When I was in elementary school, a student in my class was sentenced to time out for calling someone “a bitch”. Being the sheltered child I was, I remember asking one of my peers what it meant. She replied, “a female dog.”
She was right. Bitch comes from the Old English word “bicce” of Germanic origin, literally meaning “female dog.” Since then, the use of the word has been ambiguous. As a Gen-Z, intersectional feminist, how I feel about being called a bitch, calling other people bitches, and its general use as a slang term has always been unclear and contradictory. I want to get to the bottom of this: should the word “bitch” offend me?
Strong woman = bitch
The use of bitch, as we know it, began in the 15th century to describe a “sexually promiscuous woman.” During the first-wave feminist movement, the word bitch became a popular way to discredit the women fighting for the right to vote in the United States. Here is where we began to see the association between “strong woman” and “bitch.” Essentially, any woman who would spend time voting instead of staying in the kitchen is, in turn, “a bitch.” It was this connotation that made the word trademarked for misogynists in art, media, and politics for the past 100 years.
Insults for assertive women are not only specific to the United States or the United Kingdom. When discussing this with my mother, she connected to the word “kelba,” which also means “female dog” in Arabic and is used to slander women. One of my fellow contributors described the word “kutti,” meaning female dog/bitch in Punjabi, and used to describe “unpleasant” women. Variations of the word bitch are the linguistic trend of the century. And it is not cute.
In 1968, Jo Freemen wrote, “The BITCH Manifesto,” kicking off the reappropriation of the word. After the second-wave feminist movement, the use of “bitch” skyrocket in pop-culture, but its connotation shifted. Just like many other derogatory terms, “bitch” was reclaimed by women, especially women of color. In the 90s hip-hop culture, the term “bad bitch” started being used as a means of empowerment for beautiful, strong women. “Boss bitch” is used to describe hardworking women in the workforce. Amongst my generation, it is incredibly normal for a woman to call her friend group, “my bitches,” or greet them with “hey bitch.” Although many feminists are living for it, some feminists point out the problematic aspects of the modern use of bitch that may be more harmful than we think—this where my tensions with the word arise.
Corporate feminism has been loving this reclamation. The terms “bitch,” “boss bitch,” “bad bitch,” and “that bitch” have been plastered on merchandise and spouted in media, advertisement, and political discourse. The word solidified itself in the ultra-capitalistic “girl power” regime. Overarchingly, corporate feminism does more harm than good, especially for women of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The modern use of bitch has also birthed terms like “resting bitch face” (RBF) and “basic bitch.” These are terms that reinforce the gender-based expectations that feminism has been trying so hard to get away from. Not to mention, many of these terms are race-specific. The use of “RBF strengthens the idea that black women have a “mean face.” Isn’t it a bit hypocritical to declare that we are reclaiming the word bitch to empower women, and then revert to its original connotation?
Just like with all reclaimed terms (n-word, f-word, etc.), there is the debate of who can say it and who can’t. It is the common belief that this is a term for women to use to empower other women. However, this has not been the case. When a woman is called a bitch, empowering or otherwise, she is assertive or confident, and therefore less traditionally feminine. When a man is called a bitch, especially by another man, he is weak or fragile. For men, the modern use of bitch is emasculating, and it makes them more traditionally feminine. Because of this, it is often used against biological males with queer identities. This use enforces gender roles and reeks of homophobia and transphobia. Hence, the LGBTQIA+ community has also taken the word back. It is also interesting to look at when a man calls his female partner, “my bitch.” Although many women proudly hold this label, the underdone is possessive, like he owns her.
So, am I offended?
It depends. I am not against the word bitch. I think in some contexts, it can portray the strength of women and gender-non conforming people around the world. Language is the most powerful instrument, so I stand with all marginalized groups that are taking back the slurs used against them. However, it is essential that when reclaiming words, we remember that even if we intend for them to be empowering from now on, some may still use these words as a tool to oppress, directly or indirectly. We need to recognize this reality in order to truly make progress.