Is “bitch” a dirty word?

Hi. I’m new. Like a lot of you, I’ve learned a lot about feminism in the last few years and have slowly but surely learned to recognize that many of the things I used to be okay with, simply can’t be reconciled with calling myself a feminist.
A lot of people use the word “bitch” in their daily vocabulary, especially when describing a woman they feel is rude, perhaps disrespectful, perhaps snotty or even bigoted. We use the word “bitch” as an adjective as well, saying something like, “That job was a bitch.” But the term, whatever part of speech it is, is always derogatory.
We’ve accepted in this movement that the words “lame,” “gay,” and “retarded” (among others) are not appropriate. We go out of our way to explain to others why they shouldn’t use the word “gay” to describe something or someone they don’t like or that is unpleasant. Can the same thing be said of the word “bitch”?
The word originally meant “female dog” and apparently (according to Wikipedia — I’m not going to do a lot of research right now) has been around in the derogatory form since 1400. It also is used to degrade men (i.e. “He’s my bitch” in prison and “son of a bitch.”)
Recently, however, the feminist movement has re-appropriated the term, similar to how the fat acceptance movement has reclaimed the word “fat.”
But as those of us in the FA movement know, while you may be comfortable calling yourself fat, you probably aren’t comfortable using the term to call someone else fat, regardless of their BMI.
Which brings up the question: When is it okay to use the word “bitch”? What do other feminists think about this? Is it okay to call yourself a bitch, but not okay to call other men or women it? Should you say something when someone describes a woman as a bitch in the same way that I would say something when someone uses the term “gay” in a derogatory way?
In other words, is the word “bitch” a dirty word?

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9 Comments

  1. JoanOfArc
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I dislike the whole ‘reclaiming offensive words’ movement. I think it is silly and unnecessary. I can be a feminist without reclaiming ‘bitch’ or ‘cunt.’ To me, the words always echo of their hurtful past, even when used in a so-called ‘empowering’ way. I’d rather fight against offensive terms than try to pretend that the words somehow lose that echo when said by the ‘right’ group in the ‘right’ way.
    Joan

  2. breama
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to point out that even when the word “bitch” is directed towards a man, it is being used in a way that derogates women. If a man is called a bitch, the insinuation is that he is not manly enough (i.e. showing supposedly feminine qualities). Often, this is taken to mean that he has “allowed” someone to exert power and control over him – this is especially clear in the “prison bitch” example which is referring to unwanted sexual domination. The phrase “son of a bitch” is an insult to the person by way of insulting that person’s mother. Even when the word is used as a verb (“all he does is bitch”) the reference is to a woman who complains too much.
    I don’t think that using the word is ever empowering to women, though I must admit that I have used it on occasion. Language is one of those things that I struggle with as a feminist; it is so ingrained in our culture that it is sometimes difficult to escape.

  3. Aimee
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    For me, I like the word bitch, but I would only use it to describe myself or someone else that I know uses it to describe hirself. I don’t use it as an insult, I only use it to mean someone who is assertive and gets things done.
    When others refer to women as bitches, I usually make the point that it’s a sexist insult.
    I do sometimes use bitch as a verb, for instance, I often cite my interests as “bitching and baby-cuddling.”
    And I love the 90s song. :)

  4. rustyspoons
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I refer to myself as a bitch, because I know that name is normally applied as a pathetic attempt at controlling women’s behavior (i.e. don’t say or do that, or people will think you’re a BITCH!) So I’m like, “Your gonna call me a bitch? Yeah that’s right I am, and you’re not gonna stop me!”
    In high school I’d overhear the boys talking and it seemed anything a girl said or did got her labeled “a bitch”. i concluded that to not be a “bitch” in their eyes was to sit with your back against the wall all your life. Not for me.

  5. melissad884
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    This is one word I cannot stomach because my abusive father used it against me regularly. It’s too painful for me to even attempt to be political about it.

  6. Mina
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    “Which brings up the question: When is it okay to use the word ‘bitch’? What do other feminists think about this?”
    Me, I try to save it for female dogs and wolves, maybe coyotes too.

  7. Tofu
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    “But the term, whatever part of speech it is, is always derogatory.”
    Just a minor note- where does “bitchin” fit into this discussion? As in: “That show was bitchin!” Obviously a dated term, but still interesting that it was being used as a positive.

  8. electrictoaster
    Posted July 25, 2009 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    If someone calls me a bitch, or calls someone else a bitch in conversation to me, I’ll explain what it really means in our culture, and why using it as an insult is a worse reflection on the speaker than the target. I don’t try to reclaim it by using it, though. Some people are going to inevitably misinterpret what you said and think you’re self-loathing or misogynist, and a lot of others would get (rightfully imo) upset if I aimed a pejorative at them for the sake of my own politics. (I do love the magazine, though, and I really don’t care if nonfemininists or antifeminists see the cover and get their hackles up. OH YOU MUST BE A MANHATER.)
    I like cunt, though. Not to refer to women (there’s enough of conflating women and their parts without us doin it imo), but to refer to my genitals. It seems like all the other words for female genitals are clinical; soft and ‘feminine’; or a ‘funny’ implication that my genitals are gross, just a plaything for men, what-have-you. Words from the first 2 categories work fine 95% of the time, but sometimes I want to be able to choose a word that sounds more assertive. It’s something I use rarely but gives me a little happy-boost when I do. I love my cunt, and saying ‘I love my pussy’, ‘I love my front bottom’, or even ‘I love my vulva’ doesn’t seem to have the same kind of impact. Maybe that’s just me?

  9. Cicada Nymph
    Posted July 25, 2009 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I see what you are saying, though I have noticed that “bitch” is a term I usually only use for men and I don’t believe I use it because I think that calling a man a term that was used for women is demeaning, though I can see how many people could use/view it that way. For me it is my form of reclaiming the word and on a personal basis helps to distance it from the original meaning. When I use it this way I do feel good, like I have taken a word used to put women in their place and instead used it for another purpose, (ok, probably not all that nice, but you know) and me using the term, but not on women, means I have claimed it for my own and changed its meaning. I stay away from using the term to describe most women though I do use it jokingly with friends. All this for me takes the power and sting away from the word. Personally, I think that if people are using an offensive word with the intent of reclaiming it then even though others may choose not to do the same I don’t think they should pass judgement. (This is a general comment, not saying that you were). I feel the same way about offensive racial terms that have been reappropriated.

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