I remember back when I was in college, my friend Amy and I were kidding around one day. She said something snarky, so I whacked her on the arm and called her a bitch. She stopped laughing and got very quiet. Finally she said, “You can call me a lot of names. But one thing I get angry about is being called a bitch. I’m not a bitch.”
Of course I apologized, and the episode was over. And I understood where she was coming from. I’d taken the same feminist lit., women in religion, and Jungian thought courses as she. We included the same female faculty members among our mentors. “Androgyny” was the Big Word on Campus. I understood that, for example in business, an assertive male who spoke his mind and didn’t tolerate nonsense and who pushed his own agenda was admired, whereas a woman exhibiting the same characteristics would be labeled a bitch.
Bitch = uppity, shrill, pushy, domineering woman.
It’s a word intended to critique, to insult and disempower, to humiliate a woman so she cowers back to her “place.”
That was 1984.
This is 2007 (oh stop it with the mental calculations already. I’m 44.) The word "bitch" is shape-shifting, morphing into something else. Don’t believe me? What about Bitch, the feminist magazine out of Berkeley? Look to the right at my list of links to various blogs. What about BitchPHD?
This issue comes up because the other day I called Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi bitches, thereby making the hackles rise on the neck of the friend I’d said it to. “I don’t like it,” she said, “When women of power are called bitches.” I found myself in the position of having to explain myself (and I invite a healthy discussion here—just click on “comments” below to put in your two cents).
Words are only constructs, right? We are the ones who imbue them with meaning. So if “bitch” has been used historically against women as a weapon, a way to insult us into compliance, a way to discredit women who are strong, unshakeable, articulate, ambitious, opinionated, powerful … why allow the word that kind of power? These are in reality good, often necessary traits, so see “bitch” not an as insult, but rather take it as a compliment. In doing that, we rob the word of its ability to cut us off at the knees.
The easiest analogy I can make is to what’s happened to the word “queer.” It used to be a horrible slur flung at gay people (“gay”: yet another word that’s morphed) to insult their “abnormality,” their “inverted nature.” But the word’s been co-opted, and now you’ll hear even academics referring to such things as queer theory. “Queer” now seems to be a catch-all term that means the person identifying as such has an appreciation for any sexual or gender difference; thus not just gay people are queer nowadays, but so are bisexuals, the transgendered, even straight folks who have a more expansive sensibility might identify as queer.
Not everyone is happy with the path the word has taken. Some gay people look askance at anyone identifying as queer and opine that some heterosexual people are just trying to be cool while co-opting gay culture. They’ll say a genuine gay person will identify as simply that: lesbian or gay. So who’s being inclusive and who’s being disenfranchised now? Seriously, the accusations are enough to make your head spin. To a great extent I think the conflict is generational—to many of us, queer is still a slur that’s felt keenly to be hurtful, just as “dyke” used to be and “faggot” still is. Others perceive “queer” as a code word for “bisexual,” and there remains much bitterness over their perceived attempt to receive sexual benefit while maintaining heterosexual privilege. Likewise the battle over the inclusion of transgendered persons as queer: is a male-to-female transwoman, for instance, who remains attracted to women, truly a lesbian when she’s genetically a male? Younger people appear to have an easier time shrugging and saying, “You are what you think you are, regardless of what society says.”
“Bitch” is no less convoluted a word. The same friend who got up in arms about my calling Clinton and Pelosi bitches has told me, on a separate occasion, that there is no way she’d ever ride in the Gay Pride Parade on the back of someone’s bike as their “bitch.” (Me, I was like, “Oooh, a motorcycle! Fun! I’ll ride on the back!”) It also seems as if context and tone should be taken into consideration. Sometimes my buddies affectionately call each other “biatch” or “beeyotch,” and it’s clearly not meant as an insult. And then some of these women who don’t like the word “bitch” will turn around and say they admire powerful women because “they’ve got balls.” Ack. I know what they mean when they say that, but I do have to bite my tongue and not point out that this very definition is sexist—powerful women are powerful when they’re, um, about as much like a man as they could possibly be?
Perhaps the day will arrive when we admire a powerful man as a man “who’s got ovaries.” Perhaps the day will come when we can compliment a powerful man for being a bitch. Perhaps one day we’ll all identify as queer, every one of us. In the meantime, perhaps we must bend a little, and be flexible as willow branches, just as our language bends, flexes, and evolves, and bear in mind that most words in English have multiple meanings.