Written by Julie Balloo

Voices

Bitchcraft

Julie Balloo grew up thinking that bitching was an art form. So what changed her mind?

What Ever Happened to Baby JaneAs a little girl, I adored Bette Davis when she narrowed her eyes, pulled back her bitch bow and sent a glorious catty arrow straight through her target’s heart.

Off screen she was just as provocative, remarking, “Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch. Maybe that’s why Miss Crawford always plays ladies.” Yes! The double bitch whammy in action, boo ya!

I gasped in joyous shock as she terrorised her poor disabled sister in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? When Blanche threatened what she would do if she wasn’t in the wheelchair, her uncaring sister simply replied, “But you are Blanche, but you are,” followed by an evil cackle. Pure pantomime, pure bliss.

I still recall a terrible, screaming Christmas argument between my mother and her sister brought to a swift close when my godfather Stewart looked on, glass of wine in one hand and cigarette in the other and dryly uttered, “Oh dear, now we know what happened to Baby Jane.” Superb bitching, which managed to make both sister think he was referring to the other and quash the row.

Those early life experiences would stand me in good stead as I began my flatsharing life with a variety of gay men who soon took me through an intensive masterclass in the art of bitching. They introduced me to the riotous quotes of Noel, Oscar and Kenneth, who, they assured me, had a bitchy line for any occasion.

“I had been hit full face by the power of bitchcraft in all its glory and the older woman had scored her goal.”

Dorothy Parker was my role model. I wrote and performed two plays based on her life and relished reciting her bitch quotes night after night. “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” And, when reviewing Katharine Hepburn in a Broadway play, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

However, as I grew older and – hopefully – more mature I saw bitching was not all it was cracked up to be. Instead, it was hurtful, spiteful and downright nasty. I observed friendships irreparably break down due to bitching, which under close examination is a subtler version of bullying in which the ‘slayer’ is generally considered intelligent and witty.

The turning point came when I was in my late 20s and wearing the 80s uniform of short, tight-fitting skirt, low-cut shirt and high heels at a BBC radio party. I spied a gentleman in his 60s I had recently worked with and tottered over to say hello.

He was talking animatedly with a woman in her late 40s, who I didn’t know but, as in those days additions to one’s Filofax were the equivalent of social media followers, I intended on networking with her too. So, I stood patiently next to the older couple, smiling blissfully with a glass of chilled white in hand, waiting for a polite segue into the conversation.

Finally, she turned to me, looked me up and down with a sneer then said to the gentleman, “Well, I’m off, I can’t compete with that!” She turned heel and walked away.

I made my excuses and fled to the ladies where I scrubbed off my makeup and tried to make my skirt longer by pulling it down to my hips and untucking the shirt. But the damage was done. I had been hit full face by the power of bitchcraft in all its glory and the older woman had scored her goal. I made a vow there and then that I would never be unkind to younger women, or envious of their looks and talent, and that I would politely roll over and let them enjoy their turn.

But it’s not that easy when we see older men constantly dumping their older wives for younger versions. The wicked queen in Snow White suddenly has credibility. Fairy tales are full of nasty, crabby old women behaving like complete bitches, threatening beautiful young girls with nasty spells that might send them to sleep forever or turn them to stone. But they always get their comeuppance.

“Dorothy Parker was my role model. I wrote and performed two plays based on her life and relished reciting her bitch quotes night after night. ‘If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.’”

Once or twice a month, I meet up with a group of women over 50 for social and cultural outings. The theatre, a film, a gallery, lunch, tea, a simple walk where we put the world to rights and hark back to the days of our youth. We gossip, laugh and generally have a great time.

However, one Saturday recently while waiting ages to be served in a cafe we noticed that the three male staff members were all serving one very pretty girl in front of us. She stood at the counter blithely chatting to her admirers and enjoying the flirting as the queue grew longer and longer. The waiters were oblivious to us; we were so off their radar as to be invisible.

“Why does it take three of you to serve one girl?” piped up one of our party.

The waiters blushed and developed selective deafness, staring longingly at the young woman, resplendent in floaty chiffon with dainty flowers painted on her cheeks. Maybe they wondered if one day even she would turn into an old bitch like us.

“Come on love, move on, we can’t stand here too long you know, our feet are hurting and we can’t be late for our matinee,” another of our old biddy party squawked.

Once we secured our table and scolded the young’uns for being rude, selfish, impolite and basically, well, young, we tucked into scones and bitching. But afterwards when dissecting the situation, we wondered collectively if we’d all broken our golden rule of not being nasty to young women.

It would seem we had. So we decided to pack up our bitch kits and lock them away in gilded treasure boxes where they can do no more harm. We will, however, wear the keys around our scrawny old necks just in case we ever need them.

@julieballoo

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Written by Julie Balloo

I am a former standup and now write stories and stage/radio scripts. My long- time collaborator is Jenny Eclair.