Despite pop culture power, ‘bitch’ not yet reclaimed

by Jackie Roman / Beacon Staff • March 5, 2015

I’ve never been called a bitch and been happy about it. Since coming into my own as a feminist, I’ve learned about the widespread attempts to reclaim the oppressive word bitch, and I’ve wanted to feel more comfortable with the term. Nicki Minaj has used the word in her songs—a word that men in the hip-hop and rap industry had previously monopolized. Lily Allen has used it in her song “Hard Out Here” in the same reclaiming vein. Bitch magazine chose its name to take the word from the mouths of abusers. But I still don’t see the word differently, nor do I believe it is fully reclaimed for myself or others.

Bitch is less of a word than it is an act. It has a consequence, just as tangible as the pain from a slap to the face. Girls learn not to be a bitch—the traits of which are bossiness, confidence, outspokenness—at a young age and suffer consequences as adults. In 1990, the American Association of University Women surveyed over 3,000 girls and boys ages 9-15 and discovered that girls were much less confident than boys of the same age. By their senior year, girls often internalize their place in passive roles from this bullying and are less likely to pursue competitive careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.  

There are many arguments about whether the word “bitch” can be reclaimed by women. “Reclaiming” is a social justice buzzword that means taking a term historically used to oppress a group of people and instead giving it a new, more empowering meaning. Songs, stories, and speeches have attempted to use the word “bitch” as a synonym for a woman in charge, and some would say this has effected great change. But only people in certain social justice-focused circles actually understand when the word “bitch” is being used in a positive, powerful way.

For example, Nicki Minaj calls herself a “bad bitch” in her song, “Itty Bitty Piggy” as a way of saying she is cooler and more successful than other rappers and the people who doubted her. She is embracing the title “bitch” and repurposing it. A critical listener will recognize this use of the word “bitch” as an admirable trait.

But not everyone is a critical listener. I think it’s more likely that most listeners will see that Minaj is calling herself a bitch and then assume it is okay to call her and other women bitches, because using it as a slur is commonplace in pop culture. It’s less likely that all listeners will be able to decode the song.

In high school, I noticed small attempts by my peers to reclaim the word “bitch.” It was mostly by guys, who, when called a bitch, would clarify that the term actually meant “a female dog.” This was really just a defense mechanism—to protect their masculinity—by making the term sound silly instead of being a synonym for “woman.” I was disappointed by their motivation for attempting to disassociate bitch from my gender.

Meanwhile, more of the girls in my life began calling one another bitches — in good and bad ways. The same girl who would say, “What’s up, bitches?” as a term of endearment would also call another girl a bitch for ignoring her in science class. It showed me that attempts to reclaim the term often wound up reflecting internalized misogyny before long. The sentiment of endearment didn’t outshine the sting.

Bitch magazine, which launched in 1996 to provide essays and other commentary on society from a feminist lens, has long defended its name. “If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we'll take that as a compliment,” reads the publication’s biography. When Hillary Clinton was referred to as a bitch during her 2008 presidential run, Tina Fey went to her defense and said, “Bitches get stuff done.” It’s good that women are trying to take this word and embrace the attributes it is meant to shame, but the consequences of the word are most important: the continued shaming of women. The word pacifies, stifles, and embarrasses women into positions that take away their voices from the community and strip away success. Thinking about this, it just seems as though the power from that word was taken from us long ago.

For so many years, the word “bitch” has been used casually as an insult in music, film, and other forms of entertainment. It has been ingrained in our minds as the opposite of what we want to be, and we have become almost accustomed to hearing it. Many people do not understand that by calling someone a bitch, a powerful system of misogyny is being fueled that continues to silence and disempower women. The attempts to use the word in a positive way, intending to reclaim the word, contributes to normalizing its use among unknowing listeners.

I can be bossy. I can be outspoken and bold. These traits might make me a bitch, but no matter how proud I am of them, I just don’t believe it’s up to me to decide how I wear the label anymore.