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Category: Art and Entertainment, Media

To “Bitch” or Not to “Bitch”

| April 16, 2012

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Krysten Ritter is Chloe in the new ABC comedy. Photo: ABC

The author of the best seller "How to Say It" explores the use and meaning of a word front and center with a new ABC comedy.

"Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" (ABC) has triggered online discussions about the use of "bitch."
Having been called the language police, I want to say up front that I'm not telling anyone how to talk. You go ahead and say whatever you like. But if you're interested, here's the skinny on "bitch."

Most of its public uses fall under the grammatical rubric "name calling by vocabulary-impoverished people in a hurry who also secretly hate women."

Writer and editor Marie Shear says, "English offers a rich variety of adjectives with which to disparage people who bleepin' well deserve to be disparaged. 'Snarky,' 'malicious,' 'spiteful,' 'petty,' and 'egomaniacal' are just a few. The use of  'bitch,' 'bitchy,' and 'bitchin' ' is odious. By all means let's insult people who have it coming to them without at the same time insulting women in general."

The problem with "bitch" is that it is, frankly, not a very good word, linguistically speaking. It is rubbery--vague and imprecise. When someone says, "She's a real bitch," you have to ask: "What? What did she do? What do you mean?" The word tells you nothing informative about the woman. It tells you only that, basically, the person using the term is probably really mad and thinks the subject doesn't deserve air.

Philosopher Mary Daly wrote that "bitch" is directed at women who are "active, direct, blunt, obnoxious, competent, loud-mouthed, independent, stubborn, demanding, achieving, overwhelming, lusty, strong-minded, scary, ambitious, tough, brassy, boisterous, turbulent, sprawling, strident, striding, and large (physically and/or psychically)."

Actually, when you study its use, you realize that a woman doesn't have to be anything but a woman to get called a bitch.

"In the workplace setting, the label of 'bitch' is often accompanied by inappropriate, demeaning behavior," says attorney Rebecca Palmer. "A number of courts around the country have grappled with the issue of whether, from a legal standpoint, referring to a female employee as a 'bitch' is defamatory or discriminatory." I would hope we don't have to take this issue to court. Couldn't people just straighten up and fly right at work?

No one has yet done any studies about the correlation of vocabulary impoverishment and general lack of, um, smarts with people who use "bitch" as a pejorative.

A few of the public uses of bitch are not only benign, but attempts to reclaim the word. As a subscriber to the feminist pop culture magazine Bitch from day one, I like their explanation: "While we're aware that the magazine's title ... is off-putting to some people, we think it's worth it. And here's why. The writer Rebecca West 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. ... If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we'll take that as a compliment. We know that not everyone's down with the term. ...But we stand firm in our belief that if we choose to reappropriate the word, it loses its power to hurt us. And if we can get people thinking about what they're saying when they use the word, that's even better."

Molly Hoben (Minnesota Women's Press), who describes "bitch" as "a favorite linguistic weapon of those who yearn to put down uppity women," notes that in pre-Christian Greek and Roman religions, one of the sacred titles of the goddess Artemis-Diana was "the Great Bitch," but like other words with once-positive connotations for women "bitch" has become a pejorative used against strong women by those who feel threatened.

As a word person, I'm undecided about the effectiveness of reclaiming words that've been mangled by the culture. However, for now it's easy enough to distinguish between positive and negatives uses of "bitch": is it a put-down or is it not?

The third use of "bitch," which is a little murkier, is the way some women use it. One young woman I asked says, "I have an issue with people using this unnecessary term in print and on air, especially dog breeders. It's a real turnoff." (John A. Hobson points out that although "bitch" is the correct term for a female dog, "the corresponding male term--dog--suggests that maleness is the norm for canines.") However, she goes on to say she doesn't mind "bitch" in conversation between friends.

A young friend, e-mailing half a dozen female family members, signs off tongue-in-cheek "Tootles, bitchez!"

The guideline here is the insider/outsider rule: women can refer to themselves or friends as "bitches"; men cannot refer to women that way. Another young woman says, "For example it's okay for a woman to say 'I'm out with my bitches!' positively, but a man saying 'look at those bitches' has negative connotations."

In theory, it would be good if women didn't use a culturally derogatory term for themselves. The "but" here is that it is apparently not given or taken derogatorily when used that way.

All this is a fraction of what could be said about the history, meaning, and current uses of "bitch." Your two cents' worth are welcome in the discussion.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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