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I travel a lot. When I arrive at a new place, I usually send a tweet announcing my arrival, and that tweet often uses a particular word that can be divisive:
That word, of course, is “bitch.” Despite accusations to the contrary, I do not use that word without deep consideration of whether its potential offensiveness outweighs its usefulness in conveying just the right tone and vernacular meaning.
I am, after all, a man of colour who knows all too well how words can be used to hurt particular groups of people. Growing up in the racist Toronto of the 1970s, not a day went by in my pre-teen life when someone –acquaintance or stranger, child or adult– would not try, with extreme intent, to hurt me by calling me a racial slur. Words can pierce and traumatize. I understand that.
But I am also a passionate lover of language, specially the English language. I believe in using the full breadth of one’s vocabulary to express, as precisely as one can, the fullness of one’s thought. Often, this does not mean simply choosing a word from the thesaurus that most closely matches the sentiment being expressed, but rather choosing an expression for brevity, cadence, an association with a particular social class, its comedic effect, or even for its tendency to elicit an emotional reaction.
This is, I believe, the heart of the literary arts. Language to me is not about just the conveyance of fact, but the expression of the fullness of being. “I have arrived in Ottawa” is a factual statement. “Ottawa, bitches!” is a confrontational, tongue-in-cheek warning to the residents of Ottawa that a dominant presence has arrived. (Let’s put extra emphasis on the “tongue-in-cheek” part, shall we?)
But is it offensive?
Kanye West, of all people, struggled with this question:
He’s not the only one. My good friend Dr Nick Barrowman steadfastly refuses to use the word “bitch”, as he believes it is inextricably linked to the dismissal of women. He actively discourages those in his presence from using it, as well. I admire his moral centre and the fact that he strives to live his ideals. We have discussed his position on many occasions, and disagree on an important point, one which I suspect will divide readers of this post, as well: I believe that in matters of a word’s offensiveness, the intent behind the word’s use matters more than the word itself.
Professional athletes call each other “bitch”, and a fight immediately ensues. UFC fighter Tito Ortiz famously wore a T-shirt with “Gay Mezger is my Bitch” on it, taunting the camp of fellow fighter Guy Mezger. Brittney Spears declares, “I’m Brittney, bitch!” and she is celebrated as a champion of empowered femaleness. The toughest woman on the planet, Rowdy Ronda Rousey, proudly announced,”If 2014 was my bitch, then 2015 is going to look like my bitch’s bitch!” and no one batted an eye.
A singular quality in the examples cited above should leap out at you. In none of them is a woman being called a bitch, or being accusing of bitchiness. Instead, a man (in the Ortiz-Mezger case), an abstract other (in Brittney Spear’s case), or a length of time (in Rousey’s case) was the presumptive “bitch.”
I think this is important as it underlines the distinctly different ways in which “bitch” is used in the modern vernacular. In one way, bitch is an intentionally disparaging term for a woman, as in “Carol is a bitch.” In another way, obviously, it’s a veterinary term for a female dog. In a third way, it’s a generic term for something difficult, as in “life is a bitch”. And in the last way, “bitch” is a term for a party in a submissive, often sexual, relationship.
I believe reasonable people can agree that the first usage is universally to be avoided. To call anyone a foul name, especially with an intent to disparage her, is not civilized behaviour. However, it is this first type of usage that seems to dominate discussions of appropriateness, probably because of its prevalence in rap music. Clearly, this was the usage that so troubled Kanye West, as he later tweeted:
This is a no-brainer. Of course one does not call a woman a bitch, just as one does not call a black person a nigger, and just as one does not call an Indian person (like me) a paki. The reason for this, I believe, is that “bitch” in this usage is specific to the qualities of a woman. It intentionally disparages her very femaleness and the extent to which that femaleness is seated in the processes of society. As Andi Zeisler once wrote, clearly referring to the word’s usage in the first instance: “Bitch is a word we use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men.”
The battle against the disparaging use of “bitch” in rap music, or aggressive art forms in general, is well known. It inspired rapper Lupe Fiasco to opine, “Bitch bad, woman good, lady better,” which to me has a shade of condescension to it, though Fiasco’s laudable intent was to actually question our intentions when we use language.
Of course, as in all disparaging terms, there is a movement by those directly affected to reclaim the term, much like black people do in calling each other “nigger” or “nigga”, or the way that the homosexual community has reclaimed the term, “queer”. Joreen Freeman’s “Bitch Manifesto“, first published in 1968, is the first instance of which I am aware of a woman formally seeking to rehabilitate the “b-word” by essentially focusing on its positive, aggressive connotations.
I believe that it is intellectually dishonest to use a group’s efforts to rehabilitate an offensive term as an excuse to normalize that word’s usage. So some women’s new celebration of “bitch” is by no means implicit permission for the rest of us to call women that word. By the same token, just because black people use “nigger” to reduce its sting, it doesn’t give everyone licence to use it.
It’s the last of my four categories of bitch usage that is the tricky one: the use of “bitch” to describe the submissive party of a relationship… especially when that party is an unidentified abstract, as in my tweet, “Ottawa, bitches!” or Brittney Spears’s “I’m Brittney, bitch!” or Rousey’s intent to make an entire year “her bitch.”
I suspect that the two opposing camps on whether the word’s use in this context is acceptable can be defined thus: on one hand, even in its fourth-type usage, the word “bitch” carries gendered origins and alludes specifically to the submissive role of women, even if its proximate specific target is an “abstract other”, as I’ve called it, or even a man. On the other hand, it can be argued that “bitch”‘s gendered origin is a bit of a stretch, considering the word’s complicated etymology; and even if it were gendered, it’s the immediate, current use is what matters, as does the intent of the person using it.
I believe these two positions are irreconcilable. As I see it, the first position holds that the word’s resonance both historically and in relation to its other uses taint its use in nominally inoffensive contexts. Whereas, the second position holds that any resonant effects of word use, regardless of whether they may or may not be real, do not trump the role of the communicator in establishing appropriateness for societal use. Clearly, I tend to side with the second camp.
To bring historic use of the word into this discussion is, I’m afraid, a non-starter. In Clare Bayley’s excellent reference, “Bitch: A History“, she points out that the word has been in our language for at least 250 years, and was originally used to describe both men and women who behaved lewdly or were sexually indiscriminate, at least insofar as its use as an insult is concerned. According to the OED, the word had been used to describe a female dog for about a thousand years.
The word’s most common modern vernacular is not its use as an insult to women, but rather as a descriptor of the subordinate participant in a sexual relationship… most often between two men, which hearkens to its original use to describe sexual lewdness by either sex.
I am, of course, referring to the word’s etymological seating in the dialectic of prison communication. A “prison bitch” or just “bitch” is, in its purest form, the recipient or “ingler” in a male same-sex coupling, whether consensual or non-consensual. (A prison bitch is also sometimes someone who cooperates with law enforcement, as in the Russian Bitch Wars.)
When Ronda Rousey speaks of making 2014 “her bitch”, she is linguistically suggesting that she sexually dominated the year. When Tito Ortiz wore the “Gay Mezger is my bitch” t-shirt, he was both questioning Mezger’s heterosexuality and implying that Mezger would be the (presumably unwilling) participant in a sexual union with Ortiz. When Brittney Spears announces, “I’m Brittney, bitch!” she is declaring that she is sexually dominant to the faceless, nameless listener. And when I tweet, “Toronto, bitches!” I am (again, tongue-in-cheek) announcing my dominance, sexual or otherwise, over the residents of the city of Toronto.
I have, on record, voiced my discontentment with how sexual violence toward men is belittled in our society. (Prison rape is a common stand-up joke punchline). Some may see my acceptance of vernacular allusions to male-on-male sexual violence to be hypocritical. However, my position is that words are just sounds, containers for containing meaning and intent. It is thus by meaning and intent that I will judge people’s words.
One can use the language of an offensive thing without condoning that thing. I can say that I “murdered that exam” without being accused of celebrating murder. I can “steal five minutes from you” without celebrating theft. I can “slave” my tablet to my laptop without being accused of supporting slavery. And I can “make this essay my bitch” without belittling the genuine pains of victims of prison rape.
I understand that some readers will insist that despite the (presumably male) prison sex allusions of the expression, the word’s etymological relationship to its other uses makes any use a de facto disparagement of women. All I can say is that I disagree.
Feminist writer Rhiannon Payne put it well:
“What we have here is a word that is very deeply ingrained in the vocabulary of our society and has evolved and transformed itself over time to have many different meanings and uses…”
“I think it’s important to consider that most insults are gendered, meaning that their original meanings are specific to either men or women. Gender specific insults toward women can hold a lot of power thanks to our history of women being marginalized in society. However, language has a way of changing as culture does over time, and some words evolve to encompass a variety of different meanings.”
I struggled to find a racial analogy to “bitch”. “Nigger” doesn’t quite work because there is no context in which using that word is not a direct insult to black people, whereas I am arguing that using “bitch” for its prison sex meaning is not a direct (nor, I believe indirect) insult to women.
The best example I can find is “coolie”, which is a word that is mostly unfashionable these days. “Coolie” is considered by many to be a racial slur against Indian people, particularly against us Indians of the Caribbeans. However, the word is also used to describe any socially subordinate person who fetches and carries things. (Here’s where I plug the excellent book Coolie Woman by my friend Gaiutra Bahadur.)
Now, if someone were to use the word “coolie” unironically to describe a luggage porter, I may consider him to be uncouth and unnecessarily colonial. But I will not automatically assume he is disparaging my race (though he might be). To reach that conclusion, I would need to investigate further.
In 2002, President George W. Bush referred to some South Asians as “pakis“. Some people were outraged by the racial slur. To me, he was just showing his social, historic, and linguistic ignorance. I think George Bush is many negative things, but I do not think he’s a racist. His intent was inoffensive, and that is how I judge him.
Of course, with the prison sex allusion usage of the word “bitch”, the analogy is not precise. When Brittney Spears says, “I’m Brittney, bitch!” she is not unaware of the word’s impact and common social uses. But she is aware that it has multiple meanings, and is giving the audience the benefit of the doubt that we will understand that she intends it to be interpreted in its sexual dominating context, not its specific disparagement of women context. Her intent matters, as does the fact that the word has many well known and commonly employed uses.
Twitter user Tricia Gilbride replied to Kanye West that, “intention is really key.” But she went on to suggest that it is problematic if its usage, regardless of context, is suggesting something negative about traditional femininity.
So really that’s where we rest. Does “bitch”, even when used to express one’s dominance over abstract others, necessarily always imply something negative about femaleness, regardless of the user’s intent? If it does, then the word is never appropriate.
But if it is possible to use the word without implying such negativity, then its use is indeed appropriate in some contexts.
I land on the second interpretation. But I am aware that others feel differently. I will continue to use the word to express comedic dominance, alluding, however metaphorically or even pataphorically, to problematic prison relationships. I will never ever use it to seriously describe a woman or women. And I will continue to judge others based upon their intentions, not just upon the words they choose.
And if this offends you, I am genuinely sympathetic. But I hope you can at least see that I came to this decision after much thought and study.