“When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man.
When a woman gives her opinion, she’s a bitch.”
What are the worst bigoted epithets you can think of—words that you would never say? The F word for a gay man, the N word for an African American person. We all agree these words are demeaning, hateful and off-limits. Now think of one of the most hateful, disrespecting equivalent words for a woman. Hint: It starts with a B.
How is it that this word is not only socially acceptable but is freely used with complete impunity—in particular, by an extremely high percentage of gay men—almost everywhere I turn these days?
As this terrific Vice.com article on the word’s long history concludes: “ ‘Bitch’ has come a long way, sure, but perhaps the reason it hasn’t been truly reclaimed is because conditions for women haven’t really changed, either…Words only make sense in context. When we see the day when the context is changed, then the core meaning of the word will change, too.”
I’ve been writing this in my head for years now and could point to any number of recent examples—every day brings new ones like last weekend’s New York Times op-ed about our next President (“The Bitch America Needs”) and Les Fabian’s Braithwaite’s admittedly very entertaining contemplation of it. But TV Guide’s mainstream validation of it in their review of the new Logo series Finding Prince Charming, is a bit of a last straw for me. It notes that: “nearly everyone with cable or internet access now knows...that ‘Werk bitch!’ is a compliment.”
To paraphrase RuPaul (and to demonstrate my sense of humor): Bitch, please!
Of course the word has the obvious resemblance to such vintage camp phrasings as, “Get her!” or “Mary!” or simply, “Girl!” and the general common practice of referring to fellow gay men (regardless of femininity or masculinity) with female pronouns. A practice at least half of the time imbued with affection for the addressee and expressing that wondrous radical humor of the outsider. I have a fond nostalgia for that mode of address, the sense that it was a necessary part of survival in a world that has historically hated us.
I adore the classic practice of embracing male effeminacy and proclaiming pride in identification with women. Though even when camp was a survival mechanism and even when it has had a quality of identifying positively with women and their struggles in a male dominated world—it has always balanced on a thin line.
All the contemporary gay uses of the word “bitch” I’ve seen in recent years convey far more disdain and animosity than those comparatively quaint predecessors of cattiness (On a side note: Why do cats evoke the feminine? And how interesting that the etymology of bitch is canine rather than feline.)
In certain ways I can see that part of the ongoing usage of the word is a remnant of the outsider identification with women which, even back in the day, but especially now—is completely full of misogyny and hostility towards women. Misogyny which is itself, of course, the root source of homophobia inasmuch as being a gay man is perceived by society as akin to being like a woman, and if it weren’t such a bad thing to be a woman it wouldn’t be seen as such a horrible thing to be a gay man.
It is not radical to suggest that the virulence of certain gay male sexism is actually an intense manifestation of internalized homophobia.
Vito Russo writes eloquently about this in The Celluloid Closet in his analysis of straight male buddy movies:
“The primary buddy relationships in films are those between men who despise homosexuality yet find that their truest and most noble feelings are for each other. There is a misogyny here that goes beyond simple hatred for women and things feminine. If the truly masculine man hated women—in the sense that he trusted only men as true friends—what then would be his reaction to homosexuals who are perceived to be ‘like’ women yet are in fact male? It would be even more violent, it seems, for gays are the manifestation of what stands between men’s complete love of other men and their acceptance of women as friends. Always wary that they might appear too effeminate and therefore queer (like women), men have never been granted the full emotional potential they might have had on film.”
Of course this is alive and well in contemporary cinema (Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight being an especially vivid recent example).
Just to anticipate the two arguments in your head. Yes, it’s true that women use the term. We’re women—we get to do that sometimes because it’s ours. And no, it’s not the same as the reclamation of the word queer, at least not for you. Britney, Rihanna, Madonna and Alanis Morissette can shout it at the top of their lungs. But as men you can’t reclaim something that was never yours in the first place. And I confess that, as a feminist raising two daughters in our still very sexist society I’m not really that comfortable with those songs and reclamations either—the hostility towards women and continued sexism in our culture just makes it hard for me to accept so much mainstream flippant usage of the term. Quite simply: It still feels hurtful and hateful to me.
So maybe just ask yourself next time you have it on the tip of your tongue. Does this word really mean so much to you? And if it does, why is that? If you felt that compelled and entitled to use those other F and N epithets on a daily basis—what would it say about you? As my thirteen year-old daughter Sylvie often urges me when considering her requests: “Think about it.”
Jenni Olson is a San Francisco-based filmmaker, historian and writer. She was one of the co-founders of the pioneering LGBT website, PlanetOut.com and is the proud proprietor of Butch.org. Her most recent film, The Royal Road—a cinematic essay in defense of remembering—is newly available on DVD and digital from Wolfe Video.