By: Cecilia Nguyen
I’ve been called a “bitch” multiple times. At times, I would even embrace it– I mean, why should I feel belittled for taking lead in a group project or for standing my ground? However, after listening to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech on the House floor in response to Rep. Ted Yoho calling her a “f****** b****,” all I felt was anger. “Bitch” is an incredibly derogatory slur, but like many other women, AOC was not phased or surprised by the insult. That is not okay.
Where does the word “bitch” come from? It originally referred to a female dog, but as early as the 15th century, it became a term to degrade and insult women. Back then, it carried a promiscuous connotation, similar to phrases like “slut” and “whore” today. The insult also was used to associate divine and powerful women (Artemis and Diana) with sexually depraved beasts, in which their followers were described by the phrase “son of a bitch.”
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that “bitch” was used as a word for men to describe bothersome and annoying women. In the 70s, its usage rose in popularity again, specifically in the music industry. Resulting from the second-wave feminism movement, for the first time, women started to embrace the word as a term of empowerment (check out the “The Bitch Manifesto” by Jo Freeman).
Nonetheless, “bitch” still embodied misogyny and hate throughout the 80s and mid 90s, and not many women were eager to take pride in being one. It wasn’t until the late 90s and early 2000s that women started to reclaim “bitch” to describe a powerful, independent and ambitious woman that voiced her opinions and made decisions for herself, in part due to public figures like Madonna and Britney Spears.
Today, “bitch” comes in many forms and variations; it’s everywhere. In pop culture, the word is used in song lyrics, TikTok trends, and TV shows. In politics, it’s used to belittle women in positions of power. For some women, it’s a term to greet their closest friends. For others, it’s a harmless and recurrent slang term. Despite what people may think, however, its subordinate nature has not changed.
In many, if not all, instances, “bitch” creates an imbalanced power dynamic and enforces society’s preference of what is deemed as “masculine.” For example, by calling an inanimate object or intangible idea a “bitch,” such as “That exam was a bitch” or “Life’s a bitch,” “bitch” is seen as something that needs to be controlled or dominated. Another example is when “bitch” is used with a possessive adjective, such as “my bitch,” “his bitch” or “her bitch.” In this case, “bitch” is used as a way to describe someone who might be submissive or vulnerable, making “feminine” traits inferior. Most notably, “bitch” is often used to degrade men of their masculinity and to insult women who are seen as emasculating which again, enforces the patriarchy.
Let’s talk about the reclamation of “bitch.” Many women, including myself, have now used “bitch” among each other in a friendly and positive way, under the intent and belief that it empowers us. But, just as much as we use it to uplift the women around us, we (and men) also use it to demean women.
“Bitch” holds no genuine power, and its misogynistic origin is still present in its usage today. When used by women and sometimes men, it usually refers to another woman that is manipulative, back-stabbing or stuck-up. In other instances, men use the word to describe a woman who is misbehaving and subject to violence. Men aren’t afraid to use “bitch,” and rarely are they ever called out for using it. The frequent usage normalizes “bitch” and in turn, normalizes patriarchal and sexist language.
If “bitch” doesn’t challenge the patriarchy and sexism in our society, how can we say we are reclaiming the word? If we want to reclaim “bitch,” we need to stop using it to insult other women and hold men accountable for using it. Otherwise, this false sense of empowerment only sets us up to continue living in a society where it is okay to degrade women.
Now, I’m not saying you have to completely stop using “bitch;” for me, it’s been a part of my everyday language. I’ve used it to greet people, uplift women, express my anger, and describe my frustration, but maybe its normalization and common usage, in addition to its multiple meanings, is why this isn’t spoken about enough. Words hold immense power, and it’s important to acknowledge and reflect on the language we use.