The Evolution of the Bitch
It used to be the ultimate insult, but today, the word "bitch" is said freely on TV shows and sung in songs on the radio. In a world of bad bitches and basic bitches alike, what the hell does "bitch" mean anymore?
It's the original insult. It needs no introduction, no following; it works as a standalone slur for just about any scenario. Whether someone jostles you on the subway, beats you at poker, or breaks your heart, all you need is one word: bitch.
Or at least that's how it used to be. Calling someone a bitch used to be pretty straightforward, but today—after many adaptations, reinventions, and attempts to reclaim the word—it's not totally clear what "bitch" really means anymore. There are bad bitches and basic bitches; rich bitches and ratchet bitches; even perfect bitches, as Kanye West once famously described Kim Kardashian. You can bitch-slap someone, wear a resting bitch face, or just tag the word onto the end of a sentence, as in, "I'm in Miami, bitch!" When the word "bitching" is used as a verb, it means to complain; when it's used as an adjective, it means to be cool. To be "someone's bitch" can mean either to be owned by that person or to be his or her BFF—unless you're someone's "prison bitch," which always means the former.
The word has been so splintered that it's unclear where "bitch" stands today, and how—if at all—we should use it. Can feminists call themselves bitches? Can men call other women bitches? Do you think I'm a bitch? We traced the evolution of the word, and the women who took on its meaning, to try to figure out where "bitch" stands today.
The Genesis: Lady Dogs
Everyone knows that once upon a time, a bitch was simply a lady dog. Trace its lineage in the Oxford English Dictionary, however, and you'll find that it's been used as a derogatory term for women as early as the 15th century. Back then, it was considered demoralizing mostly because it suggested that the woman in question was promiscuous (an allusion to the fact that female dogs have so many puppies), according to English language historian Geoffrey Hughes. This is, of course, why "son of a bitch" had such a sting: It meant your mother was a whore. That said, "bitch" was far from the most popular insult in Ye Olde English. Dudes like Chaucer preferred the use of words like "whore" or "sluttish."
"Bitch" didn't really catch on as the universal female insult until the 1920s, when all of a sudden its use ballooned. Between 1915 and 1930, the use of "bitch" in newspapers and literature more than doubled. What happened? Women's suffrage.
That's right. That Susan B. Anthony bitch got the right to vote, and men were not happy about it. Soon after, "bitch" became an all-purpose insult for annoying women. Ernest Hemingway seemed to fall in love with the word, calling many of his female characters "bitch goddesses" and, after a falling-out with Gertrude Stein, gifting her a signed copy of Death in the Afternoon with the inscription "a bitch is a bitch is a bitch." He had a way with words, that Hemingway.
The slur had another surge of popularity in the 1970s, particularly in music. Miles Davis named his 1970 jazz album Bitches Brew (the title, purportedly, referred to the talent of the artists on the album); the Rolling Stones recorded "Bitch" in 1971; Elton John came out with "The Bitch is Back" in 1974. Then, at the crowning of Second Wave feminism, Jo Freeman wrote The Bitch Manifesto, which declared: "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."
"Bitch," it seemed, was turning its face toward feminism.
The Rise: Da Baddest Bitch
If "bitch" was to become a flagship for feminism, it first needed women to wear its badge. That didn't happen right away, since "bitch" was still freighted with man-hating stigma—in some ways, increasingly so. Back in the day, "bitch" had only referred to a woman who was promiscuous; later, it evolved into an insult for a woman who had done you wrong. But by the 80s, "bitch" turned violent and misogynist, harboring a much darker tone than before.
Throughout the 80s, hip-hop lay claim to the word and promoted much of the violence associated with it. Slick Rick was among the first rappers to employ the word in the 1985 song "La Di Da Di," where the "bitch" in the song is a jealous and violent woman. A year later, Ice-T rapped about beating up a "bitch" who talked back to him, in "Six in Da Morning." The NWA song "Bitch Iz a Bitch" (1989) defined a bitch as a woman who was manipulative, conniving, and moneyhungry; Dr. Dre plainly described them as "hoes and tricks" in "Bitches Ain't Shit" (1992). The word was fraught with violent connotations, and the message was clear: Bitches needed to watch their step, because they had it coming for them.
Given all the bad PR, women weren't really into self-labeling as "bitches" just yet. Queen Latifah flat-out rejected the term in her 1993 song "U.N.I.T.Y.," which opens with the question: "Who you callin' a bitch?" Meredith Brooks gave the word a softer interpretation in the song "Bitch" (1997), but still basically defined "bitchiness" as a symptom of PMS.
But then came Trina. Her 1999 not-quite-hit single, "Da Baddest Bitch," recharacterized the term as a symbol of empowerment. A "bad bitch," by her definition, was smart and powerful and—perhaps most important—in charge of her sexuality. With her hard beats and don't-give-a-fuck attitude, she took the word back within the very genre that had corrupted it in the first place.
Although she never used the word "feminism," Trina interlaced many of the aims of the movement with her reinvented concept of the "bad bitch." Her lyrics were ahead of their time, with declarations like "it pays to be the boss" and "stay ahead of the game / save up and buy a condo." Best of all, Trina loved sex and she loved to rap about it. She would eventually release a song called "Nasty Bitch," which described her sexual prowess in graphic detail; in "Da Baddest Bitch," she plainly stated, "If I had the chance to be a virgin again / I'd be fucking by the time I'm ten." In some ways, we could consider Trina a purist in how she defined "bitch," since she preserved the original meaning of the word: a woman who was excessively sexual. Except for that Trina outwardly embraced her sexuality, and in doing so, she turned the definition of "bitch" on its head.
The 90s were a time of critical rebranding for "bitch." Women who had previously shied away from the word started to embrace it. Take Madonna, who had stated in an interview in 1991: "I am ambitious and I've worked hard to get where I am. I've made good by behaving bad. But I'm no bitch." Just four years later, in another interview, Madonna totally reversed the sentiment: "I'm tough, ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, OK." (Nowadays, if you ask Siri to look up "unapologetic bitch," she takes you straight to Madonna's Wikipedia page.)
If "bitch" was ever to be reclaimed, it was during this era of "girl power." In 1996, feminists Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler founded Bitch magazine and, when asked how they chose the title, Zeisler explained: "It would be great to reclaim the word 'bitch' for strong, outspoken women, much the same way that 'queer' has been reclaimed by the gay community."
Elizabeth Wurtzel echoed the sentiment in her 1998 book Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, where she also aligned bitchiness with feminist goals: "I intend to do what I want to do and be whom I want to be and answer only to myself: that is, quite simply, the bitch philosophy."
The Mainstreamification: It's Britney, Bitch
"Bitch" was everywhere by the turn of the millennium. The use of the word on television shows tripled between 1998 and 2007, which had much to do with the word's feminist facelift in the previous decade. But with mainstreamification comes misunderstanding.
A brief sampling of music in the early 2000s reveals rampant disagreement over the word's definition: Jay-Z used the word as a stand-in for "woman" in "99 Problems" (2003). Rock band Buckcherry released "Crazy Bitch" (2006)—their most popular song to-date—about a woman who was bananas in bed. Busta Rhymes used the word affectionately in "I Love My Bitch" (2006). Kelis, of "Milkshake" fame, enthusiastically declared "I'm bossy! I'm the bitch y'all love to hate" the same year, in "Bossy." There wasn't much agreement on what a bitch was, but as Too $hort put it in 2006, "One thing's for sure / You will get called a bitch / Bitch!"
Even Britney Spears, whose public image had thus far been sweet, demure, and innocent (but not that innocent) started to announce herself in 2007 by saying, "It's Britney, bitch!" The word had gone totally mainstream.
All women—and sometimes, men—were eligible for the "bitch" label, in some form or other. It became an all-purpose salutation (as in, "what's up my bitchezzzzzz?"). Gay men and Valley girls started affectionately calling their friends "betches." People invented new iterations, like "beyotch" and "biznatch." It became a meme. Lady Gaga called herself a "free bitch, baby!" David Guetta's summer club-banger in 2009 was "Sexy Bitch," which didn't seem to have any lyrical point whatsoever, other than to suggest that "every girl wanna be her" because she, the subject of the song, was a "sexy bitch."
The word "bitch" was like a handful of Silly Putty—you could make it into anything you wanted. To be sure, it was still used to call out mean women (as Mean Girls taught us in 2004, if you're a "mean girl" then you're also a "bitch") and it was still used to promote the feminist cause. But sometimes, and increasingly so, the word didn't really mean anything at all.
The Fragmentation: Bad Bitches Only
Since it had developed so many incongruous meanings, "bitch" briefly became controversial again in the late 2000s. Women had tried to reclaim it, but was it really OK to call a woman a bitch? Didn't the term still promote sexism, misogyny, and the patriarchy? Was "bitch" a form of linguistic violence?
There were certainly lots of people who thought so. In 2007, the New York City Council attempted to ban its usage, citing its "deeply sexist and hateful" connotation. A yet, a few years later in 2012, the Federal Communications Commission took the opposite stance and ruled to unbleep the word on television networks, suggesting that it was harmless.
Such contradiction! Such confusion! What did it all mean? Nobody knew. After Jay Z and Kanye West recorded the song "That's My Bitch" on their 2011 album Watch the Throne, both artists seemed to have existentialist struggles with the word, bringing the "bitch" controversy back into the spotlight. There were rumors that Jay Z would swear off the word when Blue Ivy was born in 2012 (but then he was like, "Siiiiike! I'm a rapper!" and continued to use the word egregiously). In 2013, Kanye published a string of tweets debating whether or not using the word "bitch" was OK. (His final verdict? It's totally OK to call women "bitches"—and Kim is the perfect bitch.)
What remained problematic, however, was the way "bitch" related to power dynamics. When women have too much power, they're called bitches as a way to knock them down a peg. But when men aren't asserting enough power, they're called bitches too. In the E-40 and Too $hort song "Bitch" (2010), we hear both versions of the word: E-40 tells men "don't act like a bitch" and criticizes men who have "feminine tendencies like a bitch," but also calls a woman who has sex with multiple men a "bitch."
It was clear that the word could sometimes refer to a woman laying claim to their own power, as in the 2012 PTAF song "Boss Ass Bitch," which proudly declares "I'M A BOSS ASS BITCH, BITCH, BITCH, BITCH, BITCH, BITCH, BITCH." (A year later, Nicki Minaj remixed it, because that beat is so, so good.) This was also seen in the Britney Spears song "Work Bitch," which has motivated women everywhere to push through one more minute on the StairMaster. But it could also be an assertion of power over others—either from one woman to other women, as in Beyoncé's song "Bow Down (Bitches);" a man to a man, as in Ludacris' "Move, Bitch;" or, most commonly, a man to a woman, as in Tyler the Creator's "Bitch Suck Dick," which suggests women should use their mouths for giving blowjobs, not talking.
According to Dr. Christopher J. Schneider, a sociologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada who has studied how "bitch" is used in rap music, the word is so damn popular—both in a negative and a positive light—because of its relationship to the patriarchy. "The dominant role and conditions of patriarchy help enable the widespread use and acceptance of the term—both as misogyny, and also as a form of empowerment used to counter patriarchy."
Nowhere is this clearer than in politics, where pretty much any woman in power is called a bitch. If Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel had a nickel for every time they were called "bitches," they'd have enough money to pay off the national debt in both of their countries. There was a real article about Janet Yellen earlier this year entitled "Janet Yellen: The Bitch of the Fed." And poor Katie Couric—what the hell did she ever do to deserve the bitch title? But if you can't change the word, change the conversation. Ruth Bader Ginsberg was apparently called a "bitch" all throughout law school, to which she responded: "Better bitch than mouse." Call them bitches if you want, but bitches get stuff done.
The Present: Bitch Bad, Woman Good
These days, "bitch" has been used to death—to the point where all of its meaning has pretty much rubbed off, and it's honestly become a little boring. Oh, you're calling me a bitch? Yawn.
That said, most scholars, linguists, and women alike would agree that the word hasn't really been rehabilitated to mean something wholly positive. "I recognize that some women feel empowered by the word, but that doesn't mean they are empowered by it," said Dr. Sherryl Kleinman, a sociologist who wrote about the social harms of the word in 2009. Sheryl Sandberg underscored this idea in a recent op-ed for Cosmopolitan and started a campaign to Ban Bossy, which is basically like the PG-version of "bitch." In April, Duke University launched the "You Don't Say" campaign, where students argued against using the word because it "insists femininity is inherently negative."
As Lupe Fiasco so eloquently put it: "Bitch bad, woman good, lady better."
But perhaps the problem isn't really so much what we call women—it's how we treat women. "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. If there ever comes a time when women aren't made to feel ashamed of their sexuality, when they don't have to fight for fair wages or the opportunity to speak in a meeting, when they don't constantly fear the possibility of violence or sexual assault, and when women feel that they have some say in the society that we live in, then "bitch" will shed that last layer of stigma for good. 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.
But has that day arrived yet? Bitch, please.
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