I had a conversation with a friend of mine concerning the various definitions, ramifications, and iterations of the word ‘bitch.’ As political corrective fluid is spilled across large swaths of society, I think it is important to develop a better understanding of what words mean. Attempting to censor (even the moderate and etiquette-based forms of self-censorship) without delineating will either fail outright, or else create a sort of Orwellian nonsensical paralanguage where words do not mean what we think they do, or did, or should.
If used to refer to any woman as any woman, or the whole of womanhood, it is most certainly bad. This is the definition most ill-used in ill hip-hop; “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” Denigrating a particular woman by categorizing her merely as woman, and specifically coloring womanhood in a demeaning or belittled manner, this is definitely the most misogynistic definition we should focus on eradicating.
But ‘bitch’ even in reference to a particular woman, has had another more specific negative connotation that, interestingly, is ripe for re-appropriation. This same friend of mine readily self-labels herself as a ‘bitch’ in the sense that she is an empowered, opinionated, extroverted, strong-willed fighter. Because women are not helpless, defenceless weaklings dependent on men for sustenance, it makes perfect sense to use a word previously heralded by the oppressors in a new way to ratchet up the language as an empowering tool. She isn’t just “some bitch” or “someone’s bitch”, she’s “THE bitch” as in a declarative statement of only one of her defining qualities; “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint…” It’s edgy, it’s attention-grabbing, it’s powerful. And contextualized correctly, it’s not only deprived of simple-minded pejorative, it’s actually quite complimentary. Actively re-appropriating a word like ‘bitch’ to describe powerful, positive female role models can devalue the negative aspects of the word in all but only the already most hateful of minds: Xena, Wonder Woman, etc.
Then, curiously and conversely, there is the usage of ‘bitch’ to denote weakness or femininity in men (instead of those previously mentioned qualities of stubborn-headedness, strength, and boldness traditionally applied to men). Whenever ‘bitch’ is applied to a man (either heterosexual or homosexual, though in the latter community the former is also used), it is used as a sign that they are clearly far below the alpha males, unto them as members of the female harem might be. You may be familiar with the use of ‘bitches’ in prison, or if you’ve never been to prison, the television show ‘Oz.’ Or if you’ve never seen the television show ‘Oz,’ the movie ‘Baseketball’ where one of the characters (a diminutive and skinny fellow with a gentle nature) is literally nicknamed ‘Lil Bitch.’ This is doubly bad, IMHO, since it not only serves to stigmatize, stereotype, and/or penalize feminine qualities in men, and by extension women, it is also a direct insult to body type and personality that may not be easily changed, nor should they feel the need to have to live up to some archaic masculine standard. Regardless of whether those qualities actually typify women (and the previous examples show that it is surely a poor paintbrush to be using so widely), who is to say that a man cannot benefit from the integration of naturally-occurring feminine qualities and traits? A male friend of mine, a self-proclaimed pacifist who has had his fair share of bullies to deal with in his life, has even proclaimed his desire to re-appropriate this usage for the proud peace-lovers of the world, or in the eyes of the machismo majority, ‘little bitches.’ We’ll see how far that will fly.
This is all getting a little confusing for a single word, unlike the word ‘fuck’ (whose many meanings and usages more or less follow the same common theme), ‘bitch’ has widely different meanings. There are the many adjective forms, such as a person who is bitchy, or a wave that is bitchin’. Its verb form ‘to bitch’ as in gripe, complain, or whine about, is perhaps historically also connected to a derision of women, especially if closer to the ‘strong-headed woman’ noun, as in “What a bitch! She bitched me out!” While some of these other words may have to be eradicated, replaced, or spelled differently, at least this noun-and-verb one-two punch has at least enough thematic collusion to be pair-bonded. Still, verb bitching to yourself because it’s raining is not the same as verb bitching on the phone so that you bank doesn’t unjustly overdraft you $500.
Which finally addresses re-appropriation and censorship. Language evolves and words are discontinued or adapted in usage slowly over time based on the needs of that culture. The n-word in black communities over the centuries, the f-word in the queer community and on GLEE (and even the word queer itself). Forcing the issue will not work if the time and environment for adaptation is not right for the word. Imagine trying to get pre-Civil War slaveholders to stop using the n-word. Probably not the most pressing social justice concern at the time, and realistically, the society was not receptive to such suggestions of change in any way. Confusion occurs when words are ‘campaigned’ against, with advocacy and awareness mixing with backlash, sarcasm and dissenting opinions within and without the ranks. The recent anti-‘retard’ word efforts are not as successful as intended, perhaps due to the many changes to the terminology for mentally or physically handicapped seen by an otherwise uninterested populace, or the equation of ‘retarded’ with simply ‘lame’ in the lexicon of young people.
I’m all for a world where people do not feel marginalized by words. Ideally, people would stop using those words of their own volition. But that may never be the case. And legislative attempts to censor words are not only unconstitutional, they’re wrong, and they don’t work. Advocacy is great where it gets results, but directed funding may not accomplish much. It is better to subtly slide changes into popular culture over time. Words lose steam on their own anyway, such as mulatto or chinaman, though it could be claimed that Larry David and Walter Sobchak help a little in their roles (respectively). The best thing, I believe, is to refuse to cater and patronize insulting forms of empty media, and to support the humorous devaluing of derogatory language in layered comedies, political satire, and then common usage. On a large-scale, a rift can appear in the societal context of these ‘dirty’ words, with the chaff being separated from the wheat, with the festering hate language relegated to the curiosity of historical record.