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Do You Use the B-Word?

As I peered through the window display at Posman Books, I noticed several books grouped together—all of the titles included the word “bitch.” It got me thinking about Women’s History Month. Should we rename it: Bitches’ History Month?

I had been hoping to find some more intelligent life in that window: perhaps books on the women’s history and civil rights movements, Seneca Falls, Bella Abzug, or Gloria Steinem?

Instead, I found:

Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl—A Woman’s Guide to Holding Her Own in a Relationship

• The Bitch of the House

• Is the Bitch Dead or What?

• Skinny Bitch

• I Bitch, Therefore I am

• That’s Queen Bitch to You!

• The Girl’s Guide to Being a Boss (without being a bitch)

 (Are the authors assuming we women think successful women are bitches? I don’t.)

When I spoke to the store’s merchandiser, he told me he grouped them intentionally, “to poke fun at publishers,” and to make light of the fact that so many authors are using the b-word in their titles. Point taken. Er, is the store also doing it to sell books, too?

I asked him if anyone had mentioned the display to him. “No,” he said. “In fact, you’re the first person who contacted me.” He then mentioned that he was a little surprised that there wasn’t more of a “reaction” to his display. As much as I did not agree with the merchandiser’s marketing idea, it certainly sparked a discussion.

The notion that women and the editors who publish them are using the term nonstop to get a reaction from us readers—eh, potential buyers—truly bothers me. Is this the path to celebrating women—or reinforcing negative stereotypes?

Indeed, in the right context the B-word can be a compliment. In the anthology BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine, Margaret Cho (a comedian I adore) writes in the foreword: “Whenever anyone has called me a bitch, I have taken it as a compliment.”

The B-word implies a strong woman who speaks her mind. But as long as women (read: not men) are writing these books, many of us believe we can—and should—reclaim the term “bitch” for ourselves. Perhaps we are entitled to take back the word from popular culture.

Leading feminists, scholars, and writers around the world have always reclaimed words like “bitches, whores, and witches” to critique language and the media. Of course, they often do it with a certain amount of irony, unlike the writers of say, Why Men Marry Bitches.

The magazine Bitch has taken back the word. They explain the use of the word on their Web site:

“While we’re aware that our title is off-putting to some people, we think it’s worth it. And here’s why.

The writer Rebecca West, back in the day, said, “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” We’d argue that the word “bitch” is usually deployed for the same purpose. When it’s being used as an insult, “bitch” is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions, and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment, thanks.”

The word is used to bring attention to the idea of stereotypes. Case in point: Bitches, Bimbos, and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls’ Guide to Female Stereotypes by the Guerrilla Girls. In their words: “Whatever life a woman leads, from biker chick to society girl, there’s a stereotype she’ll have to live down, or live up to…” (Now that’s a title I wouldn’t have minded seeing on that bookstore display.)

Words can make us squirm. Some go to the extreme of asking us not to use a word. A Queens, New York, councilman recently proposed a symbolic ban on the N-word. It was later approved by the New York City Council, but that’s a whole other—and equally interesting—conversation that merits its own article.

I don’t propose banning words.

But whether or not you agree with the use of the B-word, can’t we be more creative about what we call ourselves as women? Must we fall into the trap of calling ourselves the very stereotypes we’ve been fighting against since the beginning of time: gold diggers, hooker with a heart ’o gold, bitches, muffies, and whores? (The list is endless, but I won’t bore you here; as women, you know them all by now.)

When I look around me at role models and other women I admire—writers, artists, businesswomen, stay-at-home moms, leaders in my community, activists, politicians, environmentalists, scientists, CEOs, global leaders, and family members—I don’t see them using the word. I don’t hear or read about them referring to themselves and other women as “bitches.” Why? It’s undignified for one. And it doesn’t advance women necessarily.

Did Elizabeth Cady Stanton refer to women this way? Did Shirley Chisholm? Does Hillary? Do most women we admire use it loosely? What’s next? “Ladies and gentleman, meet the next Bitch of the United States.” Uh, I mean, president. Perhaps women in previous generations did not have the luxury of “taking back the term” because they were busy fighting for so much. Are we there yet? Not quite.

If I someday have children of my own, I can’t imagine using the word “bitch” around my son or daughter all the time. If we get annoyed about some men calling us this, why would we want to call ourselves—and daughters—this?

Some people will bristle at what I’m writing.

Thinking about how we use words is exciting, thought provoking, and invites discussion. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we do it. I’d love to hear what you think.

For an article on other interesting words, check out Scandal at Princeton.

Find One or All of These Books on Amazon.com

For a list of books I would have preferred to see in that bookstore display, check out: Books for Women’s History Month.

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