Thursday, March 24, 2016

Word Reclamation and Appropriation Part I: The Genesis of the Word “Bitch” and Why I Stopped Using It

The word “bitch” has become so engrained in our culture speaking out against it might seem radical.

In high school I spent the majority of my weekends working at a dog-boarding kennel. Though my primary duties were to feed, clean and occasionally pet our furry clients, I also helped out with the kennel’s breeding facility. The kennel was owned an operated by a couple that in their spare time bred and showed standard poodles. It was also the first time I heard the word “bitch” used regularly to solely describe dogs. I can’t put my finger on exactly what was unsettling about switching my vernacular from the kennel to high school. The differences in the use of the term on Sundays versus Mondays started to become conscious.

Since the 15th century, the word bitch has evolved from its purest form — a term for “lady dogs” — to a commonly used slang for women. Until the 1920s “bitch” was a rarely used demoralizing term – but when it was used, it was used to degrade women to the level of dogs. However, during the time of women’s suffrage, the use of the word more than doubled in newspapers and literature. As women asserted power, they were more likely to be hurled a sexist epithet. It wasn’t long before “bitch” became an “all-purpose insult for annoying women.”

During the second wave of feminism, activists attempted to “reclaim” the word. Word reclamation occurs when the subject of a derogatory slur reappropriates the word for his or her own use. Advocates of word reclamation argue that when the “slur or insult is used by the people whom it had originally intended to demean, then the word loses all of its malicious meaning.”

In 1974, Jo Freeman wrote The Bitch Manifesto, and declared that “We must be strong, we must be militant, we must be dangerous. We must realize that Bitch is Beautiful and that we have nothing to lose.”

Since then, women have reclaimed “bitch” by both declaring themselves “bitches” and calling other women “bitches” as a term of endearment. Pop culture propagates this message. In 2007, Britney Spears released “Gimme More” and announced, “it’s Britney Bitch” to the word. The song is said to have “revolutionized the B-word” into a term of empowerment.

I feel lucky to be living in a time when women can feel empowered enough to attempt to take back their sex-specific insults. However, men don’t have an analogous term. There is no word for a man asserting his power. Men don’t have to reappropriate a slur to wipe the shame of being a man away.

Yes. It is great for women to be strong. To be confident. To say what they think. To be opinionated. But to do all of these things, do we need to denigrate ourselves to dogs?

No matter the work done to reclaim the word, sexism is still a seemingly insurmountable problem. Not everyone uses the reclaimed definition of “bitch.” We cannot erase the history of the word when it still has so much existing negative usage. Maybe if women actually reclaimed the word, and the power of the insult was gone, I would feel differently. I don’t believe word reclamation is impossible (in a later post I’ll talk about “queer” and difference between reclaiming “queer” and “faggot”).

However, even if the power of insult were gone, I still don’t know if the dog-in-heat genesis of the term would pass muster as a term of empowerment. Just a few days ago Donald Trump released an ad depicting Hillary Clinton barking like a dog. When women in power are degraded to “bitches” in such an obvious and disgusting way, is it even possible to empower ourselves to be “bitches”?

There’s a strong correlation between women asserting power and women being called “bitches” with a derogatory intent. While some might think reclaiming this word lets us take back the power, I think we should closely examine whether we want to be using this word in any context. Shouldn’t we instead encourage women in power? I think this is done by calling women strong, confident, committed, focused, and inspirational - the same words we use to describe men with equal power.


Amanda said...

Thanks for this post Ari. I often find myself accepting the use of "bitch" with the justification, "there's really no other word that fully captures what 'bitch' describes." But I also find myself using the word to describe a woman far more often than I use it to describe a man. And that's a problem. It's uncomfortable to think that even I—a person who tries to see the world through a feminist lens—would judge a woman asserting power more harshly than a man. Language is a powerful tool, and I agree with you that we lack real justification for continued use of the word.

Jenna said...

In the Sexual Assault and the Law seminar I took last semester our professor asked the class if we would like to "reclaim" the word slut. My instant reaction was more powerful than I would have thought it would be. I most assuredly do NOT want to reclaim the word slut. I understand the idea of reclaiming words and often it does seem to be an effective tool for the slandered group of people. However, I do not know if I could ever hear the word slut and not associate it with all of the negative connotations it has today for women who are (or who at least others perceive to be) engaging in sexual activities. I would argue that like "bitch," there is no male equivalent for the word slut. Some may argue that "man-whore" covers this supposedly promiscuous behavior for males. However, even that word shows how uneven the balance is for men and women when it comes to sexual desire. That you have to put "man" in front of "whore" to apply it to males shows that without specifying the gender, the term "whore" is by default considered to be referring to a woman. So, while others may want to reclaim "slut" and "whore" (and good luck to them if that is what they want to do!) I will continue attempting to wipe the words from my own vocabulary.

India Powell said...

The entire topic of word reclamation is a really difficult one for me, so I thank you, Ari, and the other commenters for engaging with it. I guess I'll start off by saying that I consider myself to be relatively "well-versed" in pop culture. That being said, I do find the use of "bitch" to be empowering in a lot of instances (consider the many Nicki Minaj song, in which she declares herself as a "badass bitch"). And maybe it stems from a place of pride, but the notion of shying away from a word just because the patriarchy has reappropriated its meaning feels counterintuitive. What if the denial of word reclamation really just propagates the status quo? What if by refusing the use the word "bitch" in a proud and unashamed way tells the misogynists that we're afraid? I hope I'm not responding in a naive manner. I'm just not so sure that this is a simple issue.