Why I won’t “reclaim bitch”

My first post was personal, just my story – how I came to identify as a feminist. My second was about street harassment, a topic that, as far as I know, most self-identified feminists agree upon – street harassment sucks. What’s been exciting to me about working on this third post is that I know feminists don’t agree on this issue. I want to write about “bitch,” the word and the ways it is used and the movement to “reclaim” it. I would like to say that the world has enough people in it telling women how to think and feel and conduct themselves, and I don’t want to add to this by telling women what they should or should not call themselves. However, I do think it can be hard to see the forest that is our sexist culture  for the trees that are the words we use constantly. If it makes you think, great. If not, do what you want to do – that is feminist.

This topic, the word “bitch,” felt bigger and more complex than the other things I have tackled here so far, so I did some research. What I found was rather eye opening for me. Most of the pieces I read about the movement to reclaim “bitch” were disappointingly shallow and lacked analysis other than “We can make the word mean what we want it to mean! Girl power!” or the heavily clichéd statement “You say I’m a bitch like it’s a bad thing.” I didn’t find these articles/blog posts useful. Then I came across a piece titled Reclaiming Critical Analysis: The Social Harms of “Bitch.” If you want to read the article for yourself, I would strongly encourage you to do so (I’ve linked the title above to the PDF file). I was actually sad to finish reading it – it was that brilliant.

“Bitch” came into use to describe women in the fourteenth century. Before that it had only been used to talk about female dogs. It came into fashion as a slang term for an undesirable woman with a high sex drive (which was, and still is to some degree, considered unfeminine and dangerous). Culture was then, and still is, afraid of female sexuality. Calling a woman a bitch suggested she was the same as a dog in heat. So, right from the beginning, it was a term used to dehumanize women and to shame them for being sexual beings. A bitch is on the bottom. A bitch is subjugated. A bitch is freely fucked by the other dogs (or men, in this case), is illogical and unreasonable (desperate like the dog in heat) and lacks human dignity. Being called a dog is not a compliment, being called a bitch is worse. If a woman can be dismissed as, “Oh, she’s just being a bitch,” then her voice does not need to be taken seriously. “Bitch,” as a label, is used to punish and silence women.

At some point, and I am not exactly sure when, the meaning of the word expanded to include men who were seen as feminine or dominated. A bitch is a man who does not perform his male-role properly, who is not on top. When talking about gender, men are usually considered the privileged group while women are seen as oppressed. Even inside the privileged male-group, there is still a hierarchy of masculinity. Masculinity can be understood in many ways, but the definition I like best is, “what men do to be men.” Men who do not embody hegemonic masculinity (because of class, race, disabilities, sexual preference or anything else) are also oppressed by the narrow definition of what “being a real man” means. When used to insult a woman or a man, “bitch” means they are not performing their gender properly. A woman is a bitch if she is too sexual, too loud about her opinions, too blunt or too anything else that isn’t tied to our culture’s very limited view of what femininity should look like. A man is a “bitch” if he is too feminine, too submissive, too emotional or just generally not masculine enough.

Variations of the phrase “to be someone’s bitch” are not hard to come by in everyday conversation. When used in this context, it is clear that being “the bitch” in any situation is not a desirable thing. Another troubling way this word shows up in conversation is with phrases like, “I made that test my bitch,” or “That was a bitch of an exam.” We are so used to hearing the word thrown around in this context that most of us hardly pause to think about it. The reason this kind of language is so problematic is that bitch, while sometimes used to describe men who are not performing their male-gender properly, usually means the female in a situation — the subjugated one, the one getting fucked. In the first example, the idea is that the student made the test his bitch by dominating it, which embeds our language with a casual acceptance of patriarchy and violence against (or the subjugation of) women. In the second statement, a bitch is clearly something undesirable (meaning difficult or tricky) — why should that be equated with ideas of womanhood and female sexuality?

It’s fairly easy to understand that the word is a highly gendered insult — what isn’t so clear is what to think of it when women casually call each other / sometimes very proudly call themselves “bitches.” This is where ideas about “bitch” tend to split — some want a movement to “reclaim” the word while others just want it gone. I’d really just like it to disappear from everyone’s vocabulary.

To begin with, you cannot “reclaim” something that never belonged to you. While the term, “bitch” was once attached to the Greek/Roman goddess, Artemis-Diana, who was the goddess of the hunt and thus often depicted in the company of hounds, the word has never belonged to women. To call the female dogs “bitches” was fine; to call the goddess a “bitch” was a way to suppress the perceptions of her as powerful, sexual and divine – to liken her to a sexually depraved hound. The phrase, “son of a bitch” was coined by Christians to shame those who were followers of the goddess into believing the things they were supposed to believe – Strict and god-ordered patriarchy and Christian ideology (Kleinman, Ezzell, Frost).

So while there may be a movement to “reclaim ‘bitch,’” the best we could ever hope for would be to “claim” it, since it has never belonged to anyone but our oppressors. But the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post brought up a great point towards the end– why would we bother to “reclaim” a word that has no positive meaning when we could put our energy into reclaiming the words that used to mean something to us but have been co-opted by the sexists and woman-haters of our world?

I’m talking about reclaiming “feminist” and “feminism.” Today, feminism is usually presented as some radical, super-leftist idea. It’s presented as man-hating and penis-envy and as a diet of aborted fetuses. But all feminism is is the idea that women are just as human as men are and the acknowledgement that sexism is still alive and well and needs to be dealt with. That’s what it is. It’s not “feminazi” or “bra-burning.” It’s the belief that women are equal to, not biologically the same as, but equal to men and should be treated with the same human dignity and respect. Wouldn’t it be nice to take back that phrase? I know I feel much more empowered saying, “I’m a feminist” than “I’m a bitch.”

“Bitch” has no movement behind it, and the women who like to use the term to refer to other women/themselves (who think they are being empowered by “reclaiming” the term) are actually only enjoying a small and false sense of power. As oppressed people, we may enjoy using the words that have been used against us, it may feel rebellious and like we are taking control, but using “bitch” to refer to women (or men) does nothing to challenge patriarchy or sexism. It’s a false sense of progress. It plays right into the system.

The fact is that “bitch” is still used to silence and delegitimize women. You only have to look as far back into history as 2008 to remember when Hillary Clinton was running for president – how many people dismissed her, trying to make her invisible, by labeling her “bitchy” or “harpy.” If you don’t like her, that’s fine, but why not talk about her politics instead of just calling her a bitch? Male politicians are simply never talked about in this way, they are allowed to have their voices even if people disagree with their politics. Think about the phrase, “Oh, she’s just bitching.” It takes all responsibility away from the listener to hear and consider the complaints of the woman who is trying to communicate. It completely dismisses anything she might say because she is female (a bitch) and therefore “just bitching.”

In recent years, “bitch” has been in the media because of how commonly it is said in certain genres of music. The “Reclaiming” article discusses how that obnoxious rapper, Eminem, says the “n-word” is “not even in his vocabulary” but uses “bitch” over and over and raps casually about violence against women. There is a double standard here. Words proceed actions and if women can be dehumanized and dismissed as “bitches,” violence against women becomes easier to swallow and to commit. If she was a bitch, she had it coming – see where this is going?

“Bitch,” whether it is said casually, jokingly or in an attempt to be empowered, perpetuates patriarchal bullshit that says women are not full people and do not deserve the same dignity and respect men are seen as warranting by default. This, my friends, is why you get called out for using it in my presence. This is why some of your jokes are really not funny.

Seriously, read that article I linked to at the top.
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Kait Mauro is a twenty year old undergraduate at Washington University in Saint Louis where she studies Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Writing. She is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She blogs her creative work (poetry and photography), and recently feminist writings, over at Don’t Flinch. She can be contacted at kaitmauro@gmail.com.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted June 11, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Those are some great points. I wanted to use the term positively until I remembered how bitch is used to describe men and decided it wasn’t such a valuable word after all.

  2. Posted June 11, 2012 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I dunno — I see a good deal of good to be done in reclaiming words like ‘bitch’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’ etc. because doing so would take away their power to hurt us. Let’s face it: Words do hurt. At the very least, they give other people an opportunity to shove it in our faces that we can’t do a thing about it when we’re called names, and at worst, we start believing what they preach.

    To reclaim words is to, at bare minimum, take away their ability to undermine us. To neutralize them, if you will. How to do that? Eh, up for debate, I suppose… but we do need to dissolve any woman-hating specific slurs, just for the fact that they are a weapon that’s been used against us.

  3. Posted June 12, 2012 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    I view “bitch” very tongue-in-cheekedly (also “slut”). I remember sitting in art class as a teenager one day, overhearing yet another (loud) conversation among the boys in the class about the girls who were “bitches” and why—and it hit me that there was NOTHING a woman can say or do that won’t get her labeled a bitch somehow. Assertive, outgoing girls were “bitches”, so were more conventionally soft-spoken and “feminine” girls. Pretty or plain, smart or dull, the girls who had sex, the girls who didn’t yet, they all were somehow “bitches” for these contradictory reasons. The bitch is in the eye of the beholder—and the beholder has a lot more hangups about gender and women than I do in these cases.

  4. Posted June 12, 2012 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    I’m ambivalent about reclaiming slurs in general, but I think I’ve come to a conclusion about it. I don’t believe that words like bitch can ever be reclaimed in the broader social context. What I mean by this is I don’t believe that we will ever get to the point that nobody uses it as a gender slur. There will be plenty of people who use it as a compliment, but I don’t think it could ever be totally separated from its past. There will still be people who use bitch in a misogynist way, and I don’t ever see that changing.

    However, I think it is useful for some women in a personal context. Being a woman (or a part of any group that deals with oppression on a daily basis) is really hard. It’s painful. While I don’t want to reclaim bitch, or slut, or whore, I don’t feel right telling other women how to deal with sexism or misogyny. If calling themselves that takes the sting out of it when it is inevitably used against them as a gendered insult, then who am I to tell them they’re wrong?

    I think this is the way it should be addressed in the feminist movement. Not as an effort to change the meaning on a wide scale, but a personal choice some women make to feel better after all the sexism they face. If we can understand that, and that it works for some women and not others, I don’t think there should be much conflict left about it.

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