On Bitch: Hyper-Sensitivity or Resisting Oppression?

I hate the word bitch.  While I am at it, I hate the word cunt.

It sound sort of silly, hating a word.  I guess that it’s just that those words make my skin crawl.

I guess I should clarify further.  I hate when men use those words.

I used to say the word a lot.  I remember once when I was a first year in college, a female student was being kind of rude to me, so I said, “You don’t have to be a bitch!”  She turned to me, her expression exasperated, and said, “No matter how rude I have been to you, you have no right to make me less than yourself.  I am not your dog.”

That hit me.  From that moment forward, I decided I had no right to use the word.

During an rousing game of Dungeons and Dragons (yes . . . I play . . . on a weekly basis) on Monday in which all of our players are males, our characters (also all male) were fighting a female creature.  Multiple times during the game, frustration was expressed with, “That BITCH!” or victory was savored with, “Take That, Bitch!”

The first few times, I didn’t say anything.  After allowing my frustration to boil over, I yelled, “PLEASE Don’t Say That Word.”  Folks sort of laughed, and we went on with the game.  A little later it was said again, and I just shook my head.  Another player said, “Just don’t say it, if for nothing else, to avoid THAT.”  I responded, “It’s just disrespectful.  If I don’t like the word, it’s disrespectful to use it.”  The game proceeded with an air of tension.

Last night I had a chance to talk with my male housemates, both members of our D&D group, about it.  I was kind of reluctant to have the conversation because I felt like I was the one being attacked for trying to “censor” other people.  I was defensive because I am so often told that I am “hyper-sensitive” and that I need to “relax.”  “Not everything is just your way or the highway.” That is a common way of silencing dissent.  When someone expresses hurt or frustration around sexism, racism, heterosexism, or the like, the common response is, “You’re being too uptight.”

In truth, though, the conversation went pretty well.  When my housemates realized how much the word bothers me, they agreed to avoid using it (recognizing that because it is a common part of modern vocab, it might slip out).

It took my explanation of why I hate the word, though, for the conversation to make any progress.  As far as I have ever heard it used by men, that word has no use other than to hold women down as less than men.  I mean, let’s look at the etymology.  It’s oldest iteration refers to the female dog, fox, wolf, or other beast.  More modern usage refers to a lewd, sensual, malicious, or treacherous woman.  The word cunt is not much different, as it is a derogatory word for female genitalia, and to call a woman a cunt is to dehumanize her, to reduce her to a simple, sexualized body part.

An image search of the word bitch brings up the following:

Whether we want it to or not, the use of this word by men cannot be separated from the reality and history of violence against women.  It has no use other than to oppress women, to treat women as less than men, as equivalent to a dog that a man kicks at the end of the day.

For a man to call a man a bitch is to say that he is less than a man, he is inferior, he is a woman . . . and a woman is no better than a dog.

Now, I’ve qualified a few times by saying “use of the word by men.”  What place the word has among women is not my business.  Women must decide how the word will be used among women, and some have worked to reclaim the word.  As a man, I have no right to tell women how the word should be used.

As a man, though, it is my responsibility to work to end gender oppression in all its forms, including oppressive language.  If the word clearly has such a close association to violence against women and objectification, why use it?

As we ponder the role of this word in our use of language, consider that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  As a result, I challenge my readers, particularly my male readers, to eliminate the words bitch and cunt from their vocabulary for one month as part of the effort to raise awareness about Intimate Partner Violence.  When you hear the word, consider talking to people about its ties to objectification, oppression, and violence.  From there, reevaluate the place that this word has in your life.

Our words have power.  How will you use yours?


11 thoughts on “On Bitch: Hyper-Sensitivity or Resisting Oppression?

  1. I agree with you on the one hand but I’m also apprehensive. I personally feel that hiding words away makes them scarier and more powerful so that if they are used their impact is infinitely more powerful. I am also a major advocate for the idea that language is fluid and meanings can be co-opted. The example EVERYONE in our debate community uses is the example of this is “queer”. It used to be an insult and now it’s a term of empowerment for millions of people.

    I understand how when men use it it can further entrench patriarchy in society and can be used to hurt people. I believe that slurs of every form are basically used as tools when we are looking for the quickest, easiest words to hurt someone without having to think critically about it and without having to know anything about them. It’s easy to attack someone’s identity or to attack characteristics they can’t control in lieu of a more thoughtful expression of anger.

    At the same time I feel like the etymology of a word is worth examining but that insisting that the original meaning is the only meaning a word can have can be destructive as well. However I don’t think that by calling people bitches as an insult isn’t necessarily an act of co-option of language but I do believe that in the common consciousness the word is being dissociated from what it originally meant and that the “dog” connotation isn’t what people are thinking when they say it.

    The bottom line is that regardless of what we mean when we say it it is an insult and in a perfect world we wouldn’t feel the need to put someone down in any instance. That being said I don’t necessarily think that the word “bitch” is uniquely worse than a lot of other insults.

    I do have to agree with you whole-heartedly that people should be careful with the word “cunt” because it really is reducing a woman down to one body part and I personally could never bring myself to actually say that to a woman for any reason. I used to say it a lot when I would stub my toe or something like that and I stopped because I don’t like the word but again I don’t think it necessarily has to be uniquely destructive so long as it’s not being utilized as a way to dehumanize another individual.

    So I guess what I’m getting at is that I am an advocate for not hiding from words that make us uncomfortable because I believe it makes them more powerful. I think we need to acknowledge that we CAN take words back and change their meaning and that it’s something we should try to do. But I also agree with you for the most part and I’m not so naive that I believe that everyone who uses any slur is working to take a word back.

    But this is a good and insightful post. The memes were especially moving. Have you ever heard of a movie called Slut? It’s really interesting and it’s about the history of the term. Basically it started as a put down to describe a woman who didn’t keep a tidy home.

    It’s also interesting because it posits that its use in society is primarily perpetuated by women. The hypothesis it suggests to explain it is that many women have to spend their lives in a double-bind between wanting to be sexually liberated and then in fear of being labeled a slut which builds up a lot of pain and resentment inside them. Then the idea is that when a woman who feels that way sees another woman acting in a way that disregards that societal double-standard they project their pain onto them by labeling them sluts. That to me is one of the most disturbing impacts of patriarchy in society.

    Talk about a divide and conquer…the idea of a society that makes women feel compelled to actively oppress and put down other women for failing to live up to an arbitrary patriarchal societal expectation is a really scary notion that deserves nothing but widespread outrage.

    Thanks for the awesome post Jamie!

    • I completely agree that words can be reclaimed and made into positives, but those in power do not have a right to say how a word that has historically been used to oppress will be used in the reclaiming process. Just as White folks have NO right to say how the word “nigger” will be used, men have NO right to say how the hurtful and destructive sexist terms like “bitch” and “cunt” will be used.

      In my opinion, that is not hiding the word away. In the example that you used, the word Queer was reclaimed by those in the LGBTQ communities that were affected by its use. There is still some debate about whether Straight folks should be able to use that term as an umbrella term for LGBTQ folks, but the point is that the reclaiming was not done by Straight folks.

      Get what I’m saying?

  2. […] to talk about women in ways that objectify them; we can hold our friends to account for the use of sexist language; we can work to build more accountable, anti-sexist relationships across […]

  3. I agree. But isn’t the word “dick” just the male equivalent of the word “cunt”? I call my friends dicks all the time, which would be “men deciding how the word will be used among men.” But do women have a right to call men dicks?

    • Thanks for the comment, TD.

      I definitely would not say that “dick” is the equivalent of the word “cunt” for one simple reason: power analysis. In our patriarchal society, men hold the power, so the use of the word bitch or cunt by men is calculated verbiage (whether the man knows it or not) that is designed to keep women subordinated and oppressed. On the other hand, there is no structural power behind a man being called a dick. Thus, no matter who calls a man a dick, there is not the force of a system of oppression behind the use of that word.

      Does that make sense?

      • Yeah, it makes sense.

        Funnily enough, Batman: Arkham City of all things is what made me hate the word bitch the most. You play as Batman for the majority of the game, and criminals cower when they realize you’re there. But then when you play as Catwoman, they call you a bitch the whole time. It’s like, woah, is that what being a woman is really like?

  4. […] retarded!” or “My phone is totally ghetto!” or “That girl’s a total bitch!” I am going to call you out.  I am going to ask you to be clear with your language and to […]

  5. […] going along with my posts on White people using the “n-word” and on the word “bitch,” here goes my […]

  6. “But then when you play as Catwoman, they call you a bitch the whole time. It’s like, woah, is that what being a woman is really like?”

    Yea, pretty much. I’m suprised you only noticed this is ONE game.. it’s like this in games, tv, movies, music, a catch phrase, t-shirts. women are reminded every day how resentful the world is of their exsistence.

  7. […] language really is pervasive.  From the common usage of b*tch to calling someone (but particularly a woman) hysterical to referring to a woman as crazy, there […]

  8. […] language really is pervasive. From the common usage of b*tch to calling someone (but particularly a woman) hysterical to referring to a woman as crazy, […]

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