I started seeing it sometime last year and it got a small chuckle out of me then: #bitchesonpitches. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered: in a world full of bad bitches and rich bitches and boss bitches and basic ones, too, what does that word even mean, anymore?

And then I wondered: should we be throwing around the word “bitch” so casually? Saying “I love you bitches” or stating that you’re “a proud bitch” sounds a lot like we are reclaiming this word and giving it a whole new meaning. But reclaiming, or reappropriating, a word means to appropriate again–to take a word once positive turned pejorative and make it positive once more and bringing them back into society as acceptable. For example, the word “queer” is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are neither heterosexual or cisgender. It originally described something or someone as “peculiar” or “strange”, but in the late 19th century, was used as a derogatory term. Today, people who reject traditional gender identities may describe themselves as “queer”. Thus, this word has been reclaimed.

Reclaiming words is definitely about power, and it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. We’ve been doing it for eons: the words “feminist” and “gay” are just a few of many words that have undergone modern reclaiming. “Bitch” is likely one of the most popular amongst them. It’s so casual, I can think of at least fifty songs with it in the title, from David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” to “Bitch Better Have My Money” by Rihanna. I don’t even flinch when I hear it spoken on the movie screen or my favorite Netflix series anymore.

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There’s no doubt about it: calling someone a “bitch” is a pretty straightforward insult. In fact, it has always originated as an insult, as it was used to demoralize women who were considered promiscuous. Basically, if you had a high sex drive, you were equated to a dog in heat. The word “bitch” has only had roots in people trying to shame female sexuality. Today: it’s what we call people, mainly women, when we think they are too opinionated, too bossy, too heartless, too inconsiderate, too emotional, too abrasive, too whiny–the list could go on and on–and, ultimately, someone deemed “not feminine”.

We call boys and men “little bitches” when they are seen as too sensitive. Regardless of how we are throwing this word around or who we are throwing it at, it’s a way to be dismissive to that person, no matter the context. Calling someone a “bitch” is a way to shame men and women because it subjugates them and, like all derogatory words, it takes away their power.

So, can we reclaim the word “bitch”? Or better yet, do we want to? It’s one of the most versatile words in the English language. It has been so splintered that it’s become unclear to many how we should use it. Feminists call themselves “bitches” on the regular. Jo Freeman, an American feminist, writer, and political scientist, wrote “The Bitch Manifesto” in a wave of feminist movement in the fall of 1968. In it, she stated: “We must be strong, we must be militant, we must be dangerous. We must realize that Bitch is Beautiful and that we have nothing to lose.

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And that wave continued throughout the 90s as “bitch” had a rebranding. Trina released “Da Baddest Bitch” in 1999, reinventing the definition of a “bad bitch” as a woman in charge of her sexuality. She was smart, and she was definitely powerful. It continued to become more and more mainstream, seen an ample amount of times in book and song titles, magazine company names, and movie and television series.

Because of how mainstream it had become, the word “bitch” had developed almost too many incongruous definitions. People in the early to mid-2000s resisted (and still do) this controversial word. Linguists and sociologists both will argue that the word “bitch” provides women with false power and that it’s actually pretty hateful and sexist. Today, any woman in power can easily be labeled the b-word. And if a man isn’t assertive enough in his actions, he is also dubbed a “little bitch”. These are all ways that the word “bitch” remain problematic because regardless of how modernized the word has become, it’s still being used in a way to shame both genders.

Dr. Sherryl Kleinman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, states women cannot reclaim a term that was never theirs. Kleinman says, “The idea of reclaiming implies that women owned this term, it was then co-opted by men, and now women want it back.” She also states, “I recognize that some women feel empowered by the word, but that doesn’t mean they are empowered by it.”

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I often think that the silver lining that our most recent presidential election has allowed us to glean is the outpouring of honesty from women. More women than ever before are standing up and truly speaking their minds. From marches to books to blogs, and so on and so forth, the sheer numbers are staggering. People are addressing the lack of gender equality and the double standards that exist to circumvent reaching it.

It has a lot more to do with the “bitch culture” than the actual word itself. So much of the issue has less to do with calling women names, but ultimately, how we treat women–how men treat women, and how women treat other women, too.

Feminists have certainly fought long and hard to reappropriate the word, and thousands of women are in agreement as they use it in a more positive connotation every day. Claiming the word (claiming any word) as your own is empowering, and again, reappropriation–if done effectively–is all about empowerment. “Bitch” doesn’t mean what it used to, but is it empowering?

Or are we continuing to perpetuate a stereotype rooted in masculinity? Is it damaging to call yourself (or anybody else, for that matter) anything less than that? Is it damaging to use a word that implies that women are not equal to their male counterparts, even if a hashtag on Instagram tells me otherwise? I honestly don’t know. I don’t have the answers. But I can conclude that I am comfortable to assume a leading role, as opposed to the supporting. And while I am the first person to admit that #strongwomenonpitches doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, I don’t feel comfortable with being called a “bitch”. Being called that word still packs a heavy and painful punch for me, personally and professionally. And as a writer, words carry so much impact. Words hold meaning, language shapes so much of us and our reality.

As a strong female climber, and as a basic human being, I know and understand how hard women have fought for the right to be called exactly what they are: not bitches, but beautiful, intelligent, worthy, confident, and strong women.

5 thoughts

  1. Intention carries a lot of water in this context (as well as many other conversations in this vein). How does the person using the word mean it? I think that should count for a lot—especially, as you state, so many meanings are assigned to it. Intent matters. If you are walking and accidentally trip over my foot, you will fall and hurt yourself. If you are walking and I stick my foot out to trip you, you will fall and hurt yourself. The result may be the same but the two scenarios are drastically different. Intent matters.

  2. Yes I love this! I am guilty of using bitch in both positive and negative ways, I need to check myself! Seeing as we are talking about derogatory words for women I think its relevant to bring up the C-word. Arguably considered much more offensive than “bitch” the C-word actually does have roots in the divine feminine. If we are going to take back any word it should be it. I believe there is a piece in the Vagina Monologues which calls for the reclamation of the C-word and it is a much more appropriate term for vagina. Vagina comes from the Latin for “sword-sheath” literally a holder for a penis. Cunt is the whole shebang, independent of any anatomy but our own.

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