Breaking Bitch: What To Do With a Word Gone Mad
Jared Loughner scrawled “die, bitch,” on a 2007 letter sent to him by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Meanwhile, LeBron James used the designation in a far different context when he tweeted “Karma’s a bitch” to his former teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers after their big loss against the Los Angeles Lakers. These men’s word choice — and their divergent uses — presents us with a perfect opportunity to reevaluate a complicated concept.
“Bitch” has been on my mind for months now, and I in fact began toying with this article months ago, after I heard three teens use the term at least a dozen times within about a ten minute subway ride.
Then, about two weeks later, a cashier at the grocery casually referred to Oprah Winfrey as “that rich bitch,” while a friend referred to a random woman who had cut him off as “some bitch,” a phrase I too have used. Why, I wondered, has bitch become so common place? And what does it even mean?
The word “bitch” traces its origins to the 12th century “bicche,” which was defined as the traditional “female dog,” particularly one in heat.
It was a bit later, perhaps around the 14th century, that bitch began to be applied to human women, again referring to one’s sexual proclivities. As language evolved, so too did bitch’s usage.
Today, “bitch” comes in myriad forms, and carries just as many meanings. It can be a verb — as in “to bitch,” or sometimes an adverb, “bitchily.” It can also be an excited exclamation — “bitchin’!” — or, a common saying, as James’ tweet illustrated, or, in the Loughner case, a vitriolic noun. It’s a complex thing, that bitch, and deserves some serious attention.
Hoping to get to the bottom of bitch, I asked a few of my female friends to offer their takes on the term. They were, not surprisingly, quite varied.
One girlfriend flat out rejected bitch, telling me, “I don’t use it. I’ve never used it. And I think it’s offensive.”
“It’s kind of like a low-grade insult; the obvious thing to say,” observed another chum, who linked bitch’s ubiquitous nature to another social ill. “I think the prevalence of the word bitch in pop culture shows how unprogressive we are in terms of gender equality.”
A different pal told me she finds the bitch to be funny, although couldn’t quite pinpoint why, and still another said she has no opinion whatsoever.
Some women I know, including my dear mother, see “bitch” as a potential badge of honor. “Said with the correct inflection, bitch can represent the truly breathtaking awe of someone so over the top that she must, sadly, be admired,” opined my mama, bringing us to the reappropriation of “bitch.”
Meredith Brooks had a hit on her hand in 1997, when she released the unabashedly assertive track, “Bitch,” providing the ultimate illustration of how the appellation has been reclaimed by women. The magazine ‘Bitch’ also shows the once derogatory moniker’s feminist revival.
I asked Cathi Hanauer, editor of the anthology “The Bitch in the House,” whether she thinks bitch remains tied to sexuality, as in a sexually loose, maybe even tempting, woman.
After originally thinking not, Hanauer had second thoughts, “If women were men, men wouldn’t need to call us bitches. If we didn’t have the power of sexuality, we probably wouldn’t be as dangerous and threatening to men. I mean, how often do you hear the term used to describe, say, washed-out old ladies, or even lesbians? It’s usually some young, hot, sexy type who wields her power over him.”
So what happens when “bitch” refers to a man?
It’s not uncommon for men to be dismissively called a “little bitch,” or, in a penal situation, as someone’s bitch, a usage comedian Norm MacDonald employed this week, when he described OJ Simpson as a “prison bitch.”
The sexuality inherent in bitch’s origin story again rears its head, only its flipped. The power has been sapped, and “bitch” is no longer a siren, a troublesome seductress, but a submissive pup. Bitch is in this case not a strength, but a shameful stain. Unless, of course, we’re talking about a power bottom who wears the term with pride. Again, it’s all about context.
“Bitch is a very good word, as far as words go, at conveying a certain thing powerfully and succinctly. Of course, what that thing is tends to vary in connotation, and that’s probably where your problem lies” contended Hanauer, referring to the personal confusion that helped spark this piece.
It’s worth noting here that most of the male friends I asked didn’t have much to say about it, although they either associated “bitch” with a “willful” woman or an intentionally irritating or bratty person.
Bitch can either be powerful, like James’ karmic force, or it can be pejorative, as in, “Get over here, you dirty bitch,” a phrase that becomes something else entirely if said in a sexual role-play. And bitch becomes especially dangerous when linked to violence, as proven by Loughner, who shot Giffords and 19 others last Saturday.
It thus becomes impossible to offer a complete dissection of such a multifaceted term, but Ms. Hanauer echoed my personal conclusion, “I think bitch is a word that, like most swear words, should be largely avoided, or at least used selectively by people who have the right, awareness, and acuity to use it properly.”
That group, she says, includes “self-proclaimed bitches” and “good men whose wives fucked their best friend,” which leaves the field wide open for acceptable usage. One thing becomes clear, however: bitch shouldn’t be taken lightly.