Allison Yarrow: Today, the bitch reclamation is best supported through humor, and women's assertions that using the word is their choice
But let's not forget that sanctioning bitch's use now to describe any woman is to insult based on her sex
Editor’s Note: Allison Yarrow is a journalist and the author of “90s B*tch,” the feminist history of the 1990s. This article contains language that some may find offensive. The opinions expressed are those of the author.
Last weekend, America heard lewd, predatory comments about kissing and groping women straight from the Republican presidential candidate’s mouth.
“I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there,” Donald Trump says of a married woman who rejected his sexual advances, in a video released by the Washington Post.
While plenty of his words are coarser than this, with a number of news outlets saying that they describe sexual assault, “bitch” stood out to me because it’s the very same slur his supporters have chanted, referring to his opponent Hillary Clinton. It also appears on the T-shirts they wear at his rallies.
Trump’s supporters have long flung this epithet at Clinton. But lately, something curious is happening: her supporters are beginning to agree.
Clinton is “the bitch America needs” according to Bitch Media founder, Andi Zeisler, writing in the New York Times. A Clinton presidency would usher in a welcome “era of the bitch,” declared the Atlantic. The Hillary texting meme – immortalized by photos of the secretary of state gazing at her smartphone in dark shades – is the Internet’s proof that she’s a boss bitch.
Former magazine editor and media mogul Tina Brown told the BBC that young female voters would choose Clinton if she owned “her inner bitch.”
Refinery 29 advocated that Clinton needs “boast bitches” – the equivalent of “female hype men” – to boost her cred.
Power or oppression?
Unfortunately, this reclamation of the “bitch” tag to empower Hillary Clinton erases the word’s long and odious history of oppressing women. Trump is surely not the first to use it this way.
Chances are you know a version of the bitch’s origin story. An archaic term for female dog, “bitch” shapeshifted into an aspersion cast at women. But the concept of bitch as an insult hurled at women may have predated the word itself. Greeks labeled a woman who begged for sex a dog. Etymologists have connected the word to “suppressing images of women as powerful and divine” by “equating them with depraved beasts.”
A dictionary called “Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present”codified the sobriquet in 1811 as “the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of a whore.” The capitalistic context was that the latter was more commendable for earning money for sex, while a bitch would give it away for free.
“Bitch” tends to appear in the lexicon when women are gaining power in the public sphere. Its usage spiked after women’s suffrage, and by the 1930s the insult had overtaken the zoological term. Second wave feminism stoked so much bitch-calling that a reclamation ensued. Jo Freeman’s 1968 text, “The Bitch Manifesto,” is perhaps the first to define the term from a feminist perspective and acknowledge its goals to dehumanize women.
The word has long permeated music from the tongues of distinguished artists. Jazz great Jelly Roll Morton said he sang smutty songs about women to appear tough because he played piano, which was considered to be a women’s instrument at the time. Elton John and the Rolling Stones called on bitches in ‘70s rock anthems. Grandfathers of hip hop Public Enemy and N.W.A employed “bitch” to craft their hard, streetwise personas with songs like “Sophisticated Bitch” and “Bitch Iz a Bitch.” From turn of the century jazz to ‘70s rock and ‘90s hip hop, male artists scorned women to prove their masculinity using “bitch.”
Hillary Clinton has been called a bitch for at least the past 25 years, when she debuted on the national stage beside her presidential contender husband. Two 1992 campaign incidents shaped this depiction.
First, she declared on “60 Minutes” that she would not stand by her man like Tammy Wynette after he was accused of a twelve-year affair with a nightclub singer. Then, the media latched on to part of a sound bite in which she said that rather than stay home and bake cookies and have teas, she chose to fulfill her career.
“I could tell she was being seen as a bitch,” Tabitha Soren, the MTV news reporter who covered the 1992 election, told me. “But it didn’t bother me because I thought she’d be seen as intelligent as she was bitchy.”
But bitchy won out over competence. And soon, the term was invoked for Clinton without even saying it. “Vanity Fair” published a poll that year that found 44% of respondents thought Clinton was “power-hungry,” while 28% agreed she was “a wife who dominates her husband.”
Today, the so-called bitch reclamation is best supported through humor, and women’s assertions that using the word is their choice. It is typified by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “Bitches Get Stuff Done.” It lives in the application of “boss bitch” to connote female power, and the “basic bitch,” skewered for consumer choices that connote femininity, like a certain gourd-flavored latté, or movies starring Ryan Gosling. Plenty of women call themselves or their friends “bitch” with good intentions. They mean it to be empowering.
’Reclaiming “bitch” will always be fraught’
But let’s not forget that sanctioning bitch’s use now to describe any woman – especially Hillary Clinton – is to insult a woman based on her sex. Its history reeks of maligning women to keep them in their place; that is, to keep them down. It isn’t a name we call men.
During the NBA finals when Draymond Green punched LeBron James in the crotch, that irked him less than when Green called him a bitch. If it’s a nonstarter for King James, why is it OK for a presidential candidate? Because she’s a woman, of course.
Reclaiming “bitch” will always be fraught because it wasn’t a word women chose to describe themselves to begin with. And after a revelation like the Trump tape, the word feels even more laced with hate.
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Even as a major party presidential nominee, Clinton is still undercut by the very same sexism that was deployed so effectively to subvert and belittle her in the ‘90s. Make no mistake: embracing that sexism today won’t make it go away.