On DOLORES CLAIBORNE And What It Means To Be A Bitch

Stephen King's novel is pretty much a dissertation on female agency.

“Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman's got to hold on to.”

“Bitch” is a contentious term, and even in passing usage it’s reconciled in our minds in the pejorative sense. So many of our profanities are gender-specific to women: bitch, cunt, pussy -- and yet there’s only one that’s male-specific. Dick. Even douchebag is derived from female hygiene, and its use denotes that someone is a cleansing tool for the vaginal canal, and why is that a bad thing?

But what makes a woman a bitch? Is a bitch a woman who refuses to cower, a woman who stands up for herself, a woman who knows what she wants and is determined to get it? Is she a woman who speaks her mind? So often, the women we call bitches are the ones who dare to live in defiance of societal convention, the ones who refuse to conform to meek gender roles, and yet we label them with that word -- a word that is coded with the very sexism that lives within the boundaries they’ve dared to defy.

When I tell people that I’m on a quest to read all of Stephen King’s books, I’ve occasionally been asked about his treatment of women. It seems that there are several people who believe that King doesn’t write women well, or that he doesn’t write strong women. They aren’t reading the right books, then. Or perhaps they have confused the term “strong woman” with “flawless female.” King writes Dolores Claiborne with all the defiance of his titular character, and not only does he know how to write women, but he writes this one exceptionally well. Here is an entire wall of text, unbroken by chapters, dedicated to a singular woman. It is a testament not only to his ability and insight, but a testament to womankind.

Dolores Claiborne is a woman who murdered her husband and stands accused of possibly murdering the wealthy, elderly woman whom she spent most of her life serving. The novel is her confession: not to murder (this, yes, but only the one), but to being a tough bitch. Through Dolores, King poignantly explores the way the world often forces women into a series of compromises, and the way those small compromises have a way of stacking up to an imposing height, backing us into a corner until we have no choice but to become bitches. Dolores is from a time when sexism was more prevalent and less hidden in plain sight than it is now, when men beating women was de rigeur and looked upon as a necessary tool for their continued education. But her story is still one that is unfortunately easy to identify with today: a woman (a wife, a mother) is emotionally and physically abused to the point where she breaks and feels she has no other option. Her act could be construed as metaphor for that precious notion of female liberty and one that has inspired countless moments of horrific desperation throughout time: my body, my choice.

What makes Dolores interesting isn’t that she’s a stubborn old broad or what most what refer to as a bitch, but what makes her story interesting is how she became the way she is. The world is unfair. The world is unkind. The world is outright cruel -- especially to women. Are we so wrong, then, for defying it? Does our need to be loved and respected and to carve out a place for ourselves make us bitches? Society imposes upon us an implicit gender code for how to behave, the space we can inhabit, and the roles we are allowed to take -- and it’s limited, especially as we get older. For Dolores, she’s a woman who describes herself as marginally attractive, a woman who, as a teenager, made the mistake of falling for a boy because she found herself enamored with the smooth skin on his forehead. When she became pregnant, they got married too young, and truth be told, she didn’t think she could do any better. Dolores’ story is the story of every young woman who didn’t know her own worth, and who measured it by a soft pair of hands or the feminine curls on the head of the first boy who regarded them with less than contempt. These physical features that would appear banal to anyone else, but in the eye of the lovelorn and lonely beholder, they become monuments to escapism.

But as she gets older, her husband’s alcoholism and educational beatings become more tiring. Dolores is worn down by his roughness for too long. It’s as if she’s been treated with a cheese grater that’s slowly been shredding her away until she’s just that troublesome, misshapen nub that no one knows what to do with, so you devour it or throw it away. When she’s not at home, she’s working for the wealthy and exceedingly reclusive Vera Donovan as her top housekeeper and caretaker. What money she doesn’t squirrel away for her kids’ college funds, her husband claims as his own because a woman is nothing in this ideology if she has not been established and incorporated by a man. She may have done the work, but he earned the money by being born with a dick.

And even so, it takes her husband exacting petty revenge via a heinous series of acts with Dolores’ daughter for Dolores to realize that the only way out of the corner she’s been backed into is through the person who backed her into it.

But Dolores doesn’t get off easy, and spends the next several years of her life tending to Vera, whose mind starts to give way to old age with little grace. The two engage in petty games of tug of war, but at the end of the day, when darkness creeps around the edges, Vera’s own past haunts her in the shadows. It’s then that Dolores wonders if this is the price she’s had to pay for being a bitch -- if comforting this sobbing old woman who’s frightened of the dust gathering under her own bed and in the corners of her room, enveloping her like the grayness of death that’s slowly taking her, is the penance Dolores must pay for living in defiance of life itself.

“This is how you pay off bein’ a bitch. And it ain’t no use sayin’ if you hadn’t been a bitch you wouldn’t’ve had to pay, because sometimes the world makes you be a bitch. When it’s all doom n dark outside and only you inside to first make a light n then tend it, you have to be a bitch. But oh, the price. The terrible price.”

We’re shoved around and shuffled off into corners, backed up against walls in a space that’s already limited. And when we dare to defy life and what we’ve been given, we’re called bitches. When we dare to take agency for ourselves and reclaim it, to declare that no, we do not exist because of or for men, we’re called bitches. When we stand up and say, “enough,” we’re called bitches. And then we have hell to pay for it: the guilt that consumes us, the ghosts of regret that haunt us, the fear that our pain and misery was everything we had coming to us and we deserved live in it. We feel the ache of nostalgia for suffering we think we should have endured. We were bitches because we had to be, and if we have to endure someone else’s misery, then we deserve it for our defiance and all the years of suffering we had the gall to elude. We are all Dolores Claiborne.