Sometimes, It’s Okay to Be Mean
Sometimes, It Keeps Us Alive
It’s ok to be mean.
Dad taught me so, as he stood at the kitchen counter, playing with his watch. I poured a glass of milk, gargled, and gulped. I’d emerged from my bedroom after paging through A Child’s Book of Saints. Reading about morality had made me thirsty. I swished milk between my cheeks, warming it, and thought about the book’s martyrs and mystics. I admired them, especially the girls, but a pattern troubled me. Bad things happened to the saintliest ones. Villagers lit them on ﬁre. Pirates and aristocrats raped them. Barbarians carved their breasts and noses off. It seemed that the nicer you were, especially during the Middle Ages, the meaner the world was.
“Dad?” I said.
“Why does evil exist?”
“Just a second,” he answered.
He multitasked, pondering my inquiry while ﬁddling with his watch. The lack of a quick response made me uneasy.
Through my milk moustache, I blurted, “Why does god let so many bad things happen?”
I breathed through my mouth. Waited.
Dad looked at me with the same face he made when I questioned the Easter Bunny’s existence. In a matter-of-fact voice, he said, “Myriam, think of how boring life would be if nothing bad ever happened.”
His words felt epiphanic. I smiled and my heart felt very, very warm.
It was bathing in permission.
What an excellent point. Why hadn’t I arrived at that conclusion? Dad’s words rehabilitated bad things. His logic made them beautiful. Necessary, in fact.
It isn’t just greed that’s good. Mean is good too. Being mean makes us feel alive. It’s fun and exciting. Sometimes, it keeps us alive.
W. H. Auden wrote that evil is unspectacular. I totally disagree. Evil is dazzling. If it’s done right, mean can be dazzling too.
We act mean to defend ourselves from boredom and from those who would chop off our breasts. We act mean to defend our clubs and institutions. We act mean because we like to laugh. Being mean to boys is fun and a second-wave feminist duty. Being rude to men who deserve it is a holy mission. Sisterhood is powerful, but being a bitch is more exhilarating. Being a bitch is spectacular.
Being mean isn’t for everybody.
It’s best practiced by those who understand it as an art form. These virtuosos live closer to the divine. They’re queers.
To observe the queer art of being mean, watch Paris Is Burning.
Venus Xtravaganza, a trans woman who’s murdered partway through the documentary, inspires me to be a better mean. In a scene where she’s so beautifully lit she looks like a painting, Venus cries, “You wanna talk about reading? Let’s talk about reading!” She embodies her femininity with cruel genius and shakes her peroxided mane. She rubs her ﬁngers down her creamy arms. Her skin’s beauty reminds me of good, soft things—peaches, magic hour sunlight, babies that never cry. She yells, “Touch this skin, darling, touch this skin, honey! Touch all of this skin! ok? You just can’t take it! You’re just an overgrown orangutan.” She pronounces orangutan so that each syllable awakens and develops a soul.
Drag queen Dorian Corey also demonstrates the high art of meanness during her interviews. New York learned the extent of it after AIDS killed her. Friends were cleaning out her home and found a mummiﬁed hustler among her sequins and feathers. Somebody had wrapped his corpse in imitation leather and stuffed it in a trunk. Shrouding him in pleather was perhaps the cruelest part of the violence.
When was the last time you were mean for fun? When was the last time you were mean in the name of politics? Have you ever been mean for Jesus? When was the last time you tried to kill someone rather than let him into your club? When was the last time you wanted to kill someone but chose to be a bitch instead of a murderer?
Have you been called a bitch?
Dad has gotten so pissed at Mom, my sister, and me that he has called us bitches.
When he calls us this word, I want to say, “Dad, we’re just making your life more interesting. Remember?”
From Mean. Used with permission of Emily Books, an imprint of Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2017 by Myriam Gurba.