Who You Calling a B–?

bitchBy Paola Hernandez

I think every woman has heard it at least once in her life. “Bitch!” Whether or not we were “acting like one.” Men say it. Women say it. I’ve said it more than once.

It starts early.

The first time I heard it was on the school playground, waiting my turn at the monkey bars. A girl cut me in line, so I told her I was next. She called me a “bitch” and walked away.

I was surprised. I knew it was a “bad word” but I didn’t know what I had done wrong or “bitchy.” I would come to wonder, many more times, why I was called that name.

Usually, it was when I stood up for myself. Sometimes it targeted my reproductive system: “Why are you being such a bitch? Are you on your period?” Because I can’t be angry or upset unless it’s that, right? Other times the word ridiculed me just for being female. Maybe that’s why our reproductive system seems especially “bitchy” — it defines us as women. 

One of my friends had a boyfriend who constantly called her “my bitch.” Erasing all respect, she became some sort of defiled property as the boyfriend trumpeted his superiority over her, and his control of her. With boyfriends like that, who needs enemies?

On the other hand, I’ve heard guys call another guy “a little bitch” just because he wasn’t being what they considered a “real man.” What better way to question manhood than by calling him a demeaned woman?

bitch tina feySo some women are taking the word back, redefining and using it in empowered ways so that it can’t be used to hurt them. Bitch comes to mean, “I’m powerful and proud of it.” Successful women leaders may be called bitches to bring them down a notch, but as Tina Fey says, “Bitches get shit done.”

I’m not sure whether the strategy works. Everyone grows use to hearing it, whether it’s women pridefully identifying themselves or guys saying, “That bitch over there” instead of, “That girl over there.” It’s become a common way to refer to women on college campuses.

In Mean Girls Tina Fey says “Calling each other sluts and whores just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores.” I wonder if it’s the same thing here.

When women are routinely called bitches does it unconsciously sink into our brains, normalizing our degradation? Or does the meaning shift to something more powerful? Or does overuse weaken the word and render it meaningless?

Time will tell.

One of my students wrote this and gave permission to post it.

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
That’s Bitchin, But Life’s A Bitch
 “Cock” vs “Down There”
Sex: Who Gets Screwed?

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on March 7, 2014, in feminism, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 49 Comments.

  1. I understand that the term “Yankee” was originally used as a derogatory identifier for “those colonial hicks” – until the “hicks” took it for themselves, embraced it through the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and beat those imperial Brits in the American Revolution. It may be on that level that women come to accept the term (which I’ve heard is an acronym for Boys, I’m Taking Charge Here), but at my age hearing young men refer to all young women with this term just feels like pure disrespect and a dismissal of their individuality. We’ll have to wait to see how my grandkids feel about it.

  2. I didn’t know women were taking this back as a word of empowerment. In one sense it’s all in the meaning- and ya, I guess there is power in turning a derogatory word into a power word. I don’t think though this used to be a power word before, did it? The word “witch” I know used to be used to refer to healer women, in which case that makes more sense to me to take that word back. But if that is what some women are doing, then more power to them. Who says we can’t make words mean something different.

    • A number of words that have been used to degrade a group of people have been taken back by them as a power word so that the word loses its negative connotation and can’t be used against them, including bitch, queer, and the N-word. Women, gays and blacks have all used those words in powerful ways.

      As my student notes, it can be hard to tell how well this strategy works.

  3. This is a term that I ashamedly say I use only when it is a derogatory way. Looking at the definition of the word, it is about a female dog in heat. So we have taken this term and transformed it to be evidence of why a woman is acting a certain way. Patriarchal poisonous pedagogy at its utmost.
    We have culturally taken words and made them into slang terms, almost always in a derogatory way, to make it so we dont have to communicate what we are truly thinking and feeling.
    I am as guilty as the next person and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. Thanks for making me think and be more responsible.

  4. To me, it’s okay to take the word Bitch back and make it mean something powerful, assuming it’s taboo for anyone who is not a woman to say it (sort of like the black community and LGBT community have ‘taken back’ various slurs). That said, I don’t approve of the use of those words, or any of the others. I won’t be saying it. I think demeaning words like these should be erased from the language. They have to painful of a history.

  5. Well it’s something that just has been assigned by genders. It’s name calling, but people call others fat, stupid, etc, and those are not nice, but that happens. Some jokingly call each other names. Yes, but men get called assholes and pricks, instead of bitch, though I don’t know if that’s any better. A lot of guys don’t usually call a girl my bitch or make a reference to a girl that way. Usually a guy isn’t going to call a girl a bitch to her face, unless he knows her and she is being “sassy”, but on the same token, that girl is probably more likely to tell him that he’s being a dick, dick head, prick or asshole if he’s being a jerk. Or the only other time is if the woman is truly being a bitch as in being very rude, snotty, very moody, etc and being called out on it.

    • I don’t think we should call anyone names, At all.

      But notice how she says this: Usually, it was when I stood up for myself.

      It’s a word that is often associated with putting women down who stand up for themselves or, contradictorily, suggesting that someone is submissive like a woman. It’s telling us about how women should behave: that women should be submissive.

      Additionally, Women as a class are starting to be called bitches. Men as a class aren’t being called assholes.

  6. Thoughtful essay.

    I remember reading once that women involved in dog breeding and showing call each other bitches in a non-pejorative way. It’s all about context, I expect.

  7. I occasionally use this word when I come across a really nasty woman. My old boss was a bitch. She was, she was mean and nasty and not a particularly good manager. If I meet a nasty, horrible man, then I call him a prick, and I use neither lightly.
    That said, I hate when people refer to women in general as ‘bitches’. I recently told off a young fella who was telling me all about the ‘bitches’ at a party he went to. I put on my stern, adult voice and said ” you shouldn’t call women and girls bitches” he said ” everyone does.” and I told him just because his mates cal women bitches doesn’t mean he has to be horrible as well.

  8. “Usually, it was when I stood up for myself. Sometimes it targeted my reproductive system: “Why are you being such a bitch? Are you on your period?” Because I can’t be angry or upset unless it’s that, right? ”

    “Bitch comes to mean, “I’m powerful and proud of it.”

    If someone is saying, why are you being such a bitch. It’s probably more than her standing up for herself. And she was probably overeacting and being very moody over something goofy or stupid, or overly defensive. That’s the problem, I know some girls and I guarentee some probably use the, “they call me a bitch because I stand up for myself or try to knock me down because of my power” or something delusional. The reality is some thinking that way don’t realize it’s actually because they are divas and drama queens and just really moody and sassy, particularly being rude or “bitchy” over stupid stuff or trivial stuff and just bring more drama that there should be or have been.

    • Well, Male leaders tend to be seen as good leaders whereas female leaders are more likely to be seen as A bitch. And the example this Young woman gives of the first time she heard the term was when she stood up for herself at the monkey bars.

      Also, when a guy calls a girl, “my bitch” or when he calls a guy the same thing he is saying that they are submissive–the way women are “supposed to be”

  9. Good that it was taken on powerful note.. Bt still i dont like such words! But if it works for few its good!

  10. I cannot remember the first time that I heard the word bitch like the author does, but I do remember it being used a derogatory word used towards women by both men and women. I have never called a girl a bitch to her face because I feel like if you are going to say it to someone, you better mean it. Even though it is not a nice word, some people are not nice and might deserve to be called a bitch. Regardless of the situation, calling anyone any derogatory name should not be said just because it can be and just because everyone says it is okay to. The word bitch has become okay to say whether it is for a good or bad reason, which is not okay. The problem can start being solved by women not allowing women to take being called a bitch by men or women whether it is for a good or bad reason. I am not going to lie, but knowing that women who “get shit done” as Tina Fey says, are bitches, is kind of empowering. On the other hand, being called a bitch is not something that I would like and for that reason, I think that being called bitch needs to stop.

  11. Mei Yan Anson Lui

    It is an interesting post as it is representing what I thought and observed nowadays. I am an international student who is not used to American culture. However, I knew that the word “Bitch” is a bad word and wondering why I heard it everywhere here. I am curious about why a guy friend called his girl friend as bitch? I understand it gradually after living here for three years. One of the reason why is like what you say, showing men’s superiority. Another one is it is just a nickname or a fun calling to show their close relationship, not only couples, but also friends. Maybe it is a way of showing how good a relationship is, however, it is better to make sure that the one you are calling as “Bitch” understand what is the true meaning. Otherwise, it may hurt somebody and the relationship.

    • The boyfriend is basically bragging to others that his girlfriend is under his control. I really doubt this reflects a good relationship. Some women put up with abusive men for a while. On average, they stay about eight years.

  12. I was first introduced to the word “bitch” in middle school. Didn’t know the meaning of it, I just knew it was a bad word. You’re right, it’s almost inevitable to be called a bitch. Being a reliable friend and all of a sudden you’re considered “His/Her Bitch”. There are a ton of meanings and applications with this word, along with other bad words such as sh*t, f*ck, ass, n*gga and I feel like it’s because people try to create different meanings to it so the actual meaning of the word will not offend them. I believe the word bitch is going to lose its original meaning and end up into something else. I don’t think it’ll be a noun to describe someone who’s powerful, but maybe it will become just like any other word.

  13. I’ve come across a lot of conflicting ideas with using this word. Unfortunately, I catch myself using this word in both derogatory manners and using it with power for us women. But honestly, I believe the word has a lot more of a derogatory meaning than anything else. I consider myself someone who believes in the full respect of a women, and how we should not be de valued in society, yet I find myself using this word more than often in my everyday vocabulary. Even if I do not mean harm, I think I am internalizing the idea that women are “bitches” as if it was an alternative for the word women or girls. Looking in on this from the outside, I see the hypocrisy in my actions, and if women want to move forward and out of this double bind in society, we should definitely eliminate the word Bitch. I do not think it’s fair that if a women is powerful, she’s a “bitch” and it’s also socially acceptable for a man to call their girlfriend “their bitch,” implying they’re not as powerful. Makes no sense. I’m anti Bitch.

  14. I feel that in time it will lose meaning. If you say any word enough it eventually loses its meaning. But I agree that currently women are taking this word and making it powerful. They are taking control on how women are perceived. But any word can be a bad word, it just depends on you and how you take it. I chose to not let theses words hurt me, therfore they are not degrading to me because I don’t give them that power. I used to get teased in school and my mom would tell me to ignore it, but my dad would tell me to stick up for myself. I chose to ignore it. And eventually the teasing stopped. But I feel like the real question is “Do we ignore it and hope it stops or stick up for ourselves?”

    • I think we should stick up for ourselves.

      One study that I should write about showed that men like women better when they stick up for themselves when faced with sexism.

  15. I definitely don’t like that word being used towards anyone. However, I think it’ll stick if people keep using it for those reasons whether it’s to call someone nasty. I’ve never thought of it as a word of empowerment for women, but rather a degradation towards them. Majority of people use it to degrade the person who they call it to. Even though Tina Fey mentioning “Bitches get shit done.” I think she meant it to empower women, but also not to take the shit we get from being called one.

  16. You see this? http://celebrity.yahoo.com/blogs/celeb-news/jennifer-garner-beyonce-jane-lynch-and-more-urge-ban-on-bossy-130214629.html

    I think this is stupid and bossy actually. People can say what they want, the world is not so nice, but girls need to be taught to like themselves, not having others not say stuff because it could hurt girl’s feelings. Unfortunately, society can be tough, and people need a thick skin. Boy’s get called fat, losers, gay, etc on the playground and girls can be mean to other girls too. It’s not ok, but good parents can build their children up and teach them to stand up for themselves. Plus boy’s who are bossy are not liked either. I don’t like anyone male or female bossy. There is a difference between leader and bossy.

  17. As far as I am concerned, I have never been called “bitch” by any man. However, from my friends’ experiences, I see it as a negative word. I think that there is usually nothing positive in it. The few times that I have seen one of my friends be called a “bitch”, it was not empowering at all: It usually happen when they hurt their boyfriends or when they break up with them or vice-versa. I guess it is their way of expressing their sadness or madness. Nevertheless, some of my girl friends sometimes call me bitch, but I know that it does not have a negative connotation; it shows their kindness toward me. I have also seen some partners call each other “bitch”. In those cases, the word “bitch” can be taken again as a kind and acceptable word. So, I believe that it depends on one’s personality (each person can take/interpret the same word differently), and it also depends on the context in which the word is used.

  18. Well, the root’s of this word or expression come from an insult given to strong minded women, however they way ladies use it lately does empower them because they are taking its meaning to a new level. For example, I am from Guatemala and during my childhood, the word Indian or Mayan was an insult, nonetheless this world has become a sing of respect because the new generation is embracing the Mayan culture like none of the previous generations did. In that respect, I believe that the word B– is empowering women since it is being used to make a stand against an all white male system and this changes are necessary to change this system that fails to guaranteed the same opportunities to all races and both genders.

  19. Interesting post. I think in today’s world calling people the “B” word show’s that we live in a world where people embrace negativity and degrading other people. In my opinion I don’t like it when I hear someone use the word “bitch” to put someone down because to me it shows lack of respect and lack of compassion.

  20. Amanda Tarango

    I’ve seen women use this word to empower themselves saying that are a big bad bitch, however when someone calls you a bitch it hurts. It doesn’t matter If it is a friend or a stranger. I think women try to shake it and turn it in to an empowering word instead of an insult. Like when I was younger I use to hear girls say a bitch is a dog a dog barks bark grows on trees trees are apart of nature and nature is beautiful. Thank you for calling me beautiful. Anyway, being called a bitch is not okay, and I don’t think you should call yourself a bitch because that just makes it okay for others to degrade you.

  21. I feel that we girls don’t give ourselves our self respect sometimes or it could be that we don’t Stand up for each other being called a bitch can Or if we are called a bad bitch meaning that you are hard working and accomplishing goals or just being hot then girls sometimes take that as a compliment . I think that we women shouldn’t be called a bitch at all no one has the right to put one another down and we tend to make it a habit of being okay when it really isn’t until we see little kids calling each other bad names maybe we won’t understand how disrespectful and biast our society has come .I truly do believe that women are all hardworking and amazing in there own ways we should be the last ones being called a bitch ,hoe , slut etc . If we don’t call guys bad names why can they ?? We shouldn’t even allow them to say she’s a bad bitch you don’t hear women saying oh he’s a bad dick it just doesn’t seem right in many ways until we respect ourselves then I believe we will all be able to respect eacother .

  22. I was of the impression Bitch referred to a female dog who was defending her young and by extension, defending herself. It is usually when a woman is standing strong, often in defense of herself, that the word bitch is used. I don’t recall hearing it used in reference to a moody woman. The word more likely to be used is ‘grouch,’ or ‘she’s on cloud nine,’ or a word more descriptive of the particular mood. Those who use the ‘b’ word apparently intend to keep women from rightfully standing up to protect themselves and/or their children. In that light, bitch is a very positive word. Men who rightfully stand up for themselves are frequently admired, rather than called names to attempt to degrade them. A man who defends his sister, wife, child or girlfriend is not called a prick, but a woman who defends her brother, husband, child, or boyfriend is likely to be called a bitch.

  23. I think that the word “bitch” in a way is similar to the n-word in the way it is used. at first it was considered a bad word, now people take pride in it. it is a strange thing really in my opinion. its almost like a play on words. I honestly don’t see the point in it, but that is just me.

  24. I told my classmates, who were in the chat-room (online) discussing with me about our nutrition class project, that I put the wrong due date for an assignment for WMN05 class after checking e-mail (OMG!!). They laughed at me and called me a “silly BITCH”. At first, I was a little bit ma when hearing the word “Bitch”, however, I could comfort myself and was confident to tell them that I know I am a cute silly girl then. I also sent them this link to read and to know more about the opposite meaning of the B-word. Only one guy in the group agreed with this and admitted that women in this age are more independent, confident and powerful. He said calling women by B-word doesn’t mean they are bad at all, but sometimes people use this word to the woman who is attractive to them or who is close to them as friends. In my opinion, B-word has been used to demean for centuries, and it might not easy to get everyone into the use of the word positively. I didn’t even know about this good meaning of the word since I’ve been studying in this class. I think knowing about the good side of this word make me feel no more worried and be stronger when hearing “bitch” from others. My classmates are really interested in some of good writing on broadblogs. I will share more about this website to my friends who don’t know much about woman’s studies.
    Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for sharing. I’m glad at least one of them got it.

      When you live in a culture that makes you see the world in one way, it can be hard to see in any other way, Even when it is brought to your attention.

      So there are people who behave in racist ways and sexist ways, but don’t realize they are because it seems natural and normal. Unfortunately, we all do it. We all need to work to overcome our unconscious biases, Including me.

      For more on this topic, see this post:

      Think You’re Not Racist?
      http://broadblogs.com/2011/02/07/think-you%e2%80%99re-not-racist/

  25. Women trying to take back the word ‘bitch’ seems to follow what other cultures have done, whether everyone agrees with derogatory words being used to empower or just being desensitized to its usage. The black community has done this with the ‘N word’ & the gay community has done the same with words like ‘fag’ & ‘dyke’. In these groups, people use those words on a constant basis. Not everyone does, some still find it demeaning or harsh to use such words considering what they used to mean.

    I’ve learned over the years to not let simple insults or derogatory words upset me. If they cannot insult me intelligently, I don’t feel getting upset over the use of certain words to be worth my time. That’s not the case for everyone though & I will stick up for someone who is disturbed or hurt by it. I think it’s a smart move to take the power from such words & turn it into something empowering instead of demeaning.

  26. I think the first time I experienced being called a “bitch” was when I was young, probably in about the third or fourth grade. My younger brother by two years called me it. I do not know why he did, but I knew it was a bad word and I told my grandpa that he called me it. I remember my grandpa saying “its not a bad word. it just means a female dog.” Well knowing what it meant did not make me feel any better. I mean I was, being called a dog! I searched the word “bitch” in google and it says that it is a “female dog, wolf, fox or otter” and it can be used to “express displeasure; grumble.” So basically The word “bitch” is not a bad word, in one way being used as “ugh you are being such a bitch!” just means someone is being a female dog, wolf, fox or otter. Dogs are seen as “a man’s best friend”, people can be afraid of wolfs, but can be very interesting, foxes do not seem all that scary to me, and otters; I mean who does not love otters? I see otters just floating around on their back relaxing. If the word “bitch” is being used as “you are being really bitchy” it just means that someone is complaining. Well okay, pretty much everyone in the human race complains about something. I do not see why people using the word “bitch” is such a big deal. I mean yes I had a problem with it before, but once I learned what it was and as I matured, it did not really phase me anymore. That might be because it is basically used in every day vocabulary now, but it is also because when you look at the meanings of it and break it down and see it the way I do, it does not seem that big of a deal anymore. It is basically just a slang word. Other words like “whore” and “slut” are more powerful because what they mean are not something someone wants to be called. “Whore” means a prostitute and “slut” means a woman who has more than one sexual partner. No one wants to be called those words when they are not actually one, but even if they were, it is none of anyone’s business and people still should not call them that. When you put “whore” and “slut” next to “bitch”, “bitch” does not seem that big of a deal.

    • Totally agreed..but girls should stop calling each other bitch too..that would help us to stop :) , !! Whore and slut can’t have any positive connotation for sure,but since bitch is the dog female..it’s less frustrating I think..but still inappropriate as you said

  27. I think the word bitch is used so commonly as a joke or a nickname among friends that to girls sometimes it loses it’s demeaning connotation. It’s definitely a word that’s being thrown around without any consideration. I think it’s true that because girl’s use it so thoughtlessly it makes the guy’s think it’s okay to use it. However I think there’s definitely different reactions towards when a girls uses it and when a guy uses it. When females use the word most people generally don’t care as much. While a guy uses it it’s consider demeaning and he’s a jerk for using that word. Perhaps female as a whole in a way are pretty hypocritical about the word bitch. It’s something we can use but not a word the male can use towards us.

  28. I think that the connotation of “bitch” depends on many things..!nowadays men can say “that’s a nice bitch bro”..just to say that this girl is nice..! So bitch = woman..period!besides,for a girl who trynna be noticed by dressing too sexy,talking loudly or being rude when a guy try to talk to her..result “that one is a bad bitch bro”bitch = disrespectful girl.. !we as men tend to say bitch just to mean women,even tho women might misinterpret because we also call bitch a woman who doesn’t show self-esteem..anyway, sorry ladies .. ! Like when girls call each other bitch.. just means girl..doesn’t it?

  29. Shahin Larhnimi

    I actually had a discussion about this topic today, about women being referred as bitches. The word is nothing special today, it feels like everyone calls each other bitches daily, it can either be degrading or being said as a joke. We do live in a mainstream society, the internet and the media has a huge impact on our lives. I think that the constant degradation of women in music is affecting teenagers and older people in a negative way. I mean, hip hop and rap is basically about “bitches”, “hoes” and “sluts”. When artist use words in their lyrics they automatically makes it acceptable and young men or women feel that if they use it in their music then there is no harm with them using it too. I take the word “bitch” more seriously than other insults because I feel that is being used as a piece of my identity, what I am as a person and a woman. It can be used against you and it does feel more personal. It also has the assumption that a particular label can make you more worthy of humiliation. What would be the meaning of an insult if they don’t denigrate someone, they have to say something that is based on an identity insult. Dumb doesn’t feel that it has a powerful meaning behind it. The intention is to make someone angry so you need a word that really matters, something that will hit someone where it hurts. The purpose is to hurt, shame, undermine, or humiliate. The people that use the word “bitch want to cut someone else down to a size, make them feel less than what they are, they want to remind the other person where they really belong. Aside from that, I hear myself using the word too, not to humiliate the person but just in a joking manner.

  30. I don’t know if its just like this for people my age (in early 20’s) or its just me but the word “bitch” doesn’t really phase me. Its used so much that the word lost its connotation.I don’t fell like its degrading in anyway. After reading some of the comments they make it seem like its mostly men using it but i notice that girls use it just as much. People can call guy bitches just as much as they call a girl a bitch that I don’t fell like its a derogatory word just towards female. I say bitch all the time and i’m also called a bitch all the time and to be honest im not offended by it cause people say it for everything. So when I say it I don’t say it with the intention of degrading a female because I am one it just shows how people don’t really think about what the word really means and its been given a different meaning to it its no longer derogatory towards women at least that’s how i see i.

  31. I think “bitch” has become one of those words that people constantly say and don’t even realize what they are saying. This word has become part of everyday life for most people; I know I find myself saying it sometimes for no reason. I do agree that some women have found being called a bitch empowering; some women think being called this word means they are doing something right and it makes them strong. The reality is that it’s so common to be called a bitch that I too wonder if the word has become meaningless. It used to be an insult to be called a bitch, now I hear women talk to each other and while joking around, laughing, etc., they yell out the word bitch. Men see it as a way to “insult” another man for not being “manly” because a bitch to them defines what a woman may be and yes, we always relate the word bitch to things like mood swings, menstruation, etc., even as women. I think that this word has become so common that it’s not really an insult or derogatory towards women.

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