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Sunday 26 May 2019

Gender and language

The bitch is back

  • When it was announced that a season of films about difficult, sassy or villainous women was to be called Bitches, there was an outraged response
  • Some high-profile women such as Madonna and Beyoncé have used the B word either to reclaim it as a term of empowerment or to neuter its abusive power through irony
  • Centuries after it was first used to degrade women, does the true insult of the word lie in who uses it?

By Pamela Hutchinson

As she makes her final exit in the spiky Hollywood comedy The Women,  Joan Crawford says: “There’s a word for you ladies…” And if words could kill, the room she leaves behind with a single, imperious, backward glance, would resemble a battlefield littered with corpses.

The weapons drawn in the preceding two hours of all-female conflict in the 1939 film include spitefulness, gossip, snobbery, innuendo and jealousy. Homes have been wrecked and reunited, friendships forged and torn apart. But as Crawford, who plays an unscrupulous gold-digger called Crystal, continues her farewell, she checks her language, because the word she wants to use “isn’t used in polite society, outside of a kennel”.

Joan Crawford as the unscrupulous Crystal in ‘The Women’

Eighty years later, Crystal’s coyness may seem a little excessive. The word she avoided is used openly and widely today. It is peppered across movie scripts, song lyrics and novels, and appears unexpurgated on birthday cards and novelty coffee mugs. When Britney Spears announced her adult comeback with the word in her 2007 single Gimme More, it caused a ripple of risqué amusement. By 2013, the B word had almost become her trademark, as she instructed her listeners: “You better work, bitch”.

In some circles, it has been softened to the playfully twee “bish”, while even apparently doughty sewing and knitting groups advertise themselves as opportunities to “stitch and bitch” and the high-heeled and highlighted contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race greet each other with a cheery “Good morning, bitches!”

And yet, there are many who feel the word must be used only with extreme caution. Late last year, the British Film Institute (BFI) caused outrage when it announced a season called Bitches. The season features widely shown Hollywood movies from Gone With the Wind (1939) to Gone Girl (2014), but the feminist cinema journal Another Gaze objected to the moniker under which they were presented.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With the Wind’ features in the BFI’s Playing the Bitch season

An open letter, doubling as a petition, was launched. It argued that “the series uncritically parrots rather than questions the misogynist logics that inform so much Hollywood cinema”, and that the selection of films featuring “crazy, damaged, spiteful women” was perpetuating stereotypes, rather than subverting gender norms. “In this context, being called a bitch is insulting, not empowering.”

The BFI responded by saying that it would consider the signatories’ concerns, and the series, which starts in June, is now called Playing the Bitch. Season programmer Anna Bogutskaya, in an article on the BFI website, wrote that the intention of the season was to question whether female characters need always be likeable: “These women are not femme fatales, nor victims; they are something different: more powerful, sassier. I couldn’t find a better word for them than ‘bitch’.”

“I realise the word ‘bitch’ is offensive to many people,” continues Bogutskaya. “It has powerful connotations that vary depending on generational and cultural factors, but it is perhaps the most powerful gendered word for a powerful gendered character.”

The BFI season is not the first attempt to reclaim the word “bitch” or to redefine it as an empowering label for often vengeful women who do not fit the feminine mould of polite, submissive or people-pleasing. Arguably, Jackie Collins’s 1979 book The Bitch kickstarted a trend for sharply dressed anti-heroines exemplified by her sister Joan as Alexis in Dynasty and Fay Weldon’s 1983 revenge novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (the TV adaptation of which is playing in the BFI season).

The Bitch, which was a follow-up to Collins’s 1969 The Stud, is about Fontaine, a rich and powerful woman who is ruthless and manipulative in her pursuit of money and sex. Dynasty’s villainous Alexis was a glamorous older women given to frequent scheming against her many rivals – viewers would be treated to regular “catfight” scenes featuring her and her female co-stars.

The Weldon character is more complex: a plain and dowdy woman who embraces the “she-devil” label that her philandering husband gives her, by faking her own death and transforming herself with plastic surgery and other means into the image of his new lover. It is only when transformed into a “desirable” woman of means that she is able to take revenge on the man who oppressed her. In these examples, a bitch is a rich, beautiful and vicious white woman – whose nefarious behaviour would be far less shocking if only she were a man.

Joan Collins as the scheming Alexis Carrington in ‘Dynasty’

In 1998, Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, a collection of feminist essays about women including Hillary Clinton and Nicole Brown Simpson. In this frank and smart book, Wurtzel examined the late-Nineties media fascination with fetishising but punishing “bad girls” and reconciling her own susceptibility to the “allure of the bitch persona” with her desire for happiness and security. It was, she said, “a book about women who wrote and write their own operating manuals, written in the hope that the world may someday be a safer place for them, for us, for all women”.

The ultimate post-feminist icon Madonna has claimed the title for herself, but only while acknowledging that it is a pejorative term. “I’m tough, I’m ambitious, and I know exactly what I want,” she told People in 1992. “If that makes me a bitch, OK.” In 2015 she released a song called Bitch I’m Madonna. Ultimately she seems to be saying that her success allows her to rise above such insults, and also, implicitly, that bitch has never stopped being a slur.

Madonna in the video for her 2015 single ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’

Can it ever rise above the insult it carries to be reclaimed – to be a positive word that all woman can embrace? While followers of Clinton have reclaimed the label Trump gave her of a “nasty woman” and even Theresa May has asserted that she is “a bloody difficult woman”, the B word is a step too far for most women in the public eye.

To reflect on its original use before any attempt at reclamation, it was – and still is – a word that refers to animals. When applied to women, it becomes a gendered term of hate that reduces a woman to her sexual characteristics, while rendering her animalistic, less than human. It first became this insult in the 15th century, when it was used to refer to a woman who was apparently hypersexual, like a “dog in heat”. In the early 20th century, writers including Ernest Hemingway used it increasingly to describe aggressive or unsympathetic women. There remains no word for a man with the same dismissive sting.

As a critical term, it feels dangerously incomplete. Is “bitch” really a full or helpful description of female characters in novels or films? It certainly doesn’t begin to cover the complexity of a woman such as Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1941), so brilliantly written by Lillian Hellman and powerfully played by Bette Davis. Southern aristocrat Regina, denied the inheritance rights afforded to her brothers, and relying on her husband for a living, stoops lower even than her despicable brothers to secure her financial independence. Her acts are villainous, but there’s more to her story than mere spitefulness, and Davis’s charisma makes her an enduringly fascinating character.

Bette Davis (right) in ‘The Little Foxes’ was more complex than just a bitch

The same goes for Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating in the TV series How to Get Away with Murder, a lawyer who is outwardly confident but secretly vulnerable, and has more than might be expected in common with Regina. She is also featured in the Playing the Bitch season but this moniker likewise seems inadequate for her, and reductive, referring only to the outward expression of her character, without acknowledging the full complexity of her history, depth and motivation. For Keating, the performance of her “bitch” persona springs from the need to assert herself in a world dominated by white men as much as the desire to take revenge for private injustices.

Viola Davis in the TV drama ‘How to Get Away with Murder’

There are better, more accurate words for these women out there, words that are gender-neutral and less reductive: villain, killer, antihero, criminal. We could be using these instead of “bitch”, surely? Why celebrate a character only to shrink her down to the lowest common denominator?

Having said that, not all uses of the word in culture are equal, and the BFI season promises to interrogate the word and its associated meanings. There is a crucial difference between using the word in anger and using it with irony, and there are always gender and race privileges at play when we negotiate controversial language.

Perhaps only women have the right to use the word, but conversely many of us are happy not to exercise that right. As with other hate speech terms, can we use it to describe ourselves but still be offended if it is used thoughtlessly against us? There is a difference between stars such as Madonna or Missy Elliott writing it into their lyrics to assert their independence and their refusal to play by the rules, and notoriously misogynistic usages such as Dr Dre rapping “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks”. Could its association with wealthy white women make it a more empowering word for a woman of colour to adopt, or does its animalistic connotation undo that air of privilege?

‘I’m a total fucking bitch,’ says Linda Fiorentino in ‘The Last Seduction’

What about hearing Linda Fiorentino proudly say “I’m a total fucking bitch” in The Last Seduction – dialogue written and directed by men? To complicate things further, what about a woman calling another woman a bitch? Is she reclaiming hate speech, or perpetuating misogyny and division?

The women who genuinely feel emboldened by adopting a word that has been used to slap them down may be ahead of the crowd here. Since it began as a zine in 1996, Bitch magazine, a US-based “feminist response to pop culture”, has stood by the idea that if you own and understand a word, it can’t defeat you. “We stand firm in our belief that if we choose to re-appropriate the word, it loses its power to hurt us,” runs a text on their website. “And if we can get people thinking about what they’re saying when they use the word, that’s even better.”

For many of us, gendered insults will only lose their strength when gender-based oppression subsides. Bitch is in purgatory, not unsayable, but still unpalatably harsh, and as the magazine editors remind us, it should never be used lightly. There are some precious pop culture moments when the full legacy of the word, and its power, can enrich a text. Most memorably, perhaps, the moment when Sigourney Weaver, fired by maternal protectiveness, snaps “get away from her, you bitch!” in 1986’s Aliens. No other word can convey the anger she needs to summon in order to make a kill; it’s the verbal equivalent of the giant mechanised suit she is wearing.

Sigourney Weaver uses the B word to powerful effect in ‘Aliens’

Beyoncé was prescient when she sang in her controversial 2016 single Formation: “You know you’re that bitch when you cause all this conversation.” There’s no denying the word has power, but that power has not yet been tamed. We shouldn’t run shy of language, but if we deny words their power to shock and wound, we also deny their capacity to soothe and uplift. If we don’t empower our words, how can we empower ourselves?

* Tortoise is holding a breakfast ThinkIn with the BFI on 17 June 2019 entitled ‘Should screen women have to be likeable?’. Details are here

* The BFI season ‘Playing the Bitch’ is running 1-30 June at the Southbank, London. 

Further reading

Bitch is Elizabeth Wurtzel’s brilliant feminist tract that analyses centuries of transgressive, shocking, manipulative or wicked behaviour by women from Delilah onwards. If women were really a threat to patriarchy, she writes: “Gennifer Flowers would be sitting behind the desk of the Oval Office and Bill Clinton would be a lounge singer in the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock.”

Bitch Media, an American website and magazine that sprang from the zine culture of the mid-1990s is independent, fiercely feminist, intersectional and often very funny – as well as determined to reclaim the B word. You can catch its sharp, engaged coverage of culture, politics and activism in print, online and on podcasts.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?, directed by Marielle Heller, was one of the best films of last year. It presented an enjoyably unlikeable heroine in the shape of Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy), a struggling writer with an uncanny ability to channel the acerbic wits of yesteryear, but when she misbehaves in person she is told firmly: “As an unknown, you can’t be such a bitch.”

Roxane Gay’s breakthrough essay collection, Bad Feminist, details her feminist journey in thoughtful, honest and compelling detail. Her exploration of modern womanhood and misogyny includes a mention of rappers who “use the word bitch like punctuation”. As she says: “We have all manner of music glorifying the degradation of women, and dammit, that music is catchy so I often find myself singing along as my very being is diminished.”

Pamela Hutchinson


Pamela Hutchinson is a writer, critic and film historian. She is the author of the BFI Film Classic on Pandora’s Box and the editor of 30-Second Cinema.