“Bitch” can be a pretty harmless word.
For instance, when trying to figure out what to write about for my column, I went around asking my people, “What should I bitch about this week?” I write a feminist column, so I realize that in asking that, I’m half-jokingly admitting to being a bitch.
I bitch, therefore I am.
I’m not trying to be self-deprecating, but rather I’m using “bitch” in a way that isn’t negative. I’ve reclaimed it — along with plenty of other women (I’m talkin’ about you, Meredith Brooks). What used to be an insult has become something that a woman can now be proud of — a label that signifies strength, outspokenness and all those other “unladylike” qualities.
Of course, the reclamation of “bitch” is nothing new, but it’s still in the process of being reappropriated. It’s because of this reason that the 2008 Saturday Night Live sketch where Amy Poehler and Tina Fey declared, “Bitches get stuff done” is still resonant and funny (it’s funny ‘cause it’s true).
But at its core, “bitch” is a misogynistic word, and the problem with “bitch” doesn’t only arise when it’s used disparagingly. “Bitch” screamed into a cell phone, yelled out a car window, delivered with a slap across the face, scrawled on a scrap of loose leaf and handed to a frenemy in Mrs. Collins’ third hour — these are all moments when “bitch” is indisputably a not-nice word to use.
The more subtly problematic usage of “bitch” arises when people who aren’t women — or perhaps more specifically, not bitches — say the word, especially if it’s not being used in a deliberately insulting manner.
I’m thinking, in particular, of a conversation I had with a few friends the other day. One friend — a male — was talking about a concert that got out of hand. Punches were thrown, bodies were bloodied and “bitches were brought up on the stage to dance and have vodka poured all over them.” Let’s overlook the discussion of women as stage props for a second, and think about the fact that he felt comfortable labeling women as bitches in the presence of a woman. I didn’t say anything, partly because I was only half-listening to the conversation, but also because I didn’t want to be labeled as that-girl-who-you-can’t-say-“bitch”-around — or to be labeled one, for that matter. And the conversation continued on its course.
The fact that he used that word seems to say something that’s simultaneously reassuring and troublesome: He’s comfortable enough in my presence to use that word around me. But also, it says I am not part of the group of women known as “bitches” — at least in his use of the word, meaning dumb-bitches-who-get-vodka-poured-all-over-them. It’s the same way some friends feel comfortable talking to me about how sorority girls are “sluts” — hell, even the label sorority girls can sting if said with the right tone. I’m not “one of them,” so it’s cool if we criticize and massively overgeneralize women for their friend groups, their Bodycon dresses and “walks of shame,” right?
The answer, by the way, is no. It’s still misogynistic, even if you’re talking to a female.
I have another friend who likes to use the term “white bitches” (for the record, he’s white, so the only thing that’s really differentiating him from these stupid white girls he’s talking about is the fact that he’s not a female). I wouldn’t anecdotally refer to a male as a “white dick.” I realize “dick” is hilariously not interchangeable at all with “bitch,” which again shows how rooted in misogyny the whole existence of the word is — there simply isn’t a male equivalent!
So why is “bitch” an appropriate general term for females? I realize there’s the fact that “bitch” can be used on males as well, but really you’re just equating men to females and implying females are weak/stupid/whatever else, so it’s still sexist. Moving on.
But, after all this bitching about the word “bitch,” there’s still the part of me that really truly does think the word has its uses. “Bitch” can be funny, “bitch” can be clever, “bitch” can be useful. “Bitch” is a verb and a noun and even an adjective. Really, who could argue that “bitchin’ ” as an adjective is offensive? Who actually gets offended when told that their outfit is “bitchin’ ” today? No one! But seriously, “bitch” just works sometimes, and that’s why I use it. With caution.
The debate over the word “bitch” has been written about and talked about countless times. Hell, there’s even a piece in The Michigan Daily from 2008 that more or less sums up a lot of what I’m trying to say here. Some vilify the word; others defend it as a God-given right to identify as a bitch. I’m not aiming to reach any overarching conclusion here regarding “bitch.” I’m only hoping to point out some things I’ve noticed and hope that it increases our mindfulness over how we use the word.
Katie Steen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.