16 August 2007
In her recent column “Bitch und Bastard” (08/12/07) LFP writes about the heavy association of the word “bitch” with Hillary Clinton, who currently leads the (dog)pack of US presidential candidates among Democrats. “She seems to have a monopoly on this label,” suggests Luise, who provides statistics showing almost two million Google-hits for “Hillary” and “bitch,” compared to a mere 379,000 for “Obama” and the male epithet “bastard.” She also notes, however, that the more (in)famous Bush did rate over 2 million hits when paired with “bastard,” while the powerful but secretive Dick Cheney was the recipient of some 500,000 “bastard” links.
Discussing the word “bitch” over supper with our sister and friend, we reminded each other of the many shades of meaning of the term, in our experience, mostly nastily negative. At the root was the cutting, unanswerable attack – you bitch! – which can be spat at any woman and conjures up the image of an ill-tempered, snapping yet grovelling cur most likely in heat and deserving of any abuse that comes her way. Sub-human, animalistic, sexually loose, inferior, dangerous, irrational, spiteful: an elemental and powerful metaphor.
In current US culture the B-word has been adopted by hip-hop culture, most often paired with the word “ho” (short for whore); you can find an explosion of obscene, frighteningly hate-filled songs by popular rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Missy Elliott debasing “bitches n hoes” on You-Tube and Google. The damaging effects of such media blasts on attitudes towards girls, women and sexuality in general has not gone unnoticed, however. Popular radio talk-show host Don Imus was fired last spring by CBS for referring to members of a championship women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” And the City Council of New York is presently considering a resolution “symbolically” banning the B-word (and its companion H-word) from use in the city. In April, a similar “ban” was adopted for “nigger,” the infamous N-word, evoking a nationwide discussion on censorship, language police and “political correctness.” Public consciousness was raised, and the intent of the “ban” – to discourage disrespectful racist language targeting the Black community – was advanced. Now, with Brooklyn Councilwoman Darlene Mealy’s resolution urging avoidance of a term she describes as deeply sexist and hateful, a similar debate has arisen over the B-word and its implications.
Certainly the widespread cultural presence of this word and its negative meanings (referring implicitly to women in general) make it a handy and potent weapon in the arsenal of sexism, a shorthand label that needs no evidence or justification and is therefore impossible to refute. The bitch-image is ancient, its misogynist associations deeply ingrained; like many assumptions about women, it has so long been a part of the culture that it’s taken for granted as “natural.”
Already in the 7th century b.c.e. the Greek poet-philosopher Semonides of Argos intoned: “the god made the mind of woman a thing apart.” His poem continues with a catalog of women descended from such animals as the “long-haired sow” and the “evil fox” and their vices (“wallowing in the mud,” “crafty in all matters”); among them is the woman
made from a dog, nimble, a bitch like its mother,
And she wants to be in on everything that’s said or done.
Scampering about and nosing into everything. She yaps it out even if there’s no one to listen.
Her husband can’t stop her with threats,
Not if he flies into a rage and knocks her teeth out with a rock.
Not if he speaks to her sweetly when they happen to be sitting among friends.
No, she stubbornly maintains her unmanageable ways.
(from Semonides, “On Women.” Tr. Marylin Arthur, in Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York, 1975. P 49.)
Semonides develops an aspect of the “bitch” that has particular relevance for any woman craving independence or aspiring to a public role such as President of the United States. She “wants to be in on everything that’s said or done” – she doesn’t “know her place” – and her husband can’t (or won’t) control her, either with “sweetness” when guests are present or by “knocking out her teeth with a rock” in the bedroom. She’s the fatally offending female who thinks she has a claim on (male) privilege and power. We’ve all heard of the demanding male boss who’s admired as tough and decisive, while his female counterpart is derided as a “bitch.”
But wait – Semonides’ bitch “stubbornly maintains her unmanageable ways,” insists on being her own woman. Doesn’t that suggest that the image has something going for it? “That bitch has balls!” – a grudging compliment?! Among the comments Luise’s “Bitch und Bastard” column received was one from “Undine;” having now learned it refers to an animal she admires, she’s decided to regard “bitch” as a term of praise. This is an appealing idea: turn the negative epithet into a positive, affirm its qualities and make it your own. Why not redeem the bitch, similar to the way lesbians embraced the pejorative “dyke” in the 70’s – remember the tough “Dykes on Bikes” roaring along in Gay Pride marches? Similarly, the mythical monster Lilith (rebellious first wife of Adam, who refused to let him lie on top of her) was transformed by Jewish feminists to a symbol of female independence and power.
Indeed, one of the early formulations of feminist rebellion in the US women’s movement’s “second wave” was the “Bitch Manifesto” by “Joreen” (Jo Freeman), published in 1972, in which the Bitch is proclaimed to be an independent, self-determined woman who challenges traditional norms of society: “The most prominent characteristic of all Bitches is that they rudely violate conceptions of proper sex role behavior.”
A more recent example of “bitch”-reclaiming is the journal Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, which began in 1996 and is dedicated to “formulating replies to the sexist and narrow-minded media diet that we all – intentionally or not – consume. It’s about critically examining the images of femininity, feminism, class, race, and sexuality that are thrown at us by the media.” The web page has this to say about the decision to call the magazine Bitch:
The writer Rebecca West, back in the day, said, “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” We’d argue that the word “bitch” is usually deployed for the same purpose. When it’s being used as an insult, “bitch” is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment, thanks.
If we need further encouragement to reject the doormat-identity and assert the new bitch-identity, we might turn to feminist comedian and songwriter Christine Lavin. In her 1999 hit “Getting in Touch with My Inner Bitch” Lavin contrasts her “nice-girl” and her “bitch” sides:
Everybody thinks I’m a nice girl
And that’s true
Except for one little hitch
When I’m not being a nice girl
I’m Getting In Touch With My Inner Bitch
Some people have an inner child
Some people hear an inner voice
Some people have inner calm
Good for them!
But me I’ve got no choice
Some people have an inner cop
Some people hear an inner clown
But I’ve got me an Inner Bitch
And it’s hard to keep that Inner Bitch down!
Interspersed between repetitions of this refrain are wry anecdotes presenting Lavin’s encounters with her own and others’ Inner Bitches. Like many fairy tales originally told and passed on by women, her examples present a female drama of conflict; the women contend with each other to see whose Inner Bitch – whose concealed “bitchiness” and desire for power – will triumph. A bank teller, seeing a long line of customers waiting, for example, decides to take a cigarette break and “smiles as she walks outside and lights herself a Virginia Slim. She’s having an Inner Bitch moment.” Lavin acknowledges and respects the Inner Bitch in the other women while nonetheless rejoicing when she gets the upper hand (or paw) herself.
This double-edged Inner Bitch is both rebellious, a feisty alternative to the “nice girl,” and innate, a force she has “no choice” in. While the song deliciously celebrates the bitch image as a source of power, it also appears to reinforce the negative stereotype of women as petty, power-hungry, and taking hidden pleasure in others’ discomfort – especially other women’s. Then again, Lavin may simply be mocking the stereotype itself, along with the cult of the “inner” child, “inner” buddha, and so on.
At any rate, now that the Inner Bitch is out there, what do we do with her? How should we deal with the ambivalences inherent in such charged renaming? Enlightened feminists may smile in self-recognition and admit the reality of their Inner Bitch, knowing that she’s in part the product of centuries of inequality and worse. But non- or anti-feminists will continue to hurl the B-word, still very much a live grenade, at their favorite political target – and at any woman who annoys them.
There seem to be two main strategies for handling the B-word these days: critique and consciousness-raising concerning the harm done by its prevalence in our society on the one hand, and attempts at positive redefinition and reclamation on the other. Both are important. It will probably take a lot more barking, growling and howling, but one day the bitches will join the dykes and the Liliths in the ranks of the proudly self-defined. And then, you Semonides’ of the world, watch out – the word you hurl may explode in your face.