Do you remember watching Coach Carter in 2005? A typically American story in many ways, and prone to harmful stereotypes.
One scene stuck. Where Carter bans the use of “Nigger” from his players. Explaining; “nigger is a derogatory term used to insult our ancestors…You using it teaches him (the white man) to use it.”
A far too simplistic explanation, but a useful place to start in thinking about our use of the term “BITCH”. Terms rooted in the same evil soil, in my view.
The connotations of “B.I.T.C.H.”
I think we can agree three things at the outset on the term. Firstly, it is used to refer to women, or perceived feminine qualities. We know this because in the media only female characters are referred to as such. In our daily interactions; at work, school, girls and women are talked about as being bitchy and bitching. Or in Hollywood where women are described to have bitchy resting faces. Secondly, it refers to negative behaviours. Spreading rumours, making spiteful comments, appearing unfriendly or unapproachable. And thirdly, it is a socially accepted term! I challenge you to go a day without an encounter with it. In what you read, watch, discuss, listen to, even think.
Do we understand its origin?
According to the oxford dictionary the term “bitch” is a very old English word that means; “FEMALE DOG“. But I think we can agree that women are in fact not dogs. Which begs the question, why is it used to describe them? And what does it matter if we use it?
To answer these questions, we need to understand the significance of language.
Language “allows us to understand each other”
In this article we learn language matters because it is the view into the human mind. “It is what makes us human….what connects us as human beings”. It enables interaction. If we were to accept this understanding that “words connect us”, it seems vital that we become aware of the actual words we are connecting on. It is undoubtful in my mind that society connects fundamentally on the term “Bitch”. For evil reasons.
There is power in language. “You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it.” In this article “Our Words Are Our Weapon”, Rebecca Solnit explains the value of naming and specifying a problem to change it. Terms like “sexual harassment”, “domestic violence” were created to reveal the specific violence inflicted on women. Before they were invented women could not talk about their experiences, forcing them to suffer in silence. These terms started a conversation and led to some legal protection.
Language can also be used to conceal problems. Solnit tells us “Widespread Social Problems” are often reported as an “Isolated Event”. Such as the murder of 1,500 women a year by their husbands and boyfriends in the US. This number communicates a common problem, not a unique act. Yet the latter is usually how this violence is reported.
The term “BITCH” is a weapon of male dominance
I believe it reveals how a society built on male dominance imagines women to be: animal!
This explains why badly-behaved men get the benefit of the doubt where women do not. In these cases, language is used to excuse one and punish the other. In this article “The Harmless-Sounding Phrase That Is Terrible for All Women”, we see how sayings like; “He is basically a good guy”, allow men tobounce back from crisis unscathed. The basis society judge men’s actions. Whether it is calling a woman a “stupid bitch” as the article explores or bragging about sexual harassment, in the case of Donald Trump. Either way, men (especially white men) tend to land comfortably from these mishaps.
For women who behave badly, it’s; “She’s such a bitch.” Because at the core of woman is a dog: she is bad. We saw this with Hillary Clinton who breached federal law in her handling of communications. The magnitude of her behaviour was considerably less harmful than Trump’s. Yet her act was judged more severely. Trump’s behaviour was written off as joking. Because at the core of man is a human being: he is good.
Popular culture drums the term into us, strengthening our connection.
The media plays a vital role in degrading women in this manner. TV shows that target a female audience thrive on this. Take the American series; “Pretty Little Liars”, a whodunit for teenage girls. In its 7 seasons, 160 episodes, you struggle to find a single one where the term is not used. Used to regulate female behaviour, or shame men whose bad behaviour is so foul it is concluded feminine.
The threat of “Bitch” is felt definitively by everyday women.
And reacted to in several ways. The ones I have observed fall into the same category; coerced acceptance.
Women have internalised this weapon, using it as if their own. Editor for Black Ballad (a UK lifestyle platform for Black women) explains that in order to manage her life as she wants it, she has learned to grow “comfortable with being unlikeable”. Explaining, this does not mean “being a bitch for no reason.” The insight here; being “unlikeable” is being a dog. The horrible traits she refers to include; not smiling, being selfish, saying no, disappointing people. Which tell us it is not the specific behaviours that make women dogs, but the attempt to act like a human beings.
The Editor’s language expresses anxiety due to the intimidation felt, whilst also confirming women are animal. Demonstrating women are not just victims but collaborators of the term.
Bizarrely, this is notable in women’s rights work. Like feminist magazine Bitch founded in 1996. According to the founders; it was the perfect title “to spark debate about language and talk about women’s rights”. I am not convinced that’s the whole story. At best, I think it was a reactive response to the anticipated anti-feminist backlash. At worst, it went to collaborating so to seem less threatening. I say this having noted a similar trend on social media. Here activists use titles like; “bitches are just proud ladies” “feminism bitches” “bitchy feminist101” “ur fav bitch” “dead bitch” “the angry black bitch” “activist bitches”. I could go on.
“BITCH” is a weapon that harms all women!
By understanding the importance of language, its power to affect mindsets and laws, we can begin to see there is power in this term. Its widespread use encourages us to accept it, to take it as a given: adopt it as an everyday saying. But beneath the pink, the glitter, the sham freedom it says to give, it is a linguistic tool that works to convince all that women are not human! Because fundamentally the behaviours it scares out of women, are those that do not serve male dominance. Behaviours that go to women confirming themselves as people. By demanding to be heard, to work, have control of their bodies, their sexual activity.
Some of us are uncomfortable with it and are seen as hostile female dogs. Some give in to it. Convincing ourselves we are powerful when we use it. But we inflict ourselves and others, so to be seen as friendly female dogs. For the beatings are less when we comply. However, neither our hostile nor friendly approach, free us from the dog pen. There, women remain seen as dogs. Exactly as male dominance wants it.
As Audre Lorde (US feminist, poet, civil rights activist) taught us; “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”