Bitch

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.

BItches_aeb925_18383411993: “Man, that chick is hot.”

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.”

“It’s hard out here for a bitch,” she concludes, and I think she’s probably right.1350269297_bitches

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.”

Bitch-69Caroline 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.

slap_bitch_demotivational_poster-s440x352-82424Is 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?

A 'roofie' is Rohypnol, a notorious date rape drug

A ‘roofie’ is Rohypnol, a notorious date rape drug

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.

FatBitchesWhen 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 Historyowls_annoying_bitches_by_seekerarmada-d5mzviy

20 thoughts on “Bitch

  1. I like the way you look at things and I, too, appreciate this post.

    After raising two girls and two boys in a somewhat less-tolerant generation (1970s-2000s) my husband and I are now raising an eight year-old granddaughter. Will we be doing some things differently than we did with the kids we gave birth to? Oh, yes. You better believe it. For starters, we’re going to more agressively excercise our right as parental censors. When she started singing the first verse of The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” we threw that cd out pronto.

    Also, we’ve already decided her first date will be on her wedding night.

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  2. Interesting piece, the use of explicit language seems to be a problem everywhere. Being a teenager myself from South Africa, whether the song lyrics are in English or in native languages they are never scrutinised beyond their entertainment use. You find 3 year old kids reciting lyrics that openly promote drug use

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    • Thanks! I don’t have much of a problem with ‘swear words’ per se, it’s really more the attitudes and agendas that they sometimes carry. And while I’m sure this happens in the majority of languages and cultures these days, the ubiquity of English-language songs and slogans means that some pretty offensive stuff is left to slide. Walking into any shop in Hungary, for example, and you’re likely to hear explicit rap lyrics that would never be played in a shop in the US. Or imagine my surprise at seeing a cute little girl – maybe 8 or 9 years old – in a small town in Korea, wearing a pink tank top with the words “turbo fuck” emblazoned across the front. We simply need to be more sensible, and more aware. Thanks for your comments!

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  3. Excellent, if challenging piece. I have not heard these lyrics or seen these posters and found them quite disturbing because of what they say about parts of our culture. Awareness is a key though. I too have spoken to my students (and own children) about words and their effects. Language has power.

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    • A great deal of power, Cuttlefish – I think more than we even realize. I had to have a little chat with out youngest this morning, in fact. You must understand, he’s an inveterate optimist, almost sickly sweet, the kind of kid you could drag from a dentist appointment to a doctor’s office for injections and still when you got home he’d say “That was a great morning.”
      So one of his classmates is shouting and acting out this morning as we’re about to enter the classroom, and he says, to no one in particular, “I HATE that boy.” I’d never heard him apply the word to a person before, so I explained that it was a bit harsh and not entirely appropriate. You can hate the fact that this boy smacks you (and other students) all the time, hate the fact that he willfully destroys things that other children have made, hate that he trips, kicks, throws dirt, screams and shouts and wreaks havoc… Actually, now that I look at it, it seems pretty okay to hate this kid. I hate this kid. No, really, you can hate the things he does, but not him as an individual. He’s naughty, but he’s not evil. And no doubt there are reasons beyond his control that impel him to act this way.
      Anyway, we had a little chat about ‘hate.’ A much overused term, I feel. Thank goodness we haven’t had to talk about ‘bitch’ yet.

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      • I think ‘bitch’ might be easier. ‘Hate’ is an emotional response and that is much harder to untangle. You have started me thinking, do/should we only hate things that are evil? Of course, you are right about hating the action and not the person, especially that of a child (damnably annoying (and hate-inspiring) though his behaviour is). Hate is often used interchangeably with ‘I feel angry with’.

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  4. Children of all ages need people who will teach them the true difference between what is right, and what is wrong. As a high school teacher I see daily examples of teenagers who have either never been taught, or have chosen to ignore, respect. I spend much of my time at school fighting against what has become socially acceptable in our society, and it saddens me. I have a 4-year old at home, and bringing him up in a society that has darkened as ours has many challenges. We already have conversations about why we don’t say certain things, and why we don’t listen to certain music or watch certain movies or television shows. We were excited a few weeks ago that Star Wars was coming on television, and decided to watch it as a family, only to have to turn it off due to the explicit nature of the commercials! I wish he could just be four for a while without the constant reminders of the real world.

    Thank you for taking a stand on this issue.

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  5. Children of all ages need people who will teach them the true difference between what is right, and what is wrong. As a high school teacher I see daily examples of teenagers who have either never been taught, or have chosen to ignore, respect. I spend much of my time at school fighting against what has become socially acceptable in our society, and it saddens me. I have a 4-year old at home, and bringing him up in a society that has darkened as ours has many challenges. We already have conversations about why we don’t say certain things, and why we don’t listen to certain music or watch certain movies or television shows. We were excited a few weeks ago that Star Wars was coming on television, and decided to watch it as a family, only to have to turn it off due to the explicit nature of the commercials! I wish he could just be four for a while without the constant reminders of the real world.

    Thank you for taking a stand on this issue.

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  6. It is more than sad that the language in some songs are so off “the normal”.
    For me it is even harder here in Germany. Pop music is everywhere and many people don’t speak English so well. And not long ago I saw some kids guided by a lady in her 40s dancing on a stage to the Katy Perry song Friday Night. The lyrics are awful, but the kids are 4 and when I asked the lady if she knew what she was singing about, she said no. And the more I told her about the lyrics, the more pale her face became.
    So many people don’t understand the words, but like it because it is catchy.

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  7. Very well said. Thank goodness my three-year-old daughter hasn’t heard of any of the songs you’ve mentioned… To be honest, I haven’ either. It’s a nasty world out there, especially the music industry. If only record producers would do something about it, but of course these multi-million dollar companies won’t lift a finger, as long as the money keeps coming, they won’t care. I agree with the comments above, education starts at home. Now if only our children though would remember and stick to their beliefs/upbringing without giving in to peer pressure, perhaps the world will be a better place.

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    • Thanks, Dean B. I don’t think it’s a nasty world out there, though. I think it’s an amazing, wondrous world out there, and we just need to tweak the nobs a bit to make it a whole lot better. We start at home, by guiding our kids the best we can and providing positive role models, and we make sure that our schools are safe, supportive environments for EVERYONE. Kids will inevitably buckle under peer pressure from time to time, but if their core values are solid then any damage done will likely be short-lived. Misogyny in the music industry is a symptom of a larger illness, not the cause, and all you can really do is hope that it will eventually become passe. Oscar Wilde’s line about war seems pertinent here – just replace ‘war’ with ‘sexism.’
      “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”
      Remember ‘gay bashing’ in the ’80s? Homophobic comments were perfectly acceptable at the time. People thought Eddie Murphy’s “faggot” jokes in his stand-up film ‘Delirious’ were hilarious – now they just sound pathetic and offensive. It doesn’t take long for things to change – it just takes people standing up and saying ‘no.’

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  8. The world is indeed a foul place for young women. Worse in many ways than it was for their mothers, of which I am one. When I went to work in the early 80’s it was normal to be sexually assaulted and sexually threatened by your bosses. It was normal to be denigrated in the workplace and to be discriminated against. We never said anything, because there was no-one to tell, and it would have spelt the end of our working lives: in my job it would have simply ended my career right there. It did change little by little as men learnt that they had to keep their mouths shut, but as Queen Elizabeth the First so magnificently said, “let us not make windows into men’s souls”. The change was not in their thoughts but their actions. I suspect that a great number of men in positions of power still find women frightening and demanding.

    But as unpleasant as this was, we lived our lives as we wanted, dressing and behaving in ways that pleased us. At home, on holiday, among friends, in private this all got turned off and we didn’t have to defend against it. We also believed that this was temporary, things would get better for the women who followed us as these dinosaurs died out and were replaced with a generation of much more enlightened men and women.

    What upsets me more than I can say is that this hasn’t happened. My daughter faces a generalised and universal environment of sexual threat, hostility, insult, denigration, hatred. There is no escape for her. Many women of her generation have come to believe that being someone’s bitch is desirable, they must re-shape their bodies with surgery, that their breasts and vaginas must be altered to please, that no man wants to see pubic hair ever, and this has to be painfully stripped away, and that should they ever be unwise enough to dare to contest any of this publicly then they will be bullied, humiliated and threatened, and no-one will do anything about it, because this is normal.

    How to contest this? We need to go back to square one as feminists, a description in which I include men and women, and fight the old battles all over again. This is not acceptable, it is revolting and damaging. The parents of small boys have a real task on their hands to instill this….I wish you luck Mr Fieldnotesfromfatherhood. Let us know how you do this!

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    • I think you do it daily, little by little, by bringing their attention to the bs and showing it for what it is. I saw an interview with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt yesterday, and he said that as a kid his mother would point out, for example, cheerleaders in basketball games, and how the men got to be heroes while the women got to be pretty. Not judgmental, just observational. It also helps if their mother is a strong, independent figure (which my wife is).
      And I think you’re right – lots of folks seem to think that equality is here, so we no longer need feminism. I think we may need it more than ever. Am I a feminist? Well, if feeling that EVERYONE, regardless of gender or anything else deserves to be treated with respect and their rights protected under the same laws, if feeling that denigrating ANYONE for any reason is unacceptable, then yes, I’m a feminist. But I’m not sure holding these beliefs and trying to live by them means you’re a feminist. I think it means that you’re a decent human being.

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  9. I’d like to think everyone knows it starts at home, teaching your kids how to treat people respectfully. All people – not just those who have vaginas. I’d never encountered chauvinism or foul language (with the exception of “shit”) until around middle school age. My male role models never used inappropriate language in front of us kids (we all happened to be girls) and since the women in my family are quite vocal (you’d need multiple horse tranquilizers to silence just one of them, and then the others may very well trample you) the idea that women are objects or are in some way “below” men was never a thought that entered my mind. While I don’t think it’s possible to silence derogatory language about women in music or film or any form of media, it is possible to arm girls with the knowledge that they can do whatever the heck they want with their lives regardless of what’s said about them. On the other side of this, as a woman, I do enjoy the power of my sexuality (when applicable). I like that I can see when a man is attracted to me. That’s the funny part. Those guys who freely throw around nasty language probably don’t realize that we’ve had the upper hand all along. Say what you like, boys.

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    • Yup, kids need guidance and positive role models at home. Don’t be scared of the world out there, though. Teach your kids to be strong and they’re likely to brush off the bs and make their own way just fine. Good luck with the new baby! Four women in the house – I don’t think your girls are likely to let themselves be pushed around.

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