Sunday, November 27, 2011

“Bitches be crazy”

“Bitches be crazy” is a phrase that has crept into today’s vernacular. A quick Google search of the phrase reveals how pervasive it has become. The first result links to Urbandictionary.com, where one of the entries “defines” the phrase to be “[o]ne of the only phrases a man can say to comfort himself after a woman does something irrational, ignorant, or insane. It is used to laugh away the confusion a ‘bitch’ inflicts upon a perfectly sane man.” The next Google results are clips from the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” In the clip, a male character uses the phrase to describe a female character who asks her boyfriend to meet her mother and he freaks out in response. Another Google result is a quote from the movie “The Heartbreak Kid.” The phrase refers to a female character that the movie portrays as jealous and annoying. Yet another result links to Bitches Be Crazy.net, “a site where you [i.e. men] can rant about the ridiculous antics of the women in your lives.”

Each example attempts to use the phrase for comedic effect, but each fails to recognize that the phrase combines two of the worst ways society denigrates women with language. The first is the word “bitch.” The second is the word “crazy.”

“Bitch” holds a complicated place in today’s language. Over its history, the word has accumulated numerous and varied definitions, ranging from being misogynist to gender-neutral to even feminist. In a 2007 opinion piece, Andi Zeisler, a co-founder of Bitch magazine, describes how she and her co-founders attempted to “reclaim [‘bitch’] for mouthy, smart women in much the way that ‘queer’ had been repurposed by gay radicals.” She defines the word as “any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men,” and expresses her desire that her next president would be a bitch.

Nonetheless, Ms. Zeisler also reminds us that “bitch” remains a bad word because of our culture’s fear and distaste for strong women. The word, like many other misogynistic words, demeans women. It reduces them to their gender and characterizes them with the word’s negative associations. The word is so bad that even Oprah has banned its use on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Similar to “bitch,” the word “crazy” demeans women. But, instead of negatively characterizing women, “crazy” marginalizes and dismisses them. When discussing emotional responses, our culture often describes women as “crazy,” “oversensitive,” and “hysterical”—contrast to men as “sane” and “rational.” These words reduce a woman’s response to irrational behavior. Consequently, she believes that her feelings are not normal and are thus ultimately worthless. This behavior is similar to what is known as gaslighting: “psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception.”

According to Yashar Ali, gaslighting “renders some women emotionally mute.” After a woman repeatedly hears that she is “crazy,” she no longer trusts her own feelings, but instead believes that whatever is said or done to her is normal. Consequently, she is no longer able to express herself when someone hurts her.

What we often forget is that language matters. We need to comprehend what the phrase “bitches be crazy” does to women. Each word carries ingrained meanings and associations. The phrase as a whole simultaneously insults and dismisses women. Yet, as evidenced by its increasing prevalence, our culture treats it as benign slang to get a cheap laugh. Thus, we must counteract its usage. We must be more conscious of how we use words and realize that what is meant as fun can still be harmful.

11 comments:

Alejandro said...

It seems as if many men are very much unaware of how their usage of certain words like "bitch," and "slut" can be harmful and demeaning to women. I believe the great majority of these men are not ill-intentioned but rather are simply using terms they learned growing up and believe to be completely normal. Women, of course, are not the only ones affected by the careless usage of language. Gays, lesbians and trans-gender people are victims as well.

For example, many men use the word "gay" as an insult. Urban Dictionary gives the following definition: "often used to describe something stupid or unfortunate." Similarly, most males use words like "bitch" and "whore" without taking into account how hurtful these words can be. Often times, word usage can be inconsistent. So a sexually promiscuous female is described as a whore (a pejorative term) while there is no pejorative word (that I am aware of) to refer to a sexually promiscuous male.

AMA said...

Great post, and so important! Indeed, language is so telling when it comes to cultural/societal values. While it is infuriating that strong, opinionated women are dismissed as "bitches," it is remarkable to me that women call each other bitch/whore/slut. I'm saddened that women are often pitted against each other as opposed to united together for each other. Why is this the case? By using this language against each other, women are condoning its use against them by men - what could be more disempowering? By allowing misogynist and dismissive language to so casually exist in our culture, we are all contributing to the disempowerment of women. One would certainly never think it acceptable to use the "N word" (I hope!!), so why is the "B word" still ok? It's not even bleeped out on TV or radio!

We should be careful not to underestimate the power of words as the language we use can truly shape the world around us.

Rose Sawyer said...

I've had several conversations about the sexism inherent in the word "crazy." I often hear both women and men using the word to dismiss female communication, rather than engage with it sincerely. This usually happens when the underlying issue is complicated, or when the "crazy" female has made a point that the speaker would rather deny.

On men's part, this may be a defense mechanism. In a book that I've mentioned a few times on this blog, The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine [1], Brizendine writes that women's communication centers in their brains are more developed than men's. Also, women are more adept at reading nuanced facial expressions. What so often gets termed "crazy" -- namely, women's complex explanations for things (E.g., "I think that she's upset at me because I borrowed her sister's dress and didn't return it for two weeks.") or subtle observations ("I can tell she's upset at me; she looked at me funny.") may in fact have some validity -- but a validity that is too communicatively-complex for men to perceive.

These days, when I hear that a woman has been acting "crazy," I almost always have the same response -- why? I've found that, when I dig deeper, there is often a really legitimate reason that said female was angry or upset. ("My girlfriend just started yelling at me -- she's crazy! Well, I kind of flirted with her sister, but...)

In trying to counter the pervasive negative influence of the word "crazy," I think that a good strategy is, when someone uses it, to inquire more deeply into the surrounding circumstances. This ruins its use as a deflector, and forces the speaker to engage with "crazy" female reactions on a more sincere/analytical level.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Female-Brain-Louann-Brizendine-M-D/dp/0767920090

Caitlin said...

To add to the words that seem to innocuously associate women with "craziness" would be one of my own personal words on the don't-use list: hysteria or hysterical. Merriam-Webster defines hysteria as "1: a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions
2: behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess (political hysteria)."

However, the etymology of the word indicates that the root word, hystera, also seen in words like hysterectomy, is short for womb. Indeed, the "Origin" section in the Merriam-Webster article writes, "New Latin, from English hysteric, adjective, from Latin hystericus, from Greek hysterikos, from hystera womb; from the Greek notion that hysteria was peculiar to women and caused by disturbances of the uterus."

The idea that women are crazy in a unique way, and effected in some way by their sex characteristics. Perhaps a discussion of "crazy bitches" should include more of a historical look into why women in particular are always considered to be less sound of mind, and more prone to emotions.

Ringo1985 said...

It has always confounded me how men, women and other cultures alike appropriate pejorative words and use such demeaning terminology in everyday parlance. One of the most bizarre of these appropriations is women referring to each other in an amicable manner as "sluts." I have witnessed young middle school and high school women nonchalantly toss this word around with each other. Its almost as if some women have graciously accepted the demeaning names men may call them. This results in the implicit acceptance of such language that men use to degrade women.

I remember in high school, girls used to call each other "beezies" and "floosies." The former was an off shoot of the word bitch, and though I'm not sure what the origin is of the latter, boys always referred to "loose" girls as "floosies." The fact that girls called each other "floosies" was very damaging, because when boys called other girls "floosies," it was no longer a horrible, unacceptable word because girls called each other by the same name!

I have never found the female use of derogatory words, such as the "N" word, "bitch" and "slut" to be empowering by any means. I think when women use such words, we give men the green light to use such words at their own discretion. For how can women condemn men for using such language when we use it ourselves? Sure, there is always the hypocritical response that its "okay" when women use such words, but is this the message we want to send to our peers and younger generations? I think that as women we have the responsibility to refrain from using such terminology. We deserve better treatment, and we owe it to ourselves, and the other women that we love and respect.

hanestagless said...

To repeat AMA’s comment, I’m especially troubled when females use such denigrating language towards each other. I had found an example of a woman using the phrase against other women when I initially Google searched the phrase. In an article titled “These Bitches Be CRAZY!” the author lists “the top ten types of women who drive men crazy” in an attempt to “educate” her sisters to what turns off men. Among others, she describes “The Ball Buster” (the nagging woman), “The Green-Eyed Monster” (the envious woman), and “The Drama Queen” (the hysterical woman). While this article is a lone example, it epitomizes much of what’s wrong with women (and men) using the phrase “bitches be crazy” and demonstrates the observations of previous comments.

First, whatever the differences among the ten types, the author examines each type to, as AMA puts it, pit women against each other. Each characterization only matters to the extent that women must behave a certain way to get a man’s approval.

Furthermore, the author fails to recognize that the behaviors she describes are generally unacceptable whether male or female. I imagine that if a boyfriend hacked into his girlfriend’s email account, she would be equally upset as if she hacked his. I hardly think a woman would want a man to nag her about how she lives her life. Nonetheless, the author associates these behaviors with women only. This perpetuates the stereotype of women that Caitlin notes in her comment: “why women in particular are always considered to be less sound of mind, and more prone to emotions.”

Finally, in addition to men using the phrase as a defense mechanism, I believe the use of the phrase (whether from a man or woman) stems from laziness. I agree with Rose Sawyer that using the word “crazy” dismisses female communication and allows the user to forego further analysis into the surrounding circumstances. If the author of the article really wanted to critique individual behaviors in the context of relationships, she could have examined what male behaviors cause women to nag. She could have considered how the media creates insecurities in women to cause them to be overly jealous. Instead, the author simply instructs women to not act in a certain way. This does nothing to solve the underlying causes of the behaviors the author criticizes. The author takes a superficial look at the behaviors, broadly categorizes women according to those behaviors, and blames women for what she judges as unacceptable behavior.

Caitlin said...

HuffPo seems to be reading our blog: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yashar-hedayat/a-message-to-women-from-a_1_b_958859.html

KayZee said...

There are so many good comments following this post! It certainly doesn't surprise me because I think it brings up so many pertinent feminist topics.

I absolutely agree with many of the commenters (and original author) that there is something very unique about how women use terms such as "bitch" and "slut" when describing other women. It happens not only between and amongst women that aren't friends, but also between and amongst women that are friends. Like many commenters have already mentioned, it's almost as if we're keeping our own gender down. We're perpetuating the very stereotypes that we're trying to fight.

I really appreciated Yashar Ali's article in the Huffington Post about the term "crazy." I appreciated his fresh perspective. Not only is the term "crazy" a way of marginalizing women, but as Ali's piece pointed out, it also can be a means of manipulation. This kind of manipulation can exacerbate power struggles within relationships and have an enduring effect on the "victim's" self-esteem.

When women are called "bitch" or "crazy," or even told they need to "calm down" or that they're being "irrational," they are being marginalized, dismissed and manipulated all at the same time. This kind of treatment really needs to stop.

Rose Sawyer said...

This is a GREAT article on the power of "gaslighting." It's exactly on point.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yashar-hedayat/a-message-to-women-from-a_1_b_958859.html

AMS said...

Hanestagless,

What an important post.

Recently, a friend posted this message on his facebook wall:

"Remember fellas: no matter how pretty she is, someone, somewhere is tired of her sh!t"

It saddened me to see the message. The worst part was that he was more than willing to admit that it was a chauvinistic remark. Yet, as I read through the comments (and attempted to decide what exactly to tell him), I saw quite the range of responses. Some praised it, others clearly needed a "dislike" button, and still others turned it into a joke. In addition, several people tried to clarify by interpreting the comment as a "looks aren't everything" epiphany. While I appreciated this last clarification, that's not how I read it. To me it simply said: "bitches be crazy."

Thus, while it is imperative for us to really pay attention to our use of language and its impact on women, it's not enough to simply ban the word "bitch" or refrain from using the word "crazy" when referencing women. We need to change a culture where highly educated, otherwise admirable people, resonate with such statements.

I never ended up responding to the post. Everything I wanted to say was better reserved for a real-life, non-cyber discussion. I question whether I made made a mistake by refraining from commenting, though. I'm sure that if enough people called him out on it (and took it seriously), then he--and others with similar views-- might just re-think their opinions. Unfortunately, though, I did not want a written record of my "being crazy" and explaining my actual thoughts.

That brings me to one more, quick point inspired by this post--and my mom. My mom recently visited the doctor's office with severe back pain. She could barely move, and she described the pain as "worse than labor." Yet, she refused to cry or complain when they made her sit in a chair for 5 hours (which is unbearably painful for her back injury) to wait for her next medical exam. When I asked her why, she explained that she wanted them to take her seriously. Your comment about our cultural discussions of female emotional responses ("When discussing emotional responses, our culture often describes women as 'crazy,' 'oversensitive,' and 'hysterical'—contrast to men as 'sane' and 'rational.'”) hits it head on. It upsets me to know that women like my mom might be afraid to speak up out of fear of being considered hysterical rather than rational. To me, it is especially important to note that this cultural norm impacts behavior in medical offices, a place where emotion should be expected and acceptable.

Sophie said...

Even though this post was written almost 4 years ago, it is still SO relevant today. While I haven’t heard the phrase “bitches be crazy” lately, a new term has gained popularity – “betch.” A betch is defined in a couple of ways. One website states a betch is someone who has everything figured out and everything she associates with is trendy. Urban Dictionary just says its another way of saying bitch except it sounds a million times better and makes you feel cool. I’ll admit it, I’ve been guilty of using this phrase (although not often) and I’ve never really thought much of it until I read this post and its comments. It definitely makes me question the usage of the word and encourages me to cut it from my vocabulary!