Black feminism

What’s My Favorite Word?: Confronting the Gender Politics of the word ‘bitch’

Last semester I worked as a teaching assistant in a sociology of gender course. Students read academic articles every week and wrote response papers that included their reactions to the material. The way my female students responded to a study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin resonated with me because they reported fear of being labeled ‘a bitch’ by their male peers. According to the study, women face a number of hurdles in the workplace including the bitch stereotype:

Virtually everyone we interviewed talked about the fine line, or “delicate balance,” between being assertive and being a “bitch.” This perennial dilemma faced by women in the workplace is exacerbated in a team structure that requires workers to engage in assertive self-promotion in order to achieve recognition. (6)

One theoretical concept I aim to flesh out is what many refer to as ‘bad bitches.’ This requires interrogating how bitch gets used to police the behavior of women. I once had the mindset that women who referred to themselves as a ‘bad bitch’ or embraced the label ‘bitch’ somehow had failed at feminism. At one time, when I was less ‘woke’, I believed that women who called themselves ‘bitch’ could not and should not care when men did the same.

Then I did some introspection and reflected on why I felt that way. I had this conviction that women who really respected themselves avoided that word.

Then I listened to Trina. And Nicki. And Beyoncé. I ultimately had the realization that if the term ‘bad bitch’ made a woman feel good, what reason did I have to suggest she refer to herself as otherwise? I did not have a problem with the word ‘bitch,’ as much as I had a problem with the way patriarchal society uses a particular definition of it to restrict women’s agency.

It did not surprise me that my students reiterated the concern about being labeled a bitch, but I did feel unsettled by the scenario they all mentioned. When assigned a group project in their other classes, female students claimed to have done more work than the male students. However, when it came time to present, male students would either take credit for all the work or not bother to correct instructors who assumed they took charge on the project. Female students did not speak up because they were concerned their male peers would think they were a bitch.

I personally do not fear the word bitch. I have never had a heterosexual man call me a bitch (to my face) or take credit for the work I did either. I cannot verify that this experience results from my willingness to lean in to bitchiness rather than avoid it. My philosophy is that if the worst someone can say when you are handling your business is ‘That bitch!’ then by all means, be. that. bitch.

I think a woman’s ability to navigate what it means to be a bitch on her terms also emerges in some female friendships. I can’t begin to quantify the number of times I have sent or received a text message with the phrase ‘Bitch’ as the only word, signaling some hot tea to be spilled in the following messages.

I am careful about the women I hit with the word ‘bitch’ because I respect that some women just do not embrace the term. I also do not mind when my gay friends call me a bitch. I feel a sense of camaraderie with them that lends a connotation to the word ‘bitch,’ which also depends on the context. We share in common the potential subordination as a ‘bitch’ when heterosexual men choose to use the word to reinforce the idea that gender, sex, and sexuality exist in opposing binaries of deviant and normal.

Nevertheless, I find the ability to share this word with friends gives a similar sense of camaraderie as Larry Wilmore and President Barack Obama had at the White House Correspondent’s dinner, when Wilmore declared to the President, ‘Yo, Barry. You did it my nigga!”

Male or female, gay or not, if you are calling me a bitch to disrespect me, you got the wrong one 1. However, I admit to a more narrow viewpoint when it comes to heterosexual men. Lyrics from various hits like Jay-Z and Kanye’s ‘That’s My Bitch’ suggest a context exists in which heterosexual men consider the term as an endearment for women.

My wariness of heterosexual men’s use of the word ‘bitch’ parallels the concerns of the students I described earlier. Hegemonic masculinity gives heterosexual men leverage to use the word ‘bitch’ as way to police the gender of others including women and men who do not conform to the ideal of masculinity. The popularization of the use of the word ‘bitch’ as negative term for women and its association with femininity serve to reinforce hegemonic masculinity 2.

Ultimately, hegemonic masculinity influences how society conceptualizes gender and sex. Our insistence on a binary framing of gender as male and female reinforces myths about acceptable behavior that structures society in a way that restricts all people. After all, some men might also have opinions about being called bitch, for instance when their spouse stars in an HBO special in which she appears to air out your dirty laundry for almost an hour.

The use of ‘bitch’ in the context of ’Sandcastles,’ the ballad that accompanies a cameo from Jay Z in Beyoncé’s visual album ‘Lemonade,’ differs from its other references in that narrative. Beyoncé defined herself as a specific type of bitch (i.e. ’You’re not married to no average bitch, boy’ or ‘You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation’).

These examples illuminate an apparent fluidity in the use ‘bitch,’ that ultimately reflects the position of status, power and intentions of those who use the word. I believe one of the contrasts between my concept of bad bitch 3 and the negative use of bitch is who does the defining when these terms are used. Take for instance, that a bad bitch in a heterosexual man’s eyes might be a woman whose sexual behavior benefits him while a woman might identify as a bad bitch because she is financially independent. Therefore, subjectivity4 also matters as individuals decide if they will use the word, whether they will embrace being labeled ‘bitch,’ and how they define the boundaries around the word in a social interaction.

  1. Matthew B. Ezell has a great article about how women police each other, including the use of the word ‘bitch.’ ↩︎
  2. “a normative conception to which men are accountable, a form of masculinity in relation to which subordinated masculinities, as well as femininities, are defined. “ (Kane 2006:153) ↩︎
  3. Not claiming to have coined the term. If you have any information on who did coin the term, please advise in the comments. ↩︎
  4. “The self-conscious perspective of the person or subject. ”
    Excerpt From: John Scott. “A Dictionary of Sociology.” iBooks.