‘b****’: let’s unpack it.

Those of you who have been here a while know that I am a podcast fanatic. I have recently been hooked to Meghan Markle’s Archetypes, which dissects and explores the tropes and labels that have been or are still used to hold women back.

In her recent episode, Meghan sat down with Andy Cohen, Executive Producer of the Real Housewives franchise. Andy mentioned in the episode that one woman in the Real Housewives franchise wanted to use the b-word in her tagline. The word was not approved, however, Andy mentioned that the woman did make her case for why she does not feel offended by the use of that word. On the other hand, Meghan analyzed the b-word and how it was used to belittle women in the past during one of her previous episodes. She was shocked to hear that people from the current generation don’t mind the b-word because it’s used so often. Some also claimed that the b-word is easier to bear compared to all the other words/labels being thrown around today.

I was first introduced to the b-word in elementary school. In fact, I was considered to be one of the “late users” of the word. I didn’t begin using it until around eighth grade because at that point I had heard all of my fellow classmates use it so regularly, so obviously my 14-year-old self adapted to her social environment.

Here’s a confession: Today, I tend to use this word more often and with many of my friends. The b-word is a common vocabulary term that we use to sometimes greet each other, express anger, describe something, etc. However, I don’t think many of us realize that there is such a deep-rooted sexist history to the word. Thus, hearing Meghan Markle describe the b-word as a demeaning label for women was a shock to me, prompting me to research all about it.

what does it mean.

A “bitch” supposedly means a female dog. I’m not sure if this was common knowledge or not, but I simply had no idea or I was just oblivious to the fact that there is an actual definition of this word in the dictionary.

a quick history lesson.

The use of the b-word originates back to the 1400s (Hodgson, 2008). Apparently, calling a woman a b**** was used to accuse her of “being worse than a prostitute because at least a prostitute stood to gain financially from the broad distribution of her sexual favors” (Hodgson, 2008). Let’s pause really quick. Coffee date #5 is a strong advocate for substituting the word ‘prostitute’ with ‘sex workers’ or ‘sex professionals’ because it accepts/validates their labor. Therefore, it is crucial to note that the b-word is seen as something worse than, yet another, sexist, belittling label.

There’s also a link to the b-word and the Greek Gods. Supposedly, the Greek goddess Artemis-Diana, who was the goddess of the hunt, was often depicted as being in the presence of dogs. To spread Christianity and suppress the idea of a female being idolized, Christian Europe used the phrase ‘son of a bitch’ to criticize those who believed in Artemis-Diana (Kleinman et al., 2009). Therefore, this showed that the term ‘bitch’ was used to eradicate images of powerful and capable women by “equating them with sexually depraved beasts” (Kleinman et al., 2009).

why it is used.

Kleinman et al. states that “feminists analyzed that preference [the need to use ‘bitch’ over any male-associated terms, such as ‘jerk’ or ‘dickhead’] as internalized oppression, whereby members of an oppressed group learn to enjoy using the dominant group’s term for them” (2009). *jaw dropped. eyes bulged. gasped for a hot second.*

how it is used.

As mentioned previously, my friends and I tend to use this word nonchalantly. Some of us even use it to describe objects or events. For instance, let’s say we take an incredibly hard exam. Many might say that that “exam was a real bitch.” Others who still struggled through the exam, but felt that they did well might say “I bent that test over and made it my bitch” (these example quotes were taken from the Kleinman et al. paper).

In the former example, the b-word is being associated with “difficult” – yet another label often used to belittle women. In the latter example, the b-word is being associated with something that can be controlled, dominated, or conquered (Kleinman et al., 2009). And for how long have women been controlled and dominated in our largely patriarchal world?

Therefore, the paper noted that using the b-word over any other terms associated with men or masculinity (for example, people rarely say ‘that exam was a real jerk‘) to describe objects is further indicates just how abusive the b-word is towards women and how its use is fueling sexism.

The b-word is also often used in the political space, especially during heated debates and in media articles. During the 2008 primaries in the United States, Sarah Palin was supposedly “viewed as emasculating John McCain, who was then labeled a “bitch” in a comedic YouTube clip titled, “Is McCain Palin’s Bitch?”” (LisaNova, 2008). The fact the b-word was being used to describe a man, a white man nonetheless, immediately displays that its purpose was to ’emasculate’ him. It was also intended to insult the man for allowing himself to be dominated by a woman *insert dramatic eye roll* (Kleinman et al., 2009).

the conclusion.

Honestly, Kleinman et al.’s paper Reclaiming Critical Analysis: The Social Harms of “Bitch” has been incredibly insightful and eye-opening (2009). It shed light on exactly why the b-word is so offensive and why Meghan Markle was so confused as to why this term is such a normal part of millennial vocabulary.

Words hold so much power. They can be healing, grounding, and therapeutic. Yet they can also be sexist, demeaning, and continue to fuel all the labels and stereotypes attributed to different genders, races, classes, and people in general. Thus, we must choose our words carefully and accept it when we are oblivious to terms that are harmful and degrading. From acceptance, we must move towards change and that change can stem from something as simple as conscientiously removing such terms from our vocabulary.

Here are some other related articles and resources I found for any of you interested folks:

  1. Use of the word “bitch” surged after women’s suffrage (Zhou, 2020)
  2. What’s so bad about being called a ‘bitch’? (Taylor-Coleman, 2016)
  3. The Harmless-Sounding Phrase That Is Terrible for All Women (Rinaldi, 2017)

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