming to mean as Andrews makes gross generalizations about the individuals she encounters, usually offering little evidence or character development to back up her claims.
The person who catches the worst of Andrews’ use of ad hominem is an anonymous black female interior designer she worked for as an administrative assistant when she was in her early 20s. Even though she never names her, in a chapter titled “A Bridge to Nowhere,” it is readily apparent that the person in question is well-known interior designer Sheila Bridges.
An email and phone call to Bridges confirmed that Andrews was once in her employ, although Bridges admitted that she didn’t remember Andrews very well and that she only worked for Bridges a short time before she was fired for improper conduct. As for Andrews, she could not confirm or deny that she was writing about Bridges.
Andrews claims that her boss was a sociopath, emotionally detached, sexually frustrated and a “fucking psycho.” Upon seeing the once curly-haired Bridges bald due to Alopecia, Andrews relishes it as a form of perverse revenge. This, despite the fact that Andrews openly admits in the book to struggling with many aspects of her job, was disinterested in design and that she spent a lot of work time searching the Web or chatting on instant messenger.
As an example of how “difficult” Bridges was, Andrews reproduces this note:
“As you know, I always call in several times a day for my phone messages, even while I’m in production. Yesterday afternoon my mother called the office to let me know that she and my father had arrived safely home from their trip. Who spoke to her and why didn’t I get the message? I didn’t get this message when I called in at five or five thirty p.m., and it was not included in anyone’s updates.”
Then Andrews writes in response in her book:
Your mother hates you! Why do you care whether or not she made it back okay? And who even cares about stuff like that? This isn’t the 1800s. Cruise ships don’t get lost at sea. Plus, it wasn’t me who took the message.
Others get similar treatment. A South Carolina woman named Rayetta is deemed unworthy for an interview about future President Barack Obama even though she drives Andrews everywhere. Andrews assumes the woman is uncultured only to learn that she was served hors d’oeuvres by future First Lady Michelle Obama. She feels guilty for a moment, but quickly moves on.
Later in the book it is President Barack Obama’s “body man,” Reggie Love, who gets a bit of a literary kick to the shin when Andrews recalls their blind date. She labels Love as having a “do it to white girls” vibe, but offers no explanation why she felt this.
She also writes about lovers past and present, but they wind up feeling more like ghosts than people. You never get a sense for who these men were, not even “Dexter,” who she pines for throughout the book. He’s merely a guy who liked her enough to share her bed, but not enough to be faithful or make Andrews his girlfriend. Telling her she is “Perfect Girl” and too good for him one moment, then slobbering down some anonymous woman in a nightclub the next – Dexter is every man and he is no man at the same time. You never really understand his motivations or appreciate why Andrews loves him.
Bridges may have been a bad boss, Rayetta may have been uncultured, Love may possibly prefer the company of white women and Andrews’ beloved Dexter may have failed her because she was too “perfect,” but in the end, she offers the reader no evidence. All background players remain underdeveloped and unexamined. She declares them all either too hot or too cold, but never reads you the temperature. You just have to take her word for it.
As a whole, what Andrews produces isn’t a Tina Fey-ish tome of how “bitches get stuff done,” but the much uglier reality of how bitches complain, bitches struggle, bitches doubt, bitches make excuses, bitches stereotype and bitches act entitled but still succeed anyway. This doesn’t mean that you won’t find the book entertaining or funny (it’s a quick and easy read), but she misses out on the opportunity to create something with a bit more weight. Perhaps the screenplay based on the book she writing for Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes will provide for richer character development.
Andrews is a talented writer. The beginning of the book is incredible proof of that. But there are times when she comes off as very ungrateful. She quickly points out in the book that her stories of unhappiness and frustration in the workplace are proof she paid her dues as if she already anticipates that this might be the first thing potential readers will question. She doesn’t write much about her accomplishments at Politico or as a news assistant at The New York Times. She doesn’t give you the chance to root for her successes as she did in those early chapters. What you get is an undercurrent of annoyance that she ever had to do these jobs at all. You want to grow and learn with her, but upon reading it you get the impression that she adopted a defensive stance in the face of criticism, choosing mockery and wall-building over personal development.
The result is a book that is mixed. It is at times witty and sharp and at others superficial. She goes deep on some issues (abortion and abusive relationships), but only skims the surface on others. Towards the end she wonders if her success is getting in the way of romance, but the book reveals that the common denominator in her disappointments is her attitude and the pride to which she exhibits it. On some level, after reading the book, you feel she may realize this and be mournful, but on another you think maybe she does know and doesn’t care. Bitch may be the new black, but bitch also sounds kind of lonely and little counter-productive.