Warning: Explicit and offensive language. I’ve cleaned some of it up, replacing letters with symbols (which seems utterly silly, given the fact that you all know what the word is anyway), but still.
2013: “Man, that bitch is hot.”
Objectively, there’s not much difference between these two statements. They are both commenting on the general attractiveness of a woman, complimenting and objectifying her simultaneously.
But the second has different connotations, I think. Sure, the word ‘bitch’ has largely (but not entirely) lost its meaning of a nasty, unpleasant woman, but it’s still commonly used to denote something difficult and objectionable – “That test was a bitch!”
So what’s the deal with ‘bitch’ these days? Robin Thicke shows his subtle sauvity in wooing the ladies by declaiming “You the hottest bitch in this place!” in the summer’s #1 hit ‘Blurred Lines,’ a relentlessly catchy but ultimately creepy song which also gleefully trumpets brutal anal sex -“I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two,” seductively intimates rapper T.I.
Really? When I was single I never used that line, but outside of a music video with inexplicably topless women in thongs slinking around fully dressed men, I don’t see it as being a winning come-on.
Lily Allen, in her new song “Hard Out Here,” takes aim at the misogyny and sexism in pop culture in general, and “Blurred Lines” in particular. “Don’t need to shake my ass for you, ’cause I’ve got a brain,” she sings, going on to say “If I told you ’bout my sex life, you’d call me a slut/When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss.”
Take as one out of thousands of examples, say, the online treatment of female journalists and writers. When men write controversial pieces in online media outlets they may indeed get rude responses, and there’s been a lot of talk lately about the incivility of the medium and the degradation of discourse. But men don’t get comments that threaten gang rape, sexual mutilation, or call them a ‘f*#king slut.’
Anita Sarkeesian, who comments on pop culture on her blog Feminist Frequency, received over 100 virulently sexist comments in only a couple of hours after posting a video on YouTube about a Kickstarter project to fund a video series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. A small sample:
- I hate ovaries with a brain big enough to post videos.
- She needs a good dicking, good luck finding it though.
- Lesbians: The Game is all this bitch wants.
- F*#k you feminist f*#ks you already have equality, in fact you have better shit than most males, be glad what you got bitch.
- Back to the kitchen, c#*t.
- Bitches like to bake cake, lick da dick, suck anus, and deepthroat ballz.
- You disgust me you f*#king bitch.
Clearly the gaming community has its fair share of trolls. But even female journalists in mainstream outlets are often inundated with sexist or violently sexual abuse. Cath Elliott, a feminist who is a frequent contributor to The Guardian, says that she all too often has to read “graphic descriptions detailing precisely how certain implements should be shoved into one or more of my various orifices.”
Caroline Criado-Perez, founder of The Women’s Room, campaigned successfully to have the first woman printed on British banknotes – Jane Austen will appear on 10-pound notes. Following the announcement, she reported receiving “up to 50 rape threats an hour” on her organization’s Twitter account.
Do I believe that the use of the word ‘bitch’ in pop culture is responsible for the sexually violent abuse – both verbal and physical – that many women suffer? Of course not. But language is a powerful weapon as well as a tool, and it shapes the way we view our world as well as the way in which we interact with ideas, conventions, and other people.
A culture which uses such a complex and emotionally charged word lightly as both a term of admiration and one of derision creates a gray fog of ambiguity that allows for predators, sexists, and yes, even pop icons, to prowl around in the gloom.
Is calling an attractive woman a ‘hot chick’ really different than calling her a ‘hot bitch’? I think so. ‘Bitch’ is simply too loaded a word. Any attempt to “reclaim” a derogatory term by turning it into a positive one is risky, since it will always carry its original connotation.
Consider the fact the we can’t bring ourselves to say the n-word (like it’s Voldemort or something, ‘that which cannot be named’). The word is simply too laden with latent history and evocation. And isn’t it odd that we can say ‘bitch’ on prime-time American tv, while dick, prick, dickhead, cocksucker and the like are banned?
Many musicians and other pop-culture figures claim to use the term as one of comaraderie, affection, endearment, even. But as Ann Powers writes in a fascinating NPR piece, it may be true that “‘Bitch’ is fully lodged within the vocabulary of pop at this point, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.”
What does this mean for your kids? Well, the next time you find them (or are yourself) singing blithely along in the car to “Blurred Lines” or any other pop song that uses the word ‘bitch’ and espouses sexist attitudes, you might think about it for a moment. You might even want to sit down with them and have a look at what these lyrics are all about.
Just today: “I know you want it. I know you want it, but you’re a gooood giiirl,” sings my 3-year-old son as we walk from the car to the front door. Thankfully, that’s all he knows.
When I was teaching I’d hear teenage boys bandy this word about all the time, switching back and forth between statements like “There were a lot of fine bitches at the club last night,” and “I can’t stand that ugly bitch.” Both, of course, are objectionable for a number of reasons. When called out on it these boys would initially look bewildered and then maybe, just maybe, think about it a little bit.
Will listening to misogynistic music ruin your kids, turn your boys into malignant internet trolls and your girls into sex toys? Almost certainly not. But what a great opportunity to have a conversation about these issues.
I wonder what Robin Thicke’s reaction would be if I were to call him a bitch. I’m not so sure he’d take it as a compliment.
Further reading: Bitch: A History