FEMINISM, BITCHES?

There’s a word out for tender but feminism isn’t buying, it’s seizing. Ever since ‘bitch’ was conceived at around 1000 A.D, its meaning has continued to be redefined. Its usage, debated: Devil, vixen, lewd, spiteful, strong, assertive, kick-ass, defiant. In 2014, the word ‘bitch’ can mean any one of these things. And yet, despite its ambiguity, its sound can be heard everywhere and spoken with reinvigorated confidence. The two school girls nattering on the bus last week are bitches, Lily Allen thinks it’s ‘hard out there’ for a bitch, Beyoncé wants us bitches to ‘bow down’, Miley Cyrus is a ‘bad’ bitch, Nicki Minaj is a ‘boss ass’ bitch and I’m….well…I’m lost in a pack of reappropriated bitches. So here’s my question: Its feminism, bitch! Or is it?

Even Kanye West is confused. In a lone existential Twitter crisis witnessed by 8 million, he pondered: ‘I usually never tweet questions but I struggle with this so here goes…is the word BITCH acceptable?’ Good question, Kanye and probably one you should’ve asked before calling the mother of your child a ‘Perfect Bitch’ on your 2012 single. As it happens, it’s a question I’ve recently been pondering myself. Third-wave feminism would encourage me to think that ‘bitch’ finally belongs to me. It’s free now, it’s mine. So why, when I heard two school girls refer to each other as ‘bitch’ on the bus last week, did the word feel so physical? Like nails scratching down flint in my cochlea.

Before we begin, let’s get the semantics out of the way. It may surprise you to discover that this derogatory, female-bashing term dates way back to the 15th Century. Christopher Columbus is yet to discover the Americas, the Mona Lisa smile won’t be flirting on canvas for another few years, the axe of Anglicanism is yet to fall and yet women? Women are bitches, or ‘bicche’ to rephrase it in old English. They will be ‘bitches’ from here on in. Its meaning will never change so let’s not kid ourselves: a bitch is a female dog. The word was applied to metaphorically degrade any woman deemed either ‘promiscuous’, or even more tenuously than this, ‘sensuous’ in early applications. The vulgarisation of women equates her to a ‘dog in heat’. Sexual desire, for a woman, is to feel shame. Feelings of a sensual nature, for a woman, are to be supressed.

More interestingly than the 15th Century semantics, is the first peak of the word’s usage. It’s no coincidence that at the precise year women’s suffrage in the US was granted in 1920, its popularity soared. As women grappled for equal freedoms, men grappled for control. They seized language with both hands and ‘bitch’ was quickly slapped into popular discourse. The Suffragettes’ manifesto back home in the UK would inadvertently echo this Pyrrhic victory when Emmeline Pankhurst campaigned for ‘Deeds, not words’.

If first-wave feminism would unwittingly instate ‘bitch’ as oppressive, third-wave feminism would reappropriate ‘bitch’ as an assertive take-back. In 1969, Jo Freeman would pen a definitive feminist article entitled ‘The Bitch Manifesto’. In it, she argued:

‘A woman should be proud to declare she is a Bitch, because Bitch is Beautiful. It should be an act of affirmation by self and not negation by others.’

The campaign to reclaim was ignited in the ‘90s with the 1992 single ‘All Women are Bitches’ by Canadian all-
female band Fifth Column. As feminist writer Inga Muscio wrote in her 1998 publication ‘Cunt: A Declaration of Independence’:

“I posit that we’re free to seize a word that was kidnapped and co-opted in a pain-filled, distant, past, with a ransom that cost our grandmothers’ freedom, children, traditions, pride, and land.”

Third-wave feminism is all about changing the connotation, not eradicating the word. It’ll still lurk beneath the tipp-ex, after all. In 1996 the first issue of Bitch magazine was published with a tagline promising a “feminist response to pop culture”. Why Bitch? Co-founder Andi Zeisler explained in a 2006 interview: “we were thinking, well, it would be great to reclaim the word “bitch” for strong, outspoken women, much the same way that “queer” has been reclaimed by the gay community.” Just three years previously, Queen Latifah asked “Who you callin’ a bitch?” in her 1993 song ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’. It was a direct challenge to the male hip-hop use of the word, not only a term used to describe women but also homosexual men. Misogyny in hip-hop culture was being questioned by hip-hop. Music has been battling with it ever since and in 2014 we’re still debating. ‘Correction’ Kanye continued in 2013. ‘Here’s the age old question, would we refer to our mothers as bitches?’ Lily Allen would, in fact she called her mum a bitch in a 2013 Guardian interview alongside Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Dolly Parton and Angela Merkel. Now that’s an O2 super group we’d all pay to see. Perhaps this reappropriation is only appropriate for the women who say it. If that is the case, then why did Beyoncé face a torrent of debate when she angrily chanted ‘bow down, bitches’ on last year’s anthem ‘Bow Down’? One Twitter fan was quick to accuse the singer of swerving ‘way out of Beyoncé’s lane’ and another blogger asked: ‘Beyoncé’s feminism: flawless or flawed?’ If feminism sought to unify by reclaiming the word, it now risks being split down the middle by it.

Maybe the key to defining this debate is intention and context. Personally speaking, even the sound of the word pin pricks, but that’s just me. My immediate concern whilst sat on the bus listening to two girls punctuate their dialogue with a bitch staccato was its casualness. When did bitch become a shrug? 839 words into this feature and what’s the probability that either of those girls considered ‘bitch’ any further than a Beyoncé lyric they heard on iTunes? When a 15-year-old Miley fan cackles “shut up, bitch!” to her best friend on the 176, is it a feminist statement of empowerment? Does the 15-year-old even need to consider feminist linguistics in order for it to communicate something profound? Or is its casual usage between two women a feminist victory in itself?

Feminism, bitch! Or feminism, bitch? This feminist is confused. Are you?

By Kat Lister

Kat Lister is a freelance writer and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She can’t walk in high heels and uses sarcasm as a defence mechanism, but don’t let that put you off. She believes Feminism doesn’t have to be a dirty word. When she isn’t necking negronis, trawling vintage boutiques and failing to recreate Frida Kahlo recipes, you’ll find her at the record player spinning Bob Dylan. You’ll most likely find her dancing to Tina Turner. Kat has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

www.katlister.co.uk

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One Comment Add yours

  1. golnooshwrites says:

    I agree with you. It does not sound nice, neither empowering to be honest. Also Beyonce/ Miley Cyrus blah blah blah are not exactly feminist role models!

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