Emily started this blog, and she gave me permission to tell the story. She was hustling out the porch door for a sleepover with Samantha, and I caught hold of her backpack to slip in her toothbrush. “No! Mom, I will put it in!” she insisted, and while she did, I noticed a copy of Bitch Magazine in there with her footie pajamas. She looked at me, worried about my reaction. (Worried, mostly, that I would tell her she couldn’t take it.) Hmmmm . . . I asked her to sit down and give me a minute to think. Inhale. Exhale. (There are mommy moments when I use my Lamaze breathing well past the due date.) I looked over the Smitten Kitten advertisements and decided they were too subtle for her to understand. (That is a topic for another blog.) Then, I read quickly again through a few articles, to make sure they were not more explicit than I had remembered. Then, while staring into space, trying to decide what her friend’s mom would think, my eyes focused on several copies of Vogue that she and Rachel had been cutting up for collaging. Vogue has anorexic, bored, zombie-looking girl-women, often sprawled on the floor in clothes that are impractical for walking across the room. (Why do I allow such trash in my house?) Bitch offers bold, lively essays on ways that we are snipped and clipped in pop-culture. Maybe Em and Samantha could use a bit of “Bitch”? I permitted Em her contraband, and texted Samantha’s mom a heads-up.
It had been a wearying week, and I just had to share this sisterly story with a few female friends, by e-mail. I’ve heard moms talk about their adolescent boys sneaking copies of Playboy, passing them furtively around the neighborhood, and the story-twist of my tween sneaking around with Bitch was just too precious to keep to myself. But, I overshot. The subject heading for the email had just the word “Bitch.” Mistake. The most common response I received back from friends was, “OMG! You scared me!” In spite of Meredith Brooks’s best efforts, the word hardly has a positive connotation for women.
Most of us cringe and clench a fist. So, I asked a few friends if they would consider writing about the word, with this paragraph from the magazine editors as their prompt:
For as long as we’ve been publishing Bitch, there’s one question that gets asked over and over. And over. “Why did you choose that word as the name of your magazine?” While we’re aware that the magazine’s title, and the organization’s name, 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. 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.
We know that not everyone’s down with the term. Believe us, we’ve heard all about it. 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.
Bitch. It’s a noun. It’s a verb. It’s a magazine. It’s a feminist media organization.
I am so grateful for their brave, thoughtful, clear, honest responses.
Amanda Joan Mackay Smith: A Mudball Word
Does bitch need reclaiming? Bitch never had a favorable meaning, so what’s to reclaim? For example, the word “woman” did need reclaiming, because it was a straightforward descriptive word for half the human race, but which, in a society that devalued women, was deemed either too sexy or too powerful to say out loud. (This was also the era when one could no longer refer to a breast or thigh of chicken, but had instead to ask for white or dark meat!) In the white community “girl” and “lady” took the place of “woman,” while the black community chose the more technical and more adult “female.” Reclaiming it was necessary, in line with the idea that the real meaning of the women’s movement was not that women could do men’s work, but that it was ok to be a woman.
Is this where you want to put your energy? Let’s say that the word is worth reclaiming. As the publishers make clear in their statement, to do so means you have to make it a main priority. That’s something to make a conscious decision about. For example, when David [James David Barber] and I decided to get married, we knew that we didn’t have to make it formal. If we had stayed in a big city, I think we might not have married, at least not so soon. But we were moving to 1972 Durham North Carolina. We knew that if we stood on our right to live together without legal sanction, defending that right would become a major part of our mission in life, and we had other missions we cared about a lot more. As it was, the fact that I kept my own name required regular explaining. We thought that one was worth it though – it only took one conversation, and it made am important statement about who we were as individuals and as a couple. (I did, however, NOT like a having a different name from my children, so I worked out a system of naming that recognizes and honors everyone’s place in blended families. That’s a digression though – send an SASE and a dollar to the address below if you want the pamphlet.) The publishers of the magazine clearly are willing to make the use of “bitch” a major mission, not so much to reclaim it as to blur the negativity by deliberately using it positively. If that’s how they want to use their energy, more power to them. Let a thousand flowers bloom, etc. It’s not likely to become a priority for me any time soon though, and the need for the explanation would make me reluctant to have the magazine sitting around.
Bitch is a mudball word. Like most sexist terms, we don’t really know what it means. What is the person using it really trying to say? Bad tempered, nasty, backbiting, mean, shrewish, outspoken, contrary, unsubservient, lesbian? Oddly enough, bitch is an implied compliment on occasion, because it is the insult that is used about powerful women when other sexist negatives obviously don’t apply. But notice – these words are not synonyms for each other. All that’s really clear is that “bitch” has something to do with being female, and it’s not good. “Sissy” is another example of a mudball word. When I ask people in workshops to figure out what the person who uses sissy is really trying to say, they come up with cowardly, prissy, effeminate, homosexual, shy, scaredy cat. Again, these words are not synonyms of each other. We don’t really know what sissy means – just that it has something to do with being female and it’s not good. (The etymology of sissy is interesting – it comes from the time when it was more common to call each other by relationship. Not only mother, father, aunt, uncle but also sister, shorted to sissy, and brother, shortened to buddy. Look what has happened to those two words – one is an insult which kept only its gender while its meaning is entirely blurred, while the other has become a warm compliment which has nearly lost its it gender connotation. Thus a word can show what the society thinks, even when it doesn’t accurately reflect what the individual thinks.)
The best answer, I think, to mudball words is to think about good and bad language from a linguistic point of view. Good language is strong, specific, clear, unmistakable. It has nothing to do with body parts or damnation. Bad language is fuzzy and unclear. What we want to do is figure out what we’re trying to say, and then say that. If we are trying to say that a person Is bad tempered or backbiting, then say that rather than using the all-purpose, vague and unclear ”bitch.” Those are perfectly legitimate things to say. It requires a bit of intellectual rigor to search among the mudball meanings for the accurate term, but it’s worth the effort. And, need I say, these words apply to both sexes!
(For her aforementioned pamphlet, send Amanda a self-addressed stamped envelope to: 103 West Main Street, 302/402, Durham, North Carolina 27701.)
Courtney Bryant: Re- appropriating Bitch – A Womanist Perspective
Sitting naked on the page, without context, the word “bitch” seems insignificant, harmless. Yet clothed within the context of a racist and sexist culture the word grows fangs that tear into even the meatiest parts of black women’s self-esteem. I write from the perspective of a Black woman because I believe our history with the word bitch is distinctly more nefarious than that of my white, brown and Asian sisters. Like the feminist focus of the 50’s and 60’s on “the right to work” (despite the glaringly obligatory presence of black women in the workforce for years prior) white women’s desire to re-appropriate the word “bitch” fails to consider the contextual differences of the Black woman’s experience.
Black women have a different history and orientation with words. As a community whose respectability, femininity and even humanity are constantly called into question, we are constantly managing the public’s perception of us. Ever the victims of our double consciousness, the nature and caliber of the words we use in speech and when referring to ourselves serve as signifiers of the kind of women we are both inside and outside our communities. Many Black women shy away from such crass language and labeling because they do not have the privilege of participating in the crude without being further dubbed indecent. Unlike white women who can employ language for effect, the stakes are higher for black women.
Black womanhood has never been considered something worthy of being protected, our bodies, never something to be revered or cherished, our personhood never something to be respected without coercion. Misunderstood, stigmatized and devalued black women have been labeled the super bitches of the universe – The women with too much sass, too much mouth and more opinions and expectations than the world believes we deserve. We are a walking reminder of the ills of society, it’s uncivilized oppressive nature and its lack of accountability to the least of these. Black women are a problem because they regularly remind the world of the meritless privilege afforded to some on the backs of others. And the best way to render our testimony meaningless is to slap the label of bitch on us. Hence, the precarious existence of the black women makes her all the more susceptible to being called and truly considered a bitch, an angry nag who cannot be controlled, biologically female, yet worthy of no respect, an animal, a female dog, sub-human, devoid of dignity or consideration. Unladylike, unsubmissive, unwilling to accept the lies they’ve told, unwilling to not desire more. As I write, the strength and determination that solicits being labeled a bitch seems laudable, still its sting remains.
Embracing bitch seems a naïve strategy. Regardless of its re-appropriation by women, its function in our sexist society remains the same. The particularly injurious racist animalistic connotations remain wedded to it. Further hip hop culture and the practice of our own men littering their “expressions of themselves” with the term bitch is so prevalent in our communities, both men and women believe female and bitch are synonymous. Adopting the term for ourselves, within this context feels like the completion of an insidious socialization project designed to make us embrace identities of someone else’s making. With no champions coming to our rescue, Black women have to be their own defenders, but embracing the word bitch as a political statement seems a poor strategy, especially when it can so easily be mistaken for participation in ignorant and tasteless behavior.
We are not bitches. We are women who possess the spirit of God within. We are a force to be reckoned with. We are rebels. We are complex, unwavering heroes, unwilling to bow or lie down, bend over or, go quietly to her corner. We are tenacious. We are resilient… and the list goes on. There are far too many words in the English lexicon that can be used to describe our determination and our fight… obstinate, recalcitrant, defiant, feisty, commanding, exacting, and we are so creative and our vocabulary is so vast that words that have been used historically to inflict harm are unnecessary. The label “bitch” is beneath me, and rather that re-appropriate its use, I chose to elevate the conversation.
Meghan Florian: The B-word
I learned early on, long before I began to self-identify as a feminist, what kind of behavior will get a woman called “the B-word.” You are a bitch when you speak out of turn, when you express unpopular opinions, when you refuse to give men what they want — what they think they deserve.
Language is powerful, and I don’t think it’s helpful, or even entirely possible, to separate a word from its history. You can’t simply ignore the power a word has had to injure and silence. Efforts to reclaim and reappropriate certain words often unsettle me, in part because they seem too simple. “Bitch,” coming out of my own mouth isn’t automatically a good thing just because I want it to be. I can’t take for granted that I am redefining it.
But I want to, if only for myself. Bitch Magazine, probably the most well-known reappropriation of the term, explains its choice in part with a quotation from Rebecca West: “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” The same sentiments might get you labeled a bitch.
I spent much of my young adult life as a doormat. One of the first papers I wrote on Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, at the age of twenty-two, was a two-page reflection entitled, “Does Loving Make Me a Doormat?” I was finally calling myself a feminist out loud, knee-deep in feminist theology while also doing an independent study on my beloved Kierkegaard. The little girl who was taught to always put others needs and desires ahead of my own was also becoming aware of how the selflessness of Christian love can be twisted and manipulated by power.
At the time I was mostly concerned with how to be kind to my roommates without letting them walk all over me. Later on the doormat question would replay on a larger stage as I grappled with the reality of domestic and sexual violence in the lives of women around me, as I learned to speak my mind in classrooms run by men who as often as not dismissed my questions, and even in my own dating life as I realized that someone else had written rules I did not want to keep, that signals were supposedly sent without my knowledge, that I often felt stuck on a path I didn’t want to be on because now there were expectations and I didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
The version of white middle-class Christian femininity I’d been taught didn’t have much room for self-love and self-care. Yet the more I began to live into my calling as a theologian and a writer, and the more I began to express myself in relationships, the more I said and did things that I feared would get me labeled a bitch. For me, understanding the word as something that comes up when I am doing something brave by speaking my mind and, hopefully, speaking truth, brings a certain kind of healing and freedom. But I can’t make it be that for anyone else. Once words leave my mouth or my pen they are not mine anymore in the sense that I cannot control them. And so, while I read Bitch Magazine, and am not offended by the word myself, I have little interest in large scale redefinition. There are too many new words to be written to waste my time taking this one back from those who would insult the fierce, courageous women doing good work around me everyday.
As someone who has often been described as caring, hospitable, kind, sweet — all those good church lady words — honestly, I just think I could stand to be a bit more of a bitch sometimes.
Sarah McGiverin: On Trying (and Failing) to Become a Complete Bitch
In middle school and early high school, I was small – less than 5 feet tall and less than 80 pounds going into ninth grade. I was a magnet for bullying: wearing large glasses and braces, assertive intellectually and timid socially, very interested in following the rules and in giving precise answers. My mother’s admonition to “just ignore them” was not so much working: I could take non-retaliation to the very heights of comedy, or so it seemed to the people who would bully me. I would stand up for anyone but myself. But by the end of my tenth grade year, I was weary of being a target. I would try something new: I would be tough and intimidating. I would be a bitch.
Just as for the editors of Bitch magazine, identifying myself as a bitch meant expressing opinions that differentiated me from a doormat. But it also meant saying things the boys could say that I wasn’t supposed to say because I was a girl. It meant alarming my parents and the thoughtful modest girls that had been my closest friends in ninth and tenth grade. It meant saying things like, “enough penis waving!” and “I don’t give a flying fuck!” and liberally using the word “masturbation” as a metaphor. It meant denying my vulnerability in a way that would become dangerous later on… because I was vulnerable. Because underneath it all, I was still my old self: wanting to understand everyone, curious about everything. I was going to be hurt, over and over again, and no amount of cussing could fix that. I wasn’t ever going to be a tough and intimidating bitch.
I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. In the meantime, I was learning about feminism: that it didn’t just mean white women getting to do the same things white men were doing, that there were all types of feminism, that some feminists said that men ought to be more like women instead of the other way around. Which is how I ended up using the word “bitch,” much to my chagrin, in an extraordinarily vituperative way.
I have called someone else a bitch less than 5 times in the past 10 years, but every time I have spat the word out with disgust at the behavior at a woman I expected more from: more kindness, more understanding, more courtesy. (And I have used the word liberally against myself in the same way.) I have no parallel word for men because I expect less from men, Kyrie Eleison. I expect men to be discourteous, thoughtless, unkind, and dense. Lately, on the exterior I appear to be almost a traditional housewife, but on the inside I am the worst stereotype of a radical feminist – and it has led me to be unreasonably demanding of the women around me. It has led me to call some of them “bitch.”
To identify oneself as intimidating, to express one’s feminist refusal to be a doormat, to single out women for scrutiny because they are meant to be more beatific than men: each of these three uses of the word bitch evolves in some way out of the way I heard bitch used when I was a child – to indicate a woman who has forgotten her place. A bitch isn’t just any female dog, but a mother – a dog whose purpose and identity resides in her breeding, birthing, and nursing pups. The word “bitch” was used to recall what women were really meant for… Hint: it wasn’t for having an opinion, and certainly not for correcting men.
So we begin with men saying, “Oy, bitch! You don’t get to have opinions!” Then the women reply, “I am a bitch, a person entitled to opinions,” and my teenaged self adds, “And I hope that the more I say the word bitch, the more scared you become of me.” Finally in my thirties, I warn, “But by expressing that opinion, you have failed to demonstrate the higher nature that only we as women can witness to, and by failing, you are nothing more than a bitch, or a man for that matter.”
Three attempts to reclaim the word in my life have resulted in three failures, and it is in no small part because of the sin underlying the word: “bitch” separates people into moral categories based on their gender. While I love many of the articles at Bitch magazine, others demonstrate how a combative stance precludes the possibility of making a gesture of reconciliation – for instance, to call attention to a particular action or attitude as hurtful and counterproductive is substantially different from calling someone a “douchebag” as in Bitch’s regular feature, the Douchebag Decree.
I could make all sorts of excuses about how I have been hurt by particular individual men and by the patriarchy in general to excuse my bias against men. Like the stereotypical racist who “has black friends” I could point to my relationship with my husband and a few male friends as exceptions. But when it comes down to it, I still fall into the trap of having different expectations of people based upon who has a uterus. Which makes me not so different from the men who have not expected very much from me on the basis of me not having a penis.
“Be angry, but do not sin,” Paul warns. This is the same Paul who wrote, “In Christ there is no male nor female.” I have been right to be angry – angry at the way my vulnerability and others’ has been taken advantage of, angry at being seen as less [objective, reliable, intelligent, accurate, strong, capable] because of my gender, angry at having been introduced as “my lady pastor” when male colleagues of mine were surely never referred to as “my pastor man.” But I have been wrong to impute superiority on the basis of being on the receiving end of oppression. Do I want to scare men? To intrigue them? To out-Christian them? Or do I just, in the end, want my personhood to be acknowledged – to be seen and be loved?
I am not going to get this unilaterally, of course – I can’t make anyone else acknowledge me as a person. But I can give this – I can try harder to see, to love each person in their lovely particularity, which encompasses gender, but neither begins nor ends there. And as a gesture towards this renewed effort, I can try to speak with more care, excising such unloving words as “bitch” from my vocabulary.
Amy Laura Hall: Puce Postscript
When I was Emily’s age, I saved up my allowance to buy a Helen Reddy album, because I had heard her belting out “I AM WOMAN!” and I too wanted to “Roar!” Rita Moreno shouted each week “Hey! You! Guys!” to open up the blessedly raucous Electric Company, and my mom had taught me to sing loudly along with Aretha Franklin’s demand for “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” But Reddy was the first, pop-culture time I had heard a clearly, unquestionably whitey-white woman be so bold. (For God’s sake, these were the days of Debby Boone’s execrable “You Light Up My Life,” played over and over and over . . . ) Now, as I try to mother my Green Street Girls, I want somehow to teach them to be totally, completely, absolutely unafraid to appear woman-ish. Can I say that? In coining the term “Womanist,” Alice Walker said that “A Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” I don’t know how to begin being purple, carrying around always with me the unquestionable racial privilege, safety, history, and authority that is my aesthetically normative whitey-whiteness. But I do think that, for me, risking offending the white men (and the ladies against women) around me is key – risking their disapproval that I am being pushy, unladylike, brazen. Buying Bitch Magazine to have around the house was perhaps one attempt to learn to be more puce, a puzzling color that I remember early-on loving, particularly in prom-dress taffeta – bright orange mixed with fuchsia and purple and gold. I wasn’t brave enough to wear that to my own prom. But Em would look amazing in it someday . . .