On September 10, 2016, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler. The headline read, in reference to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “The Bitch America Needs.”
How would you have felt if a piece like Zeisler’s had been written about Barack Obama in September, 2008, with an invocation of the ‘N’ word?
Zeisler has clearly attempted to co-opt a word used pejoratively against a specific group in order to take back the term (“bitch”) and empower the group (women). Even though I have subscribed to Zeisler’s magazine for years, I don’t believe the ‘B’ word has shaken off its baggage and become a universally empowering term for women. Successful co-optations of terms used pejoratively include “queer” and “Quaker.” The ‘B’ word just isn’t there yet. Moreover, the term certainly hasn’t assumed enough strength and swagger to occupy a New York Times prime-time headline about the first woman to be a major party contender for the presidency.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘bitch’? Take a moment to list all the definitions and images that come to mind.
Check out dictionary.com’s definition of the ‘B’ word. The Merriam-Webster list doesn’t revel quite as much in all of the slang terms, but does maintain the clearly pejorative sense of the word. This Oxford English Dictionary list is quite thorough and shows that the derogatory use of the ‘B’ word is many centuries old.
The primary definition—“a female dog”—already, when used in reference to human women, turns us into dogs. The term also implies that women are only good for our breeding capacities. Secondary definitions use adjectives like “malicious,” “unpleasant,” “selfish,” “lewd,” “submissive,” “subservient,” “passive,” “complaining,” “nagging,” and “difficult,” all referring to women, unless the adjectives are referring to a man who has lost status and therefore become, by these oft-used definitions, a woman.
Just a week ago I heard a much-celebrated writer say, “These men enter prison as men. Two days later they’re raped and become girls.” The implication here, heavily forcing us to recall the ‘B’ word, is that women are the raped ones, women are the disempowered, women are the bitches, women are the girls who will be raped. Men who are raped become girls. That is something. The ‘B’ word reinscribes time and again that men are universal and women are “other.” This reinforces the still limited gender roles available to women and the punishments we suffer if we diverge from those roles.
When we use the ‘B’ word, we are referring in a negative way to a woman, who is of course linked to the female of the canine species, or to a man who has lost status or power, or to a complaint, or to a mean person, or to something difficult and/or annoying. The ‘B’ word basically tells us that women are conniving, complaining, mean, negative versions of the human species, if we get to be human at all. This term, so frequently used in our culture and our media, dehumanizes women, which has real-life consequences, such as gender-based violence and a lower status that can translate into fewer opportunities, less pay, and more sexual harassment. In fact, we are so culturally inured to this term that I suspect many people, women and men, will think I should lighten up on this point.
Despite the generally positive reviews of Hillary Clinton’s performance in last Monday night’s debate, some of the coverage still ran along these ‘B’-word lines. For example, in PBS’s post-debate coverage (see here the link to the debate itself and then to PBS’s post-debate coverage) Mark Shields said about Hillary Clinton, “She can’t give a short answer.” Gwen Ifill’s co-host Judy Woodruff states that, before the debate, her colleagues, David Brooks, Mark Shields, and Amy Walter, had stressed Clinton’s likability as a huge issue. Shields adds that people need to see Clinton as a “good egg,” someone whom you would want in your “carpool” or “PTA” (clearly gendered references), but that Clinton still doesn’t achieve this level of likability in the debate. David Brooks says that, when Hillary Clinton talks about policy, “It can’t just be 3 things, it has to be 16 things, and you get into laundry list mode.” Clinton’s thorough preparation and willingness to share nuanced answers seem not to matter when it boils down to whether or not she is the ‘B’ word who gets to be in your PTA. (Fortune Magazine ran a post-debate piece titled “There Is Literally No Facial Expression Hillary Clinton Can Make to Please Male Pundits.”)
I was not the only one to be startled and taken aback by the Zeisler headline, published in a newspaper that has consistently criticized various aspects of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (see, for example, this op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd; and this open letter to The New York Times in protest of the paper’s “skewed coverage” of Secretary of State Clinton). Two days after the publication of the Zeisler piece, Liz Spayd (“The Public Editor” of The New York Times) published a response titled, “The Word a Headline Didn’t Need.” Like Spayd, I get that Zeisler (and, possibly, by extension, The New York Times) is attempting to appropriate the term and to use it as an appreciative and empowering aspect of Secretary of State Clinton’s image. Nevertheless, I believe that many people in the United States just see this as further license to use the term in increasingly discriminatory, violent contexts.
Spayd rightly concludes her piece by saying, “… Referring to the first female presidential nominee as the right bitch for the job brings an air of legitimacy to the word that seems beyond where we are at this moment in history. The mainstream may someday apply this term to women who stand up for themselves and bust through feminine stereotypes. Until then, it remains an insult, degrading and misogynistic.” Indeed, misogyny and racism are running rampant in our nation. Do we need to add fuel to the flames by using a term that hasn’t quite ripened into an empowering counter-cultural existence?