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Let’s talk about bitches

Reclaiming a centuries-old slur for women

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Image Credits: Midhat Kazmi

Bitch. It’s a powerful word.

When you read the word “bitch” — or hear a classmate, a family member, or a friend say it aloud — how do you react?

Since bitch has never in my life been regarded as a socially acceptable or positive term to describe women, I’ve always had a particularly negative reaction to the word. Almost always, “bitch” is a slur, used to demean and degrade a woman for behaviour that society has deemed unladylike. I grew up immersed in a culture that finds no redeeming quality in a bitch, and any time I hear it directed at anyone — women in particular — I flinch.

Words are never inherently bad. They are neutral entities, with goodness or badness that is dictated by us. The fault in the connotation of the word bitch is the fault in our society for deciding that traditionally “bitchy” qualities are unseemly, especially in women. We warped the word for a female dog into a slur against women to satisfy a dominant, misogynistic culture.

Lately, there has been a surge online and elsewhere to reclaim “bitch” from its history of disparaging use, just as “queer” has been reclaimed (mostly) for the non-straight population. This is a step in the right direction because the way to decrease the negative connotations is to increase the positive ones. We need to change how people perceive, receive, and process the meaning of “bitch.”

Smile, bitches

The phenomenon of “resting bitch face” (RBF) is almost unanimously touted as an insulting critique of how women don’t automatically revert to a smile in a relaxed moment. It’s derogatory and horrible. Nothing screams the patriarchy more than a group of men calling a woman a bitch because she doesn’t smile enough for them. RBF reminds us why “bitch” is such a complicated word.

“Bitch” as a slur against women in power isn’t new. Women in roles of power, especially in managerial or supervisory positions, require their employees to do things within a certain time frame or with a high level of efficiency and quality. While this is commonly seen as perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, in their male counterparts, it often results in women being called bitches for supposedly abusing their power. The process to reclaim hardworking bitches is already ongoing.

The problem is what bitch means to you is different from what it means to me.

Now more than ever, women are trying to embrace and disarm the firepower of such a linguistic move by calling themselves “bitches in charge,” “bomb-ass bitches,” and other variations. And it’s working. For me, someone who usually has a knee-jerk negative reaction to the word, I’ve been self-describing as a “badass bitch” whenever I’m on fire in the workplace.

The problem is that what the word means to me and what it means to other people isn’t always the same. The context in which the word is used also makes a great deal of difference. What comes across as empowering, laudable, and even encouraged in a women’s studies class turns menacing in a hurry in a dark alleyway.

So who can say bitch?

Then, of course, is the issue of who is allowed to use “bitch.” Only women? Only a certain subset of women? I’ve talked to a bunch of ladies, and the almost unanimous response is that straight men cannot and should not use the word at all, not even in the positive sense we currently see. “Men always use it in a shitty way, they shouldn’t be allowed to use it at all.”

Queer men and non-binary folks are a different story. Some of these people have also experienced the disgust, the shame, and the ridicule that come with being derogatorily called a bitch. So, many argue that we should consider the appropriateness of the term based on sexuality and experience. It’s an understandable response, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

This is not to say that only men use it negatively. It is so much a part of our culture, ingrained in our understanding of the world, that women use it to insult other women. The fact of the matter is that tone indicates intent, regardless of gender. Some of the older women in my life even use it as a teaching moment: “That woman is such a stuck-up bitch, you do not want to be like that.”

Ultimately, a lot of a word’s ability to inflict emotional suffering lies in the intent. The best way to speed up the process of the reclamation of “bitch” is to get men — queer or straight — and everybody in general to use it in a positive rather than a negative fashion. The faster we can influence and reshape our reaction to and our conception of bitches, the faster we arrive at a society where a bitch is first and foremost a successful, powerful, confident lady.

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