‘Bitch’ is Not an Endearment

by August 21, 2012
filed under Activism, Entertainment
Topics ,

Kanye West has my hackles raised over the lyrics to his newest song, “Perfect Bitch.” On August 9th, Kanye tweeted that the “bitch” in his song was none other than his girlfriend, Kim Kardashian. How romantic.

Kim told TMZ, “I’m honoured. I love it. The song talks about how he was with so many other girls but could never find the right one until he met me.” Kim said one phrase that really got me thinking, though, “I know he doesn’t mean it in a negative way when he says the word ‘bitch.’”

Kim put her thumb on a topic of conflict for many: Reclaiming old slurs. In terms of women trying to reclaim the word, bitch, I’m conflicted. Is it possible?

My gut reaction is a loud, “hell no!” As a descriptor for a female dog, the word is neutral. Once you apply it to people, however, you are implying that a person is some how like a dog, an animal — one of the oldest ways of insulting someone. Think about it. Calling someone a pig or a cow is rude. Most people wouldn’t refer to themselves that way, unless they were being self-deprecating. No one is suggesting that we reclaim “pig” as a casual pronoun—why the word bitch?

Another argument against using bitch casually is intent. Because so many people still use the word as an insult, it’s sometimes hard to gauge if the intent is to offend or not. If someone on the street called me a bitch, my first reaction would be to blurt, “what the hell?” followed by me flipping them off. The word might have been meant in a “colloquial” sense, but even someone saying, “Bitch, you dropped your pen!” would make me do a double take.

On that note, when it comes to reclaiming words, you have to face if and how you are going to police language. Both with racial slurs and homophobic slurs that people are trying to reclaim, there comes that “Why can’t I say it?” pushback from people outside the community. The obvious answer is that, if the word hasn’t been targeted to attack an inherent part of your identity, then it’s not yours. If it wasn’t used to degrade you, then you can’t reclaim it. I agree with that and support that, but I wonder at the practicality of it. How do you police language? How do you contain a free flowing, ever evolving force that breaks its own grammatical rules, never mind the socio-political ones we hope to impose? I don’t think it’s possible, beyond the wrist slapping, “don’t say that” reactions that we already have.

Lastly, in trying to reclaim “bitch” a serious hurdle pops up in the fact that the word is a gendered insult. When a man is called a bitch, it means that he is acting weak, or feminine, or somehow insufficiently masculine. It’s like telling someone not to “pussy out” — it implies that having feminine qualities is weak and bad and wrong. That’s something that gurls and women get enough of on a daily basis, without encouraging it ourselves.

Here is where the conflict comes in. When a woman is called a bitch — although it’s negative and hurtful — it’s often because she’s taking charge as a no-nonsense-not-afraid-to-be-a-dominant-figure. All great qualities linked to an insulting word. So why not take the insult out of the word? Leave the great qualities, but take away the sting.

A part of me wonders if in trying to reclaim bitch, we could redefine what it means for a new generation. Is it possible? Is the insult already too embedded in “bitch,” or is it a word that women can make their own? What do you think?

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