"Margaret Thatcher wasn't a bitch. She was a cow!"
It's Hilary Mantel's fault. El Boyfo and I are engaged in flurry of words over a fretful little cloudburst I've set off by applauding her infamous 'Royal Bodies' speech in an unwittingly controversial manner. To me there is no difference between rapier wit and bitchiness, but it seems my terminology is politically insensitive. To invoke the 'b' word or one of its derivations is to blunder into the treacherous battle of the sexes or the incessant brouhaha of political correctness.
On the evening of Brand Mantel's 24 hour media shower, I tweet, "Such exquisite syntax: 'Emotionally incontinent' is hardly a compliment, but has Diana ever been better described?" It gets retweeted by a few women, so I feel emboldened enough to type a Facebook post, "Just when you might have thought that the art of exquisite bitchery was lost to us, along comes Hilary Mantel to reinvigorate the craft for the 21st Century." It doesn't exactly bomb as a sentiment- it garners 37 likes, from men and women - but it incurs the wrath of a well-read Parisienne with an arsenal of disapproving snipes: "hetero-normative" is one of them, "heterosexist" another and "classist" the bewildering third. I sort of know what they all mean, but I genuinely shudder that these terms should be applied to me. Heterosexist? Moi?
I scrutinize and listen to Mantel's speech: sure, she implicates the media at points, but at others she indubitably speaks for herself. Where Antonia Fraser has been sympathetic to Marie Antoinette, and Simon Schama dismissive, Mantel is merciless, reducing the star-crossed queen's bungled escape to a risible farce of preposterous wigs. She astutely assesses Diana Spencer's character (emotionally incontinent), but the only note of sympathy struck is the tone of voice in which the assessment is delivered. Neither is it true that Middleton is mentioned fleetingly: she is the source of the speech, its fulcrum and its conclusion.
When I insist that the Parisienne sees nuance where there is insult, because she isn't married to the future king, she mocks that I have something to teach Mantel in the catty stakes. By the thread's conclusion, I'm called petulant, ungracious and left with my "Thesaurus, to see what you come up with over night." Ouch! I only meant that neither William nor his wife would appreciate the language employed to describe his mother or his wife. Nevertheless the next morning I apologise to the Parisienne, just as another objector squeals "Oh dear David. Misinformed just like Cameron." I take exception to this outburst because I haven't accused Mantel of being "misguided and wrong" like Cameron - quite the contrary.
But now, a lingering disquiet: the notion that I have been using sub-cultural, ghettoized language. I panic: I'm old-fashioned, an ageing queen using dated language, spewing Clarkson-isms from my heteronormative trap. Shriek! The following afternoon, in the Wallace Collection archive with the artist Sadie Lee, preparing for our LGBT History Month talk, I mention the contretemps, asking if it's inappropriate to use that word. Before she answers I add that I'd apply the term to Brian Sewell or Noel Coward. She looks at me pointedly and says, "But the two men you just named are both gay."
"Help!" I frantically contact Paul Burston: novelist, Time Out London's LGBT editor and host of Polari- his monthly literary salon on the Southbank. He lives and breathes contemporary vernacular and current affairs, so I put my two-tiered concern to him: was Mantel being bitchy, and is it inappropriate to use such a word? He concedes that Mantel's comments were "beneath her, unnecessarily mean, devoid of sisterhood and support;" true to "a culture of mean," where "terms that used to be the reserve of bitchy queens and women have gone mainstream." He doesn't agree that Mantel was being bitchy, but he contends, "Her remarks weren't helpful." When I ask him about the 'b' word, he recalls the late Seventies and his mother's horror at 'The Bitch' emblazoned in huge letters on his local Cardiff cinema, adding that the word seems to be "More acceptable than ever." I calm down, but feel that Paul and I are in the same boat: gay men from less equal times, navigating our jargon and references through a new zone of still uncertain equality.
Afterwards, I'm thinking I need to chat with a heterosexual woman. Wondering if any will take my inquiry seriously or just reprimand me for my misogynist own-goal. "Man up!" I think "If you get another hiding you'll know better next time." I try Miranda Sawyer. She's tackled political correctness with her unique brand of piquancy. I tweet her and she responds favorably. Phew.
I explain my dual kerfuffle; she defends Mantel, "She was trying to make a subtle point about the media, and the media being unsubtle missed the point." On the 'b' word, "Well I suppose bitch has sort of been reclaimed and allowed to cross gender a bit." She thinks it daft that a woman can be praised for her prose but not for her bitchiness. After agreeing that "Brian Sewell is a wonderful bitch," she continues, "Julie Burchill is a fantastic bitch. Sometimes I read her and just howl with laughter."
Miranda seems to affirm that even though bitchiness may have its misogynist associations, some have elevated it to an enjoyable skill. But before I get too reassured she cautions that the noun remains "gender specific," and addresses the wider picture: she isn't convinced that the word is acceptable to young black women. She observes, "certain words carry a nasty weight of history behind them," but hesitates to include bitch in that category. "I'd say the word gay, but never faggot."
Our conversation concludes with Miranda reflecting that she's "not young enough to be that easily offended anymore," alluding to a time when "a man could barely say 'Woman' without someone jumping down his throat."
Miranda definitely helps, but I need to speak to more women.
To be continued...