I heard it again today. The young woman who said it seemed attractive and intelligent. She was surrounded by friends and had a vibrant smile on her face. I could see the spark in her eyes from a block away. I could also hear from a block away when she laughed aloud and proudly announced to the world “I am such a bitch”.
The word flew from her lips with such ease and comfort. There was no doubt or hesitation in her voice. Clearly, she had said this many times before. And clearly she meant it.
This negative pattern of speaking about ourselves should come as no surprise. Turn on the TV or see a movie. Female characters regularly spout off words that not long ago would have been reserved for the most diehard chauvinists. We hear it in our music, our literature and now from the mouths of our children. Did I mention that this young woman couldn’t have been more than 10 years old?
I often wonder whether women think about the history and meaning of the word “bitch” and its relatives when they speak. I have said it; and I inevitably feel a bit uneasy when I do. But there are times when I really hear myself. I hear every man or woman who has ever called me a bitch. I hear my younger self using the word about the obnoxious girls in my class. I hear female friends and mentors using the word as if it were a compliment.
At these times, when I let the full impact of the word bitch hit me, I feel a little nauseous and more than a little guilty.
I also wonder if women have always spoken this way or if it is a new phenomenon. Did Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony speak of themselves using such glowing terms? Does Gloria Steinem call herself a bitch? How about Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama or any woman who wields power and influence? Do these women demean themselves with their own language? Do they do so without a second thought?
No doubt some will say that calling yourself a bitch is not demeaning at all. It is about reclaiming control over the word and using it as a symbol of personal power. “Babe In Total Control of Herself” or something to that effect. Infusing a degrading label with positive meaning makes the word our possession and lessens its impact on us when others use the word in a derogatory manner.
This would make sense if words were no more than personal possessions; but they are not. Words are social creatures. They don’t exist in a vacuum. Words bring their origins and histories along with them into new situations. You can try to reclaim the word “bitch” and associate all the positive meanings you’d like with it. But the abusive uses of the word do not just disappear because you decide not to pay attention to them. They remain in your memory and in our collective experience. Every time women use the word “bitch,” we allow the word’s abusive connotations an access road into our thoughts and emotions.
Moreover, other people hear what you say and not always what you mean. A committed sexist, for example, could take your words as confirmation of his own prejudices and an excuse to treat you as an inferior. After all, the word in its negative usage was born of an attempt to label women as not quite fully human. And this usage has done extensive harm to countless women over the years. Why should anyone assume you mean something positive by the word?
If a sexist does not hear, your daughter and the girls on her soccer team might. Perhaps the girl I heard today was your daughter. Would the word ring differently in your ears if your child was saying it instead of you?
Sure, we can recycle words; but it isn’t always wise to do so. I will go out on a limb here and flatly say it. Some words just cannot and should not be recycled. We can find better language with which to empower ourselves.
Think of it this way. If you were drinking from a carton of juice and saw the words “100% recycled paper” on the side of the box, you probably would not think twice about it. However, what if you saw the words “100% recycled toilet paper”? Would you put the box down or keep on drinking?
Recycling sexist language gives us a similar choice. Will we drink in the words and taste them on our own lips as though their histories do not matter? Or will we once and for all spit them out because they were born of a filthy place in the human heart?
The decision ultimately rests with every individual. But before you decide, answer this question. Does the word you want to recycle contain the sort of wisdom, integrity and kindness by which you would like your daughter to live her life? Got your answer? OK. Now speak your answer with a strong voice; and teach your daughter to do the same.
Dr. Janice Staab is a philosophical counselor and life coach. For more information on her services or to schedule your free consultation, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out her Web site at www.lifesignscoaching.com.