When I was in middle school, my friends and I all had our very own B.I.T.C.H. cards to carry in our wallets. It was nice because our wallets were pretty much empty aside from those little cards. They let everyone know that we were Beautiful, Intelligent, Talented, Creative and Honest. We were B.I.T.C.H.es.
Back then, it felt really amazing to “reclaim” a word that the boys in the cafeteria were attempting to hurl around. We thought that we were engaging in a feminist act, proudly proclaiming our bitch status. We referred to each other as bitches. We didn’t feel like we needed an excuse to act bitchy. “You think I’m a bitch,” we would respond to some jerk, “well you’re right. I am.” Man it felt cool.
Through high school, we continued to that that naive approach to the word. Make it a nice little acronym for actual compliments and it could be considered a good thing too.
Then we went to college. We ditched the bitch card. But we suddenly found a whole word of clever sayings on vintage postcards that made us feel warm and fuzzy about the word “bitch” again. Prim and proper ladies saying naughty things. It’s everyone’s favorite trope. We got some wind back in our bitch sails. We would discuss the word’s linguistic history as we drank boxed wine by the goblet, feeling oh-so-sophisticated.
In college, being a bitch just seemed like a funny joke. Sure, we talked about historical context, but we also felt so above that nonsense. We were surrounded by our friends and our joint lack of responsibility to anyone who lived outside of our campus that we didn’t really pay attention to the broader usage of derogatory labels for women. I think that’s why the word still seemed easy to reclaim for ourselves.
Then, I experienced a bit of grown-up bitchiness that made me question this whole reappropriation idea.
Top photo via Naff Funny Gifts Shop
Second photo via Oh Boy!
A girl I know from school is now the manager of a restaurant chain. We ran into each other in our home town and stopped to have a nice, long chat to catch up. Hanna* has always had a strong personality and an impatience for those who didn’t seem to be at her level. I can remember her being truly horrible to the younger cheerleaders on the squad who couldn’t keep up with her routines. Back in middle and high school, Hanna definitely would’ve been someone who carried a B.I.T.C.H. card proudly.
As we were catching up, I mentioned that I write for a site on women in business. Hanna immediately launched into a tale of workplace drama. It involved her ousting another employee she didn’t get along with by pitting a group of people against the other woman. Basically, Hanna thought that the other girl wasn’t smart or confident enough to manage a shift at their restaurant, even though the woman hadn’t had much time to prove herself. Instead of speaking to the girl or helping her, Hanna instructed various staff members to “test” the woman’s strength by calling in to shifts or making the job harder than it needed to be. She said she wanted to see how the girl would handle pressure.
When the lady had the audacity to complain to a district manager, Hanna’s defense seemed to be, “No one would bat an eye at a man doing the same thing.” Then, Hanna said something that immediately made me think of middle school all over again. “If that makes me a bitch, I don’t care. I’m proud to be a bitch.”
She was making this declaration as if I was supposed to agree with her. She wanted to me to say that being a bitch was completely okay. Or maybe she wanted to hear that she was just behaving how any business person had to, she was just being treated unfairly because she was a woman in power.
The truth was that my friend just sounded like a bad manager to me. It wouldn’t have mattered what her gender was. And her acceptance of the label bitch didn’t seem like a step forward in women’s rights. It seemed like an excuse to act poorly.
If Hanna wanted to take accountability for being unfair to those she works with, that’s fine. If that’s her management style, it’s her choice. I think it’s a sucky one, but it’s her choice.
Photo via Heidi Isern
When talking to Hanna, I realized something that I had always missed about the word bitch. I missed looking at the instances in which women wanted to use the label as an identifier.
We all know that bitch was originally used to describe any female who is strong and assertive. The entire idea behind reclaiming it, once we got past the acronyms, was in demonstrating that being opinionated and decisive women is a good thing. And as women have continued to prove themselves in this area, I think the term “bitch” has lost a lot of its power. Not because we’re using the term to define ourselves, simply because there are so many amazingly strong women out there who have our respect. Strength and leadership are no longer a man’s game.
It feels like the women who are still constantly claiming to be bitches, putting the label on bumper stickers and the magnets on the fridge, aren’t really looking to be assertive or share their voice. They’re looking for an excuse to be rude. No, not “improper,” as if you’re failing at etiquette classes. Rude.
The only times I hear adult women proudly proclaim themselves as bitches is when they’re trying to excuse selfish or thoughtless behavior, behavior that would be inappropriate whether a man or a woman did it. The woman who verbally abuses every waiter to ever serve her a glass of water says, “If it makes me a bitch to demand good service, fine!” The one who tries to squeeze in front of people in the line at Starbucks because she’s super busy and says, “Yea, yea, I’m a bitch, but I need a venti skinny vanilla latte.” These women aren’t getting evil glares because they’re strong and assertive females. It’s because they’re rude.
The use of the word bitch to silence strong women sucks. But I don’t think that the answer to that problem is to call ourselves bitches. I don’t think it’s to make up new meanings for an old word. I think our best chance in continuing to diminish the power of the word bitch is just to prove it wrong. Show that women with opinions can have the same power and success as men. Encourage young girls to be decisive and trust their voices.
We don’t need to proudly proclaim that strong women are bitches. We just need to show how awesome strong women are.
Photo via FanPop