On Bitches

6 09 2008

Bitch. I hate that shit. The word, that is. I don’t like the way it sounds, and I don’t like the prevalence with which it’s tossed around. I respect those feminists who choose to reclaim it and employ it as a self-referential title, eschewing the idea that women must be polite and quiet, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. That, however, is the only use I’ve encountered that I’m comfortable with, and I’d like to take a minute to explain why. Let me be clear though, in explaining all of my issues with the word and why I don’t use it, I’m problematizing and taking issue with its use as a derogatory or dismissive word, not as a reclaimatory label of power and a fuck-you-for-telling-me-how-to-behave attitude. But first, let’s talk about solidarity.

On Solidarity

Solidarity, sisterhood, and togetherness have contentious histories within feminism(s). Too often, calls for solidarity have been used to silence and oppress women of color, poor women, differently abled women, immigrant women, and the list goes on. The body conceptualized by 2nd wave calls for sisterhood was a very particular body, and it was a body that DID NOT represent countless women in the United States or around the world. With good reason, many women have rejected those cries for sisterhood. We are not all the same, we don’t fight the same struggles, and the issues that matter to some of us are deemed irrelevant or overlooked by others. The silencing nature of sisterhood is, in my mind, one of the greatest missteps and problems within feminist circles and movements.

In just this past year, Senator Clinton’s candidacy and the ensuing sexism thrown in her face (and the faces of all women) was the catalyst for a rallying cries of “sisterhood!” and “solidarity!” that made many feminists (particularly younger feminists, and feminists of color) stiffen their backs and put up their guards. Too often, calls for solidarity and sisterhood sound like being asked to set aside your “personal” concerns for the sake of ALL women, as though racism, and classism, and independent political convictions weren’t ‘women’s issues.’

This is not the kind of solidarity or sisterhood I’m talking about. I’m not asking us, feminists, to stop holding one another accountable, to stop calling each other on our shit, or to stop defining our feminisms, our identities, or our communities as we see fit and as serves our needs. As I see it, that IS feminism. I expect to be challenged, held accountable to my community, and forced to confront my failings and blindnesses by other feminists. This is, I believe, one of the greatest strengths of our movement(s), in that we can believe in the capacity for each other to grow and do better. I understand critique as an act of love. The solidarity I am interested in has nothing to do with putting aside personal convictions or facets of our identities.

Rather, I am concerned with the ways in which even we, as feminists, perpetuate and collaborate with patriarchy. I’m concerned with girl-hating and catty fighting. I’m concerned with the rampant use of “bitch” (and not with its reclaimed meaning) amongst feminists (I hear it far more often from female-bodied feminists than anyone else, but its use is not thus restricted), and how it tears us down as opposed to building us up.

On Bitches

Personally, I’ve pretty much banished “bitch” from my speech because, as far as I see it, it does far more harm to me and to the women I love, than it serves a purpose in my vernacular. “Bitch” is, almost always, a term of derision and dismissal. Even when used seemingly innocuously, to refer to inanimate objects, it is, nonetheless, marking an object as feminine. It seems pretty clear to me that any language which serves to strengthen the associations between women, femininity, or femaleness and objects is dehumanizing and counter to feminist goals.

I also was recently made aware of the profoundly racist connotations of the word. Somehow, presumably on account of my whiteness, I’d never realized or wondered about the roots of the word and how it came to refer to women. I’m going to explain this history in a moment, but if you are familiar with the racist resonances of the word and aren’t interested in another reminder of the US’ awful racist history, please feel free to skip down below the italicized text.

“Bitch” came to refer to women during slavery, as a term that white slaveholders would use to describe black women, because their primary purpose was to have babies – like female dogs. This dehumanization, this equating of black women with baby-making machines, and thus profit-generating machines (because children born to women who were held as slaves were automatically the property of the slaveowner), was also fundamental to the systematic rape and exploitation of black women at the hands of white men. They weren’t people, they were like dogs or an object, a tool, a machine, to be utilized, victimized, abused, and used as the ‘owner’ saw fit. That’s how “bitch” came to refer to women, as a linguistic tool to perpetuate slavery, oppression, dehumanization, abuse, rape, humiliation, and all-in-all really f*ed up shittiness.

Pause. Deep breath. Blink.

Yeah. It’s that awful. And this is a word that we throw around like it doesn’t mean a thing. This is a word we (feminists and society-at-large) ascribe to other women who don’t behave as we wish they would. This is a word that we use to say that men are less manly, that they are weak, soft, undeserving of respect or affirmation. This is a word we use to mark women as sex objects, and nothing more, and to simultaneously, derisively castigate women when they don’t properly ‘perform’ their assigned role as a sex object.

And somehow, when it comes out of the mouths of self-identified feminists as a slur against other women, it is purported to exist in a vaccuum, as though all of those other associations with the word don’t count anymore, are forgotten by those who hear? Somehow, I just don’t buy it. Language doesn’t work that way, and well, if we heard sounds and didn’t associate societally agreed upon meanings with them, language wouldn’t function at all.

But here’s the thing, some people say, some women ARE bitches. I’m sure we’ve all encountered folks in our lives who treat us like shit. Who have little or no regard for our well-being, needs, express desires, or boundaries. I’ve been hurt by other women (and hurt other women), and have been profoundly dissatisfied or unhappy with people’s behavior.

I get that. But I also, as a feminist, feel a deep responsibility to support other women. This where the sisterhood discussion from above comes in, and that whole bit was a bit of a disclaimer so that it’s clear what I DON’T mean when I talk about supporting other women and girls. For me, that support is about recognizing that we live in a world that not only screws us over and oppresses us, but that continues to function by obfuscating the true source of our oppression and turning us on each other.

To use a common, and perhaps not too esoteric or theoretical example, everytime some asshole dude disrespects his female partner’s boundaries and expectations, and cheats on her, and her anger is directed at “the bitch” he cheated with, the dude gets off for playing women against each other, and isn’t held accountable to his actions.

Even beyond the emotion-laden sphere of relationships though, this same dynamic is evident. In the workplace, when one of two women in a highly-competitive, male-dominated field plays herself off against her female colleaugue in order to get a promotion or advance her career, and she’s labeled a manipulative bitch, the sexism in the office and the good-old-boy’s club mentality that systematically excludes women from positions of power goes unchallenged. She may be one rung up the ladder, and the woman she hurt and put down to get there might feel more than a little miffed, but REAL problem (and the only long-term solution, as I see it) lies with a system that pits women against each other in order to maintain the sexist status quo.

So when I talk about not using bitch, and supporting other women, it’s about recognizing that even with our differences and even when we’re not nice to each other, we’re all being oppressed by the patriarchy. We’re being oppressed in complicated, different, intersecting, and often uneven ways – and we all utilize different tools to mitigate that oppression, often either remaining complacent or actively contributing to someone else’s oppression to do it – but we’re still, to some degree or another, all worse off because of sexism and the patriarchy.

So when I have the urge to call someone a bitch, I try to pause for a minute and remember what’s at stake. Because “bitch” isn’t just about calling out someone’s crappy behavior, it’s also about perpetuating sexism and oppression. And even if I’m so angry or hurt as to not give a rat’s ass about this other person’s well-being (which, for me, doesn’t happen often, but is possible), I at least want to remind myself that by calling someone a bitch, I am contributing to social attitudes and systems that oppress, hurt, rape, and even kill women I love, and women around the world.

And, well, I figure I can think a little bit outside the box and come up with another word if it means, in some small way, I’m not making things worse for other women.

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One response

1 02 2009
missing_words

(a few months late here but just came across your blog)

i love this post. i had no idea about the history of the word tying back to slavery.

i have used this word myself on many occassions without thinking exactly how it perpetuates oppression (even though i’ve long been calling myself a feminist). i have been thinking a lot lately about how much women perpetuate sexist oppression, through the way we treat each other (and ourselves), thinking about ways that i personally can change, and yes language is key so thanks for pointing that out so clearly.

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