The word ‘bitch’ is so pervasive, girls no longer ask: ‘Am I a bitch?’ But instead: ‘What kind of a bitch am I?’
This weekend the hashtag #YesAllWomen trended in Twitter in the wake of the mass shooting in California. I believe, like many others, that part of the reason for this response, one that has generated millions of tweets encapsulating women’s experiences avoiding male violence and its threat, was the resonant quality of the killers language. Yes, he was very sick. Yes, he was extreme. But, also yes, he was a misogynist using common, intrinsically hostile words we often hear, like “slut.”
In addition, his vicious aggression is also common. It appears in the comments sections of YouTube, in the ugliness of rape jokes, in Tweets, in the glamorized violence of advertising where women are portrayed dead, bleeding, and dying and men are portrayed as powerful, dominant, and cruel.
— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) May 26, 2014
Or, say, here in these comments to a video posted by media activist Kat Lazo, very typical, by the way.
Just listen to writer Lindy West reading her comments.
— Soraya Chemaly (@schemaly) May 26, 2014
The ways that we all come to perceive female humanity as degraded and quietly, as girls, through a thousand paper-cuts, incorporate that idea into our senses of self, could generate an infinitely trending hashtag by itself.
Why it is so hard for people to admit these connections between our being marinated in a culture that tolerates this level of hate and the expression of mental illness is, frankly, beyond me. But, I do understand that it is scary and painful to think about the ways we are immersed and complicit. Misogyny is in the air that we breathe and, most importantly as a matter of everyday actions that we have control over, in the words we speak.
How many times do you think a person hears the word “bitch” by the time they are, say, 30? This is a commonly used word and, for these purposes, the most benign proxy for others like slut, whore, ho, cunt—other words that are used in positive and negative ways. I mean, really, being called a badass bitch is pretty cool. But consider:
One of the most memorable days of my childhood was the day an uncle arrived unannounced and carefully placed a jiggling cardboard box in my arms. Inside was a wide-eyed puppy. It was beautiful and, around its neck, was a fine, pink ribbon tied in a bow. I was still recovering from the horror of having recently squeezed a poor chick to death out of sheer love, so the sight of the small, sturdy dog was not only a delight but a relief. I could not actually love this animal to death. When I saw the ribbon, I was excited that it was a girl, like me, and I loved her the moment I set eyes on her.
Only, it wasn’t a girl. It was a joke. As I opened the box and held the dog to my chest, I realized that everyone was laughing at my dismayed father. My uncle was reassuring him that it wasn’t a female puppy at all, but a male one. He’d only tied the pink ribbon on it to fool my father, who, apparently, didn’t want a female dog.
Long before I ever heard the word used to refer to a woman, I knew the word “bitch.” My grandfather used it in the technical sense to refer to female dogs. As an adult, I can understand not wanting a dog that might have puppies that you’d then have to be responsible for. As a child, however, this was confusing. At 5, I had no idea how babies happened, so all I got out of this conversation was the undesirability of femaleness.
By this time, I’d already heard the story of my grandfather’s happiness at finally, after three girls, having a son. He closed his business so that he could celebrate and, despite the fact that his wife had just given birth for the fourth time, hosted a three-day, round-the-clock party attended by hundreds at their home.
I have daughters and countless people over the years, always in a voice the girls can hear, have said, “No boy?” with a sympathetic smile, patting my husband’s back. What are girls supposed to think when they hear that question? It is a false equivalence to suggest that asking “No girl?” is a culturally symmetrical force. As Emily Hauser put it, “You throw like a girl. Don’t pussy out on me, bro! I’m gonna make that job my bitch! Close your eyes for a moment and substitute any other person-naming noun/pejorative for the words ‘girl,’ ‘pussy,’ and ‘bitch.’ You throw like an Asian. Don’t Hymie out on me, bro! I’m gonna make that job my nigger!” Makes you cringe, huh?”
Turns out I’m nothing if not consistent in life, so despite the adult banter, I explained that my dog was a girl and that I would keep the ribbon tied on because the adults clearly didn’t have grasp on much. The conflation of “girl” and “bitch” as generic and interchangeable terms, whether intentional or not, is inevitable for all girls.
Sitting in a theatre with eight 13-year-old girls and hundreds of teenagers, I examined their faces in the dim light as a long clip for the popular television show, “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt 23,” played on screen. These kids were acutely aware of my adult presence, I imagine, as the word was repeated over and over by laughing cast members who used the word “bitch” to describe men and women both, the reason being, we are all bitches now. Not a sexist deprecation, right?
At the end of the clip, in a counterproductive effort to keep content “family friendly,” the movie theatre voice-over announced, “And, don’t forget, Don’t Ever Trust Those Girls in Apt 23.” With that sly linguistic slight of hand, they had equated all girls, with “bitches” and announced they couldn’t be trusted. Boys were starkly excluded.
I watched the switch ripple through the room, teenage brains clicking, clicking, clicking.
Now, “bitch” is a more complicated word than ever. The question for a girl now really isn’t “Am I a bitch?” but “What kind of bitch am I?” Slippery, intrinsically denigrating, used hurtfully and to claim power, it folds itself—like slut—into the consciousness of all girls and women.
The real question is when does a girl become a bitch? When she’s 8? Ten? Thirteen? For girls of color, historically and in many places still, even that small window is elusive. They are bitches by birth as women in our thoroughly racist world.
The first time I remember someone calling me a bitch was when I was 10 and not responding as desired to a street harassment directive issued by a group of men who sat, wormlike, tumbling off of the ledge of a wall near my house. They casually hurled it as a sexist epithet at girls and women who ignored them. This has never ended.
The most common coupling for me remains, “Stuck up bitch,” sometimes there was a racial modifier added for good measure. My sister, slimmer, has always been more likely to hear, “Skinny bitch.” We laughed at our luck last year when, having gotten close enough to actually see our faces, a scrawny boy half our median years, gave us the bitch-less “gift” of “Damn, you look good for your age.” We have a low bar, I know. In this context, it’s undeniably misogynistic and carries with it the implicit suggestion of violence, as it often does.
How many times do you think a person who reaches the age of, say, 20 has heard the word “bitch” in combination with violence against women on television, in movies, or in games? No one even flinches. This doesn’t even require porn, in which 82% of movies have at least one scene of physical aggression against women and more than 95% use misogynistic language.
Violence and “bitch” are a pair.
Take the Facebook page “I Kill Bitches,” (now removed) which featured a picture of pointed gun. A community of men there described how they’d shoot women. It was categorized as “controversial humor,” a designation no longer used.
For the past year, I have been actively challenging Facebook to examine policies that reflect mainstream sexist norms. Pages with the word, used positively and negatively, proliferate on Facebook. It’s not the company’s fault, Facebook is just a mirror of global culture and, in that global culture, online or off, interspersed with the affectionate usage, is the word “bitch” in combination with infinite depictions of female degradation and images of women drugged, beaten, bloodie
I asked the company if they had analyzed language to discern patterns of gender-based hate and related suppressions of women’s speech. “Bitch” was disallowed because “Happy Birthday, Bitch!” is the most common use.
The word is so pervasive that it was not included in a study of misogynistic slurs on Twitter that was released last week. People have been most surprised by the finding that women use the word as frequently as men. It’s the hallmark of misogyny that women have to trade all kinds of things, including often dignity, for safety and security. Again, why anyone is surprised, I don’t know. Incorporating the humiliation and dehumanization of women into your worldview is a cultural prerequisite, regardless of sex.
What is truly notable, however, is the many ways we find to challenge the relentless capacity of words to hurt us. “(B) Beautiful (I) Intelligent (T) Trustworthy (C) Caring (H) Happy!” Reclamation was on the mind of the founders of Bitch magazine, a copy of which rests happily on a coffee table in my living room. Few people have had to think and talk about the way “bitch” has been used in the past 20 years as much as its feminist founders. So I called one of them, Andi Zeisler, who’s also the current Creative and Editorial Director, and asked her about this idea.
“We started Bitch in part because we were very inspired by how the LGBTQ community had reclaimed ‘queer,’ and it seemed to us that ‘bitch’ was ripe for similar reclamation,” she explained. “Eighteen years later, I can say that it hasn’t been as successful as we’d hoped. At this point, I’m not particularly optimistic about the possibility of its reclamation, but I do think it’s important to talk about the many reflexive ways we use it and what that says about us.”
What remains unchanged is that, in addition to implying servility, “bitch,” regardless of political affiliation, is still the go-to word for assertive, strong women, those who run for political office, or have “autocratic” management styles. In other words: any woman who insists she is competent and has the right to be authoritative. Most sexists, especially those with media visibility, for the time being, still reserve “cunt” for private exchanges. (Some, however, feel no need to restrain themselves.)
In addition, even outside of context, there is no denying its structural place. “Bitches,” like “hos,” and “sluts,” are actually not the benign equivalents of “man,” “mankind,” and “guys.” Even when used positively, these categorizations reinforce a male positive/female negative binary that perpetuate social harms, especially considering how intersections of race, class, and sexuality conspire to amplify verbal harassment and oppression. That “mother” as in “the mother of all…” is one of the only positive generics is also a problem, focusing as it does on our reproductive capabilities.
To me, “bitch” solidifies male dominance of culture, regardless of who uses it or how. Like denigrating humor, derogatory language is a fundamental component of dehumanization. I choose not to use it because I feel that when I do I give license to others who derive cultural power when they do. Not a popular position, I know. When the occasion calls for the word in a critical sense,“fuckwit” works just fine and doesn’t involve quietly chipping away at myself or reclaiming a word I never owned in the first place.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.