How the ‘B-word’ is used to keep women down

Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

Story highlights

Peggy Drexler: Why is retrograde B-word for women still bandied about -- even by women?

Concept of "resting bitch face" is an appalling example, she writes

She says serious women get ugly label; women must address tyranny of "bitch" culture

CNN  — 

Question: When aren’t women total bitches?

For a highly evolved society so intrigued by and invested in progress, it’s funny how such an archaic word – demeaning women since as early as the 15th century—has managed to stick around.

Sure, feminists, unwittingly and otherwise, have attempted to reclaim it – bad bitches, rad bitches, bitchin’ bitches; and of course, there’s Kanye West’s ode to his wife in the song “Perfect Bitch,” which is loving, I think. But when it comes down to its most common usage, the word has not escaped its derogatory origins, ultimately seeking to keep women down by condemning, basically, that which makes them women.

Peggy Drexler

A recent New York Times article alerting readers to what has been dubbed “resting bitch face” – that is, the face women make when they’re not consciously making any face at all – is a good, or at least relevant, example. The article mentions actresses January Jones, Anna Kendrick and Kristen Stewart, among the celebrities who are implicated (a slew of pop-culture and entertainment sites online devote pages of pictures to RBF). But you don’t have to be famous to have people (mainly men) call you out for not having a smile painted on at all times.

RBF is what happens when a woman’s face is at ease. Perhaps she’s deep in thought. Perhaps she’s thinking about nothing in particular. Either way, she’s not smiling, not over-the-top effusive, and consequently her mood is perceived to be angry or irritated. She is perceived to be the B-word. And not a pretty, perfect one: RBF is not a compliment.

RBFs, in fact, are unattractive and unappealing. And, well, isn’t a woman’s whole purpose for being to be appealing? It must be. Because when she’s not, in comes the B-word. (Being labeled as having RBF isn’t even just unpleasant and insulting, though; according to The New York Times, it might even derail a woman’s career. At least one woman in the piece said she had been told by a mentor that her RBF was setting her back at work.)

Consider also the phenomenon of the “basic bitch,” a term used to describe a woman whose tastes are unsophisticated and “basic”: She likes the mall, long hair, manicures, skinny margaritas, sentimentality and spending time with friends (except those friends who are bitchy). The basic B-word woman is also criticized for her appearance, though not because she doesn’t try – she is sure to make it to the gym at least once a day – but because she tries too hard, and in all the wrong ways. She is also considered too into femininity. This woman who is the B-word isn’t called that because she’s irritated or angry; it is because she’s hardly worth knowing.

More questions: Would a guy whose tastes are so mainstream be called basic? What’s the male equivalent for “resting bitch face”?

There is no male equivalent, and that’s because the B-word is an exclusively female privilege, one that serves to send the message to women that there’s nothing you can do with your face, clothes, voice or spare time that can’t in some way be portrayed as wrong. Even using the word lightly endorses the idea that ours is a culture dominated by men, even still. Men who hold the power, men who determine what’s cool. It gives people permission to judge others, women mostly, on how they look, what they wear, how their voices sound and a variety of other superficial qualities.

At the same time, we can’t simply fault men for perpetuating the idea that women are, at the end of the day, mainly worth their weight in hairspray. As both the RBF and “basic bitch” phenomena prove, women are doing just as much of the name-calling as men.

Naomi Wolf’s recent article about the problem with “vocal fry,” a pattern of speech that sounds like a guttural growl, might have appeared to encourage women to use their real voices as a way toward empowerment. But in describing women who have it as sounding like “a Valley girl might sound if she had been shouting herself hoarse at a rave all night,” Wolf is no less demeaning than the vocal pattern she is rallying against.

Her argument that women should avoid using vocal fry to avoid being disregarded or disrespected puts the blame (for being disregarded and disrespected) squarely on women.

What about the argument that the B-word is just a surface expression of a bigger issue – that people should stop disregarding and disrespecting women, period?

Both genders are making attempts every day to change the conversation on this front, but it’s not a conversation we can have too many times. A recent video featuring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, filmed to promote the pair’s new movie, “American Ultra,” calls out gender stereotypes in Hollywood by having the two ask each other the sorts of questions each gets asked most. Eisenberg’s questions tend to be about acting; Stewart’s are about her hair, her relationships and whether or not she’s pregnant.

Indeed, one easy way to tell if there’s gender bias at play in any situation is to pretend you’re dealing with the opposite gender. And as Stewart points out, it’s no longer just the responsibility of the patriarchy to stop acting a certain way. Women need to be in on the conversation.

A few weeks ago, during a Q&A session she conducted on Facebook, Hillary Clinton was asked about the pressures women feel to spend money to achieve a certain physical appearance. In skirting around the answer – “It’s a daily challenge,” she responded, without actually acknowledging the inequity of it all. “I do the best I can, and as you may have noticed, some days are better than others!” – she performed a disservice. The first step in eradicating the tyranny of the B-word culture, after all, is to address it head on.

Some might say, “like a boss bitch.” But I won’t. Not anymore.

Join us on
Read CNNOpinion’s Flipboard magazine.