Word Spotlight: Bitch

Word Spotlight: Bitch

September 5th, 2013
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As this is the first of these “Word Spotlights” I should preface it by explaining the idea behind them. The words available to us exert some control over what ideas we are able to think and express. I am neither an expert linguist, nor have I even executed the most superficial of internet researches, yet this idea seems self-evident to me. Lacking a certain word will remove certain ideas from our collective consciousness. Furthermore, many words carry with them a set of meanings; their frequent repetition can enshrine these meanings in our minds.

My first interest was to examine some of the words/usages that I have suspected of possibly being pernicious– e.g. gay, rape, nigger, bitch, slut, player– with the goal of answering for myself: are these words (or usages) I should avoid? That I would recommend others avoid? I suspect in advance, that I won’t always be able to conclude yes or no. Regardless, along the way, I imagine there will be other interesting lessons about our society.

Literal meaning:
Female dog.

Colloquial meanings with examples:
She’s such a bitch.
Someone who is nasty and very unkind to others.
Don’t be a bitch about it./ Quit your bitching.
Whiny, timorous, fearful/ Complaining.
It was a really bitchy thing to do.
Backstabbing, petty.
Life’s a bitch.
Painful, full of disappointments and tough times.
He really bitched him.
Put him in a position of subservience, taught him who was boss, made clear the current unequal power dynamic or disempowered the other to establish such a dynamic.
John is Sarah’s bitch.
John is either in a position of extreme subservience towards Sarah or is dominated by her in some other way.
I’m sorry, I’ve been acting like such a bitch lately.
Moody, unsympathetic, critical, mean.
Hell yeah, I’m a bitch.
Assertive, knows what they want, unintimidated by men.

There are these meanings and many similar to the first seven. All but the last are absolutely mainstream, common meanings; and I can not think of a single positive meaning for “bitch” that I am leaving out. If there is one, I’m confident that it represents a minute sliver of the total usages of the word.

What do these meanings mean?
For this word to carry so many negative meanings, it most likely must be based on a widespread negative impression of either dogs or women. And it’s not hard to see that in this case almost every one of these negative meanings aligns with a popular misogynist trope; only the one about power could possibly apply to dogs, and thus might have originated from the “dog” part of bitch. For example:

– Moody, unsympathetic, critical– there is an idea that women are more emotional than men, both during the heightened hormonal stage of their period, and just normally. This supposed heightened emotionality is then linked to being overly critical, saying nasty things to hurt people, snapping before thinking, and a generalized lack of self-control.

– Whiny, timorous, fearful– there is a dichotomy established between men who bear pains and disappointments with a firm upper lip (“men don’t cry”), and women who will give expression to their emotional state more frequently. Here, this “expression of your emotions” is implicitly severely devalorized. Additionally, there is the idea that men are supposed to protect women, since they are on average physically larger, and that idea has been extended to the notion that men are braver, while women are more cowardly (image of a female cowering behind a male).

– Backstabbing, petty– this is in opposition to the supposedly male-gendered way of dealing with problems or disagreements, which is to face the thing head on, address it openly and directly, and employ a code of honor (chivalry being one example) while fighting (whether through words, weapons, politics, trade). Consider the phrase “man up;” what is understood in this use of “bitchy” is the opposite of “manning up.” So this phrase carries the ideas that women are not honest about their disagreements, present a false face while scheming to hurt someone, and don’t employ a code of honor in their conflicts. Further there is an additional notion here, which goes back to the over-emotionality idea: that often women are upset over trivial things; that they are over-reacting and attacking even their friends over unimportant slights that would not trouble a man.

– Subservient, dependent, another’s property– this one could come from the fact that dogs are typically at the beck and call of their master, following orders and being entirely dependent upon them. However, there has been a very unequal power dynamic between men and women for a long time in most human cultures, so it is easy to see this use as being derived from or designed to reinforce that inequality.

– Assertive, knows what they want, unintimidated– this newer use of the word has been put forward by feminists, in an attempt to reclaim a word that has been used against them. Part of the point is to simply turn something on its head: the ideas of the oppressors are so wrong, that any criticism from them can be seen instead as a badge of merit. This usage opens up the broader debate of whether a word historically used as a tool for oppression is better reclaimed or relegated. Regardless of where we fall on that debate, I personally don’t like this use of bitch, as the qualities being played up tend towards selfishness to me, and thus I fail to see the positive message here. Just as women becoming CEOs of big companies thanks to scheming and immoral behavior does not strike me as an important avenue in the struggle for gender equality.

Why/when is this word used
One notable occasion for the use of “bitch” is when a woman becomes powerful. The totally common ways that powerful men act are often accepted without the blink of an eye (though I don’t excuse them), but when a woman acts at all like that, she is immediately criticized harshly. Which is funny, since theoretically, “bitch” is supposed to refer to these awful female characteristics, yet in this instance it is applied in particular when a woman acts more like a man. The purpose of this application of the word is to censor women who take power, discourage other women from taking power, and in some cases to take away from the accomplishments of more “accomplished” women, by implying that they have achieved what they have through methods other than hard work, like conniving. Never mind that this applies to almost all “high-accomplishment” men in a capitalist society.

Another ubiquitous application of the word is in the “war of the sexes” going on endlessly in heterosexual mating couples. Here it is part of an intense power struggle, and is designed to establish the general framework that women are over-emotional and hyper-critical. It follows that with their partner they should criticize less, apologize for themselves and their behavior, be thankful for the men who put up with their moodiness, and consider many of their complaints to just be the conjurations of their hormones, rather than based in any actual shortcomings of their male partner. This is a massive long-term strategy, of which the use of the word bitch is just one facet. See for example the invented medical condition of “Female Hysteria.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_hysteria

I recently discovered that this word is now popular in the San Francisco gay community. One example: when I assumed that a man who appeared twenty years my senior was older than me, he told me (in apparent good humor) that I was “such a bitch.” (The implication being that it could be hurtful to tell someone they are old). I was surprised and dismayed to find this word has become popular in this community. For one thing, gay men have suffered from rhetorical de-masculinization, so you’d expect them to be sensitive to such a gendered word, especially one designed to call out false weaknesses based on gender. For another thing, they must have experienced the colloquial uses of the words “gay” and “homo” at some point in their lives, and thus should be sensitive to the power of taking a word that refers to a group of people, imbuing it with tons of negative meanings, and then throwing it around ad infinitum.

So I asked around a little, and here’s what I understood: it’s another instance of a reclaiming of a word. People are taking something that has been thrown in their face as an accusation (a lack of masculinity), and by using the word themselves (in reference to either themselves or friends), calling into question the idea that it’s a bad thing. Similar to how the word “slut” is bandied about as a means of arguing that promiscuity is not a sin. These usages aim to really take away a lot of the power and sting from the harassment and aggression that has been aimed at a group of people. “Bitch” is also sometimes used as a warning when teasing is pushing the bounds between friendly fun and something that could be hurtful, as a humorous rejoinder that allows people to back off without a conflict. This is enough to allow me to make some sense of this usage of “bitch,” but I am still concerned about it. It seems to me that the meaning being used is in the ‘moody, unsympathetic, critical, mean’ area, and I don’t see why we’d want to continue using a gendered word for a set of generally unpleasant characteristics.

This is a very widely-used word in the English language today, and almost every time it is used, it bolsters untrue and negative stereotypes about femininity. I could only think of one single colloquial use of the word that is not part of a rhetorical war to increase the power of straight men and decrease that of women. It de-values the opinions, emotions, feelings, words, actions, and thoughts of women (and non-traditionally masculine males). It continues to feed us false notions about the difference between men and women. Even in the cases of reclamation, it’s not convincing to me that any positive ideas are being advanced.

I used to use this word– perhaps not a lot, but sometimes. In the context of both a power dynamic and the brave-cowardly dichotomy, the term is quite common in the world of competitive chess. I would also sometimes thoughtlessly toss it out in reference to a mean person who happened to be female. When I first started pondering this topic, I quickly felt this was a word with a lot of negatives and no upside. After further thought, I decided to weed “bitch” out of my vocabulary, and after a few months the slips are tapering off. I have not yet determined with confidence whether this is a word I would want to actively discourage others from using: for now I’m hoping to hear what some others think about it.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 5th, 2013 at 11:03 pm and is filed under Commentary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Word Spotlight: Bitch”

  1. Justin Says:

    well… last i checked they are only adding words to the dictionary and not taking any out. So what is the goal of this spotlight? The same “spotlight” can easily be inferred on all of the remaining pernicious words you mentioned in the preface; is it necessary to comment on each one? I think it all has to do with local culture and maintaining a friendly vernacular. Just for example the mentioned use of the word in a San Francisco gay community may be unknown to the Midwestern gay community so it would be insensitive to use it and assume the spirit of its use will be accepted. The same goes for all the other pernicious words… It has been said that 90% of communication is non verbal. Body language, tone of voice, and facial expression tell the truth; words are subject to interpretation.

    Honestly as far as topics go I see this as a second hand mouth guard… not much to chew on.

  2. Michael Says:

    I discourage people from using the word, not with stern lectures but with vague comments like “I wouldn’t say that” or “that’s not how I would phrase it.” Thankfully my friends are progressive enough that my mere semantic disagreement puts the spotlight on their diction for them, and they usually get a little embarrassed and demur. I do this for a number of colloquial word uses (like “retard” and “rape”) and in some groups I get some backlash for it (always rape culture backlash: over-defensive men defending their right to use hurtful gendered words in ‘jokes’).

    Broadly speaking, I don’t believe in censoring speech or stemming vulgarity, but I do think that language is a powerful vehicle of violence. When that violence is gendered, or otherwise divided among people groups, when its implications rise above interpersonal disputes and signal systemic hatred and oppression, then I’m pretty strongly in favor of having people examine what they’re saying and why they’re saying it…

  3. pdela Says:

    Yeah, those rap song abuse of the use of that word :)

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