I have had a complicated relationship with the word, going through periods of rejecting its use, using it as a power-grab (“What’s up, bitches!”) and simply not thinking about it at all. Lately, hearing the word has made me cringe, and I’ve decided to explore why, and challenge myself and others to eliminate its use in the collective vocabulary, unless, of course, we’re talking about show dogs. Sheryl Sandberg’s assertion that we use “leadership skills” in place of “bossy” when describing confident girls and women stuck a chord with me. I’ve embraced it, and I call it out every time I hear the word bossy. “Leadership skills”, I correct. I want to do the same thing with “bitch” because it’s such a reductive, gross and negative way to refer to girls and women. When it’s used against boys and men, well, we’re essentially calling them female, as a put-down. I reject that. I want us to speak accurately about how others make us feel, rather than slapping on a label and dismissing each other. There is zero space for understanding or problem-solving in this one-slur system.
When we call someone a bitch, what is it we’re obscuring?
I took a social work class exploring the causes of domestic violence and how to proficiently work with clients caught in the terrible relationship wheel of power and control. During one lecture, the professor told us she’d realized that while researching and educating people about DV, she was frequently using violent speech in casual conversation. Stuff like, “I wanted to shoot myself for being so stupid” and “If he does that again I’m going to punch him in the face.” She was aghast at how indifferently she found herself and others using violent imagery to make a point. As an exercise, she challenged us to notice and alter our own speech patterns, moving them away from brutal language toward an accurate expression of feeling. The results of this awareness-building activity surprised me. I consider myself a non-violent person, yet there I was using vicious turns of phrase several times a day to illustrate my points. I want us to do this exercise with the word bitch.
A group of girlfriends came over to my place the other night to share a meal and celebrate our friendship. As we were chatting, one friend was describing a conflict at her job and said, “she was being such a bitch, and I couldn’t take it.” I interrupted, telling her I’ve banned the use of that word in my house. I asked her to elaborate on what it was about her colleague that caused her to reach for that word. It turned out the other woman was causing her extreme frustration because of her inability to listen or take responsibility for herself, causing my friend extra work. Bitch hardly took us to the root of the problem but taking time to use complete sentences did.