I struggle with the word bitch. On one hand, I don’t think a man should call a woman a bitch, ever. On the other hand, sometimes a woman acts like a bitch, and I’d like to call her one. Or I’d like to call her one as a joke, or in the sense of “you’re my bitch”. But I always feel immediately guilty when I do, no matter the context. The conundrum for me is this: can and should women reclaim the word “bitch” the way we’re trying to reclaim “slut” (with movements like Slutwalk), or the way other minority groups have reclaimed slurs intended to be used against them?
My biggest issue with reclaiming “bitch” is this: men generally don’t see it as the powerful, gendered slur that it is, because it is so commonly and freely used. So much so in fact, that once when listening to drive time radio, the station censored “God damn” from a male musician’s song, but kept “bitch”. Pop culture has so validated the use of the word, it’s become commonplace, even expected, that male written/sung music will make reference to women predominantly as bitches, without repercussion. So if women continue to normalize the use of “bitch”, are we not just validating its use in general?
The problem with bitch is that it describes a certain set of rotten behaviors as inherently female. To be mean and manipulative is, according to the vernacular, inherently female. There is no corresponding word for men. Some might argue that we have “dick” (i.e. “dickhead”), but it’s not quite the same; “dickhead” is akin to “asshole” or “cunt”, words that imply grossness by the value of the grossness of gentials. The phrase “You’re being a dick” isn’t used to imply that one is performing the worst iteration of masculinity, whereas the phrase “You’re being a bitch” is specifically designed to intimate some level of femininity.
For instance, when a woman is described a bitch, she’s being shrewish, malicious and irrational, and in turn these characteristics become inherently female. When a man is described as a bitch, he is being effeminate in some way, whether it means he is being weak or nagging or any other arbitrary characteristic that is used to reduce women to one dimensional emotions. When someone is described as a dick, whether male or female, they are simply being told their actions aren’t OK–there is no attribution of male stereotypes. Which is why I have no trouble with the word “cunt”. To me it’s as innocuous as dick. Genitals are weird and sometimes unruly and occasionally gross things come out of them–this is a far more creative and delightful way to describe someone’s poor behaviour than simply as womanly.
I will not accept a man calling a woman a bitch. I cringe when in conversation, a man drops a casual “bitch” in reference to a woman. But it wasn’t until recently when a man (a gay one at that), told me I took a “bitch sip” when I refused to chug down some (disgusting) bourbon and coke. The word was just so jarring, because in the context, it meant “weak”, but not just weak: weak because you are a woman. Whereas a whole array of words could have been used to fill the space for my small sip, and still convey that he was disappointed by it (“weak” being one!), instead he chose the one that went past mocking my feeble sip and went straight at my gender. Make fun of me for doing something poorly all you like (sometimes I deserve it, I’m kind of shit), but why does my poor performance have to be inextricably linked to my womanhood?
I’ve certainly called women bitches before -as a slur, as a term of endearment as well as jokingly – and I probably will again, which is where I find my dilemma. Is it OK for women, within the power structures of our own gender, to call each other bitches? When you have an innate understanding of yourself as a woman, is it OK to enforce that across your entire gender peer group? And where do we draw the line between becoming overly politically correct and just enjoying ourselves, and doing or saying what comes naturally in jovial conversation?
I know that “bitch” will slip out of my lips again in the future. I know that I will tell a friend she’s being a bitch when she’s being mean. I know that I’ll drunkenly shout “Bitches be crazy” when I’m drunk and silly and making jokes. I know I will definitely laugh when Liz Lemon says it on 30 Rock or Leslie Knope on Parks & Rec. I know that censorship of language can suck the fun out of almost everything, so I know I will tolerate whatever enhances humor in a situation, so long as it is not intentionally malicious. I also know that I will not tolerate being called a bitch in spite by a man. I know I will not allow my gender to be used to mean “inept”. And I know that if some man has the balls to try calling me a bitch, they’ll get to see what a real bitch looks like.