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BOOK REVIEW | September 2003


What's Not in a Name
Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes
by the Guerrilla Girls
Penguin

Ms. Fall 2003

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Since 1985, the anonymous group of art-world women known as die Guerrilla Girls has been using sassy visuals, biting sarcasm and raw statistics (mainly about women’s representation in galleries and museums) to fight discrimination against women artists. A previous book, The Guerrilla Girl’s Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, attempted to set the record straight on the patriarchal dominance of art history. The Girls' classic poster, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" pointed out that the most likely way a woman would gain entrance to the bastions of the art establishment was as a nude model in a man’s work of art. Their commentary, both visual and written, has always been intelligent and humorously barbed.

But the Girls' newest offering falls somewhat short on both accounts. Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers- The Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes attempts to both deconstruct and expose the vast panoply of labels used pejoratively against women. As you can imagine, this is no small undertaking.

Defining a stereotype as "a box, usually too small, that a girl gets jammed into," the authors attack the stereotypes in groups. A woman’s life span of stereotypes begins with Daddy’s Girl ("the Apple of her Father's Eye") and continues through to Crone/Hag ("an ugly, shriveled-up woman with straggly hair and missing teeth7). In each section, the Girls unearth the historical basis behind the terms.

"Bitch," they write, evolved in the' 1600s to describe a brazen, lewd woman, "the antithesis of a loyal, domestic female dog." Now "bitch' is used in various ways-to describe a controllable woman (such as a prostitute) as well as an uncontrollable, willful one. Yet the Girls can’t give the final word here because the word itself is so loaded. The term, with its history and current usage, is enormously complicated. What can be said about "bitch”-and most stereotypes-is that the meaning depends greatly on context and intention: who says it, to whom, how and why. At the end of this section, readers are simply urged to "be a real bitch. But don’t let anyone else call you one."

Still, though often simplified, a 96-page book on such a big topic can easily be forgiven for being cursory, and there is much here to chuckle over and even some to ponder. "Bombshell'. I learned, evolved from a jean Harlow movie of the same name about a girl next-door who was vaulted to Hollywood stardom. And the section on "Tokyo Rose" is full of historical detail about the woman who broadcasted Japanese propaganda throughout the South Pacific during World War II.

Yet the chapter on lesbians missteps by trying to include too much. In the writing about "stone butches," a few overly simplified statements are bound to confuse (or frighten?) those unfamiliar with transgender issues-for example, "Some decide to have operations and change their sex. Some don't." And the tongue-in-cheek section on race and religion, in which the Guerrilla Girls present their designs for stereotypical 'dolls' (think Jewish American Princess, Good Catholic Girl and Rosa the Latin "Hot Tamale"), does very little to deflate these formidable labels.

The Guerrilla Girls make frequent use of questions to provoke thought. In the section on prostitutes, they ask: "What about Gold Diggers and trophy wives who exchange sex with their husbands for a luxurious lifestyle? Are Mistresses and Kept Women all that different from Call Girls?" Though these questions won’t rock anyone over 20 and comfortable with the word "feminist," for adolescents or those women from the conservative right, such juxtapositioning just might undermine some not very progressive ideas. The last Guerrilla Girls' book was cross-marketed to teens, who will find much to mull over here.

The book itself is graphically appealing. Photographs and the variety in type styles make the pages jump. But for those with more than a passing knowledge of feminist issues, the book is a bit like "eye candy," another stereotype referred to only in passing. Tasty, appealing, even desirable-yet in the end, unsubstantial.