Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The B Word

This post really has nothing to do with books, but it relates somewhat loosely to the Women Unbound challenge.  It started when I was watching Top Chef last week and one of the contestants said something about being a b*tch and that she was happy to "own that word."  What?  Who are you?  Why would you ever want to "own" that word?  How are you happy to be associated with it?  Then there's the picture with this post...

And now I'm reading Helen Hollick's excellent book The Kingmaking, and the book is just littered with the word everywhere- however, at least in that book, it's used very much in a derogatory sense and no one is happy to be the recipient of the term.  That is fine with me- I don't think it's something you should like being called.  I would be highly offended if someone called me that.  And I'd be mortified if I had done something to earn the term.  But I seem to be in the minority.

Really, what is with women today being so proud to be called the b-word?  I don't know when being associated with a word that means rude, aggressive, mean and all-around horrible became a badge of honor.  But it seems more and more to me that women use the word and don't apologize for it. 

And then I got to thinking about how many people feel the word feminist has a negative connotation.  And that maybe these are related.  I feel like the term b*tch has become, for some, synonymous with "feminist."  This is upsetting and disturbing.  Feminists are assertive about their rights, not aggressive about stupid, negligible things.  Feminists want equality, not to be seen as dominant.  Feminists know their end goal, but that doesn't mean they'll sabotage other people to get there.

B*tches, on the other hand... well, they do whatever they want and don't seem to care for the consequences.  And I think for many people, when they hear the word "feminist," they think of the word "b*tch."  Because they think of really aggressive, spoiled women who go after what they want, regardless of how it may affect other people.

I understand that language evolves as the use of words changes.  Maybe the b-word has a stronger connotation for me than it does for other people who use it so loosely.  Personally, I rarely ever swear or cuss (I can't even type out the b-word on this blog).  And so when I do, each word really means something to me.  And when I hear a word that has such a negative association, and when I hear women cheerfully referring to themselves by that word, it really gets on my nerves.  Being a b*tch is not cool.  It doesn't mean that you value your independence or that you are willing to make sacrifices to get where you want to be in life.  It means you are manipulative and crafty and not the sort of person anyone wants to be around.  Why in the world would you ever want to own that word?

What do you think about this?  Am I being overly sensitive?  Am I making random and baseless connections between the increase of the usage of the b-word and the negative view people have of the word feminist?


  1. I don't like the word either - I very much dislike ANY gender-based insult - but at the same time, I can see why some women are reclaiming it. I guess it has to do with the fact that it's not only used to refer to rude, aggressive, insensitive women, but also to women who simply speak up, who are assertive, who refuse to settle for less than equal rights. Which I guess is where the association between the "b-word" and feminism comes from. As Victorian as this is, there are still people who think it's bad for ANY woman not to be submissive and self-sacrificing and a "good girl". It's all or nothing: you either take everything quietly, or you're a selfish b-tch.

    I wish we'd just drop the word altogether. And don't get me started on other insults used specifically for women :/

  2. I totally agree with you. And I think many of those who are "reclaiming" it are not using it to refer to women who are assertive, but are using it in the same derogatory way. To me, it's anathema!

  3. Aarti-
    When I was younger I felt terrible if someone called me a bitch. I could not connect with the concept.
    I have gotten over it - well mostly.
    Often it is just a label that people give strong women whom stand up for themselves.
    There comes a time when we have to decide whether to just accept being called a bitch because we are strong or get walked all over for being too nice.
    So many of us have learned to embrace the label and its connotation to strength. To celebrate it. Which is what I think you see here with this calendar.
    There's a wonderful book that helped me to get over the label. Its old 20 year + -
    Its called Bitches and Abdicators
    here is the goodreads link. :)
    I hope that gives a different perspective. :)

  4. I don't like the word either and do NOT like being called one. Even in teasing. I HATED it in high school but then I realized that people had different connotations. Like Shellie said above, I think it's a word that has multiple connotations. I guess it's all in how the person uses it.

  5. I'm a Feminist and proud of it. The words bitch does not offend my sensibility but I try never to use it though I suspect that as more to do with my upbringing than my feminist ideals.
    Great post,

  6. Aarti,
    I really don't think you are being too sensitive about this. I don't like the word either, and I would feel really insulted if someone used that as a descriptor for my personality. I think nowadays, people are just so used to being labeled, and gender labels seem to be everywhere. And "owning" the word? What does that even mean? Does that mean that you are proud to embody the all the negative traits ascribed to women? I think it's sad that some women feel proud of being labeled a b****. I know that's not what I would want the people in my life to call me, either to my face, or behind my back. And despite what many think, I don't think being a feminist or being assertive means that you are a b****.

  7. Thanks for you thoughts so far, everyone. I think I have to agree with those that still dislike the word.

    Shellie- thank you so much for your suggested reading. But I don't know. I don't know anyone who calls someone a bitch just for being assertive or strong. I have never seen it used in a positive way. And obviously the calendar is more tongue-in-cheek and sardonic about its usage. But I feel like women may describe themselves as "bitch" meaning one thing (strong and assertive, maybe) but many people see it a different way.

    For example, maybe the woman on Top Chef just thought she was describing herself as assertive. But then she spent the rest of the show being really pretty horrible to everyone else. So I feel like people use the word for themselves as an excuse to be rude, and NOT in a way that presents them as strong.

  8. Owning a derogatory epithet can be deeply empowering, especially if that word has a history. It can also be really emotional to go through that process of changing your mind and language around that ownership. I know that there are some Black Americans who claim the n-word as their own, feminists who claim c*** and b*tch would be similar.

  9. I'm not entirely sure of the history of the term (besides having it also refer to female dogs), but I imagine it really began being applied to women who did not submit. From there it shifted to current use by women to justify crude and selfish behavior - which I agree is misguided and not at all positively empowering. But apparently c*nt suffers a similar fate. From what I've read (Inga Muscio is a goddess!), c*nt used to literally mean "woman". But to the extent that woman became inferior, the word became derogatory, and vagina took its place; vagina literally meaning "sheath for a sword". And as Muscio says, I ain't nobody's sheath, thankyouverymuch. So I think to really reclaim the word, one must also reclaim its intent. It does not work to call yourself a b*tch to justify crassness. To reclaim b*tch, you must apply it in a positive way, in a self-loving and other-loving way. You must, in essence, change its meaning. That is what it means to own it and that is where empowerment lies. In that sense, I think we WANT to own that word so that it reduces the power to call us derogatory things. Ownership so that words associated with woman are not negative or inferior.

  10. Sudha and Jade- I never thought about it in the ways you two present it. I suppose I didn't ever think the word might have changed meaning to become derogatory after initially just being a word to symbolize someone who did not submit. That opens up a whole new world of interesting possibilities!

    I agree that owning a word gives you power to determine the meaning associated with it- but in this case, I don't think b*tch is really used in a way that would make me PROUD to own it. Does that make sense? If someone were using it to show that they were smart, independent thinkers, then fine. But if they're only using it to justify crass rudeness, then I don't think they're "owning" it the way that they might want to. They're using it to justify behavior that is then being used to negatively impact other words. For example, in this case, that's probably how "feminist" got a more negative connotation than it had previously, as people would say, "I'm a feminist" and then proceed to burn their bras or something. Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with a word's meaning changing due to people's actions and usage of it. But it's interesting to consider, I suppose.

    Not really sure if i ever arrived at a point in this comment.

  11. Whilst I wouldn't like to be called the b-word, it doesn't offend my sensibilities anywhere near as much as the c-word that has been mentioned her! I really hate that word, and find it totally offensive. Whilst I think that the b-word has different levels of meaning depending on context, I can imagine no time when the c-word is not offensive.

  12. Aarti, I understand your concerns although I think in terms of the Top Chef example it wasn't to justify rudeness but to take control and execute her power in what is considered a male-dominated industry. To be assertive is often confused with being aggressive and there is a fine line between them. It is a term that I embrace; I will not submit and I will speak my mind but I will do it in a strong and empowered yet also respectful way.

  13. Great post.
    No one here would like to be called that, if someone calls me that I would get really upset. It's an awful word

  14. Anonymous11/11/2009

    Fantastic post. You are right. Feminism has so many neg. connotations and bitch is def one ie. Hillary Clinton. I might say "i'm in a bitchy mood" but I'd never say "I"m a bitch." period.

  15. I really think it's about power - for a whole lot of years, that word has been used AT us - when someone (usually a man) wanted to make someone else (usually a woman) feel small and powerless, they would throw that word around. So by reclaiming that word, I think a lot of feminists feel they reclaim that power - "You can't make me feel small anymore by calling me that word, because I OWN that word."

  16. Ok I typed this long comment and then Blogger didn't save it - AAHH!!! What I was going to say is I don't mind seeing "bitch" in writing or whatever, but I hate being called that because I think it's such a derogatory, dirty word. I don't understand why women would call themselves that, though some good points have been made in the comments!

  17. I'm with you - to me the b-word has extreme negative connotations, and it's definitely not something I want to be called, not something I want to "own."
    And it seems so sad to me that it has become associated with power. As if nice people can't have power. As if nice people go nowhere in life.
    I just don't get it.

  18. I don't swear a lot either, but I do use the word bitch many times but I have never ever associated it with feminism. For me it means, as you said, "rude, aggressive, mean and all-around horrible".

    But i do know the -ve image the word feminism carries and that needs to be changed.

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  20. Apologies, I've just seen the episode of Top Chef you were referring to (I thought it applied to an episode from earlier in the current season) and I think the "ownership" of the word was an excuse to be rude and obnoxious. I stand behind my thoughts that the word doesn't always have to be deemed offensive but there is also misuse and misinterpretation aplenty.

  21. Personally, I don't like name-calling in general. I think it usually is uncalled for even in a fight. But if someone did call me a bitch, I'd take it as an insult. I don't mind being called opinionated or direct, but bitch...it's not a compliment.

    Kind of on the same topic, if two women get in a fight, do you notice the first things they call each other are fat and bitch? I'm thinking The Real Housewives of Atlanta here. Why?

  22. I'm really interested in how one word can convey so many different meanings to people!
    I never thought about it before that the word might really be a way of empowering based on its origin. I have never thought about the history of a word and how it could change over time so that a word we view as negative now might just be a word.
    To me, the word b*tch is still a very bad one, and I do wish that women, when being "assertive and strong," would just use the word "feminist." And then when people are rude, they could use the b-word. But words only have power we give them, so it is cool that we're taking the word into our control.

  23. I am writing from Denmark, I am Danish, I speak Danish.

    A lot of English swear words has moved their way into the Danish language over the years. An old example is the f-word (and all other tenses of that word).

    While I am by no means a linguist (and it is already tough enough trying to explain this as I don't speak English, but I'll try).

    Anyway, "fuck" is now used IN DANISH as a very mild swear or often not as swearing at all, as in "f***, I forgot my book at work" or "that is a f***ing sweet blouse you're wearing". Much like how native English speakers would say "dang, I forgot...." or "that is a darn cute blouse...". In other words, "fuck" has lost not just it's meaning (to say "make love" or "have sex" in a rude and awful manner), it has also moved its way into being used in all sorts of sentences and contexts where you would not even have used the word originally.

    This is not to say that it is okay to use the f-word. I have to be a bit careful around my English speaking friends, since this is a rather harsh word for them.

    Also, I immediately thought of some of the used-to-be-derogatory words used in Danish for homosexuals. Pretty soon the homosexuals took those derogatory words and begang using them among themselves, and now at least 3-4 of those words, which were deeply derogatory towards homosexuals, are now considered normal words to describe homosexuality.

    While not implying that is is the same with the b-word, I think we may be headed there, although I'll agree that it is often "claimed" by women who want to behave rude, obnoxious and mean.


  24. I had all these thoughts about the use of b*tch that I was going to post, then I read everyone's comments and realized my thoughts have already been expressed! What a great conversation! I think that reclaiming negative words is definitely at work, but personally I would hate to be called a b*tch. I wonder if it is generational...I am 44. Maybe women in their teens and 20s are less offended. I hear students (girls) at the school where I work using it much more freely than people my age.


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