Monday, November 19, 2007

The B-word, the F-word, and the L-word

When John McCain laughed-off a reference to Hillary Clinton as "the bitch" during a debate last week, Andi Zeisler's phone started ringing off the hook. As co-founder and editorial director of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Zeisler's is the number to call when the b-word's use by some prominent figure manages to make a media splash. The question she is perennially asked - Is bitch still a bad word? Here is how Zeisler answers the question for the Washington Post:
...let's not be disingenuous. Is it a bad word? Of course it is. As a culture, we've done everything possible to make sure of that, starting with a constantly perpetuated mindset that deems powerful women to be scary, angry and, of course, unfeminine -- and sees uncompromising speech by women as anathema to a tidy, well-run world...

When these people call Clinton (or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or Sen. Dianne Feinstein or former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro) a bitch, or even the cutesier "rhymes-with-witch," it's an expression of pure sexism -- a hope that they can shut up not only one woman but every woman who dares to be assertive. Simply put: If you don't like Clinton's stance on, say, health care or Iraq, there are plenty of ways to say so without invoking her gender.

So, the word is bad because we make it so, because it is used to defame a female by implying that she is not sufficiently compliant. In order to "reclaim it for mouthy, smart women in much the way that "queer" had been repurposed by gay radicals," as Zeisler hopes to do, the word would have to be used to denote something positive as frequently as it is used with a malicious intent. And, considering how commonly the word bitch is used to defame and insult, it would take quite a group of dedicated advocates to give it a more positive spin.

Yet, with bitch, we are hoping to claim a word that has long been used in a derogatory manner; perhaps it would be easier to reclaim the more recently degraded f- and l-words: feminism and liberal. I am always disappointed when I see women reaping the advantages of feminism try to distance themselves from the f-word; or when I see open-minded, socially conscious citizens shy away from the l-word. When Sarah Michelle Gellar said she hates the word feminism, for example, she could not have had the Merriam-Webster definition in mind:
1 : the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
: organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.
And when you consider that liberalism is defined as:
... a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties,
it is hard to imagine how the word evil got to be such a common modifier of liberal. So why are so many of us so willing to relinquish these terms? To distance ourselves from the words liberalism and feminism is to loosen our grip on the freedoms to which they refer.

And that is why we have to keep writing the word feminism when we mean it, instead of finding some circumlocutory way of expressing feminist ideals without using their proper name. Likewise, while I have no problem with the word progressive, I am not ready to relinquish the word liberal. Using the terms properly seems to be an easy enough way to support the ideals they express. With the first definition of bitch being "
the female of the dog or some other carnivorous mammals" and the second being "a lewd or immoral woman" though, it might take a bit longer to rescue the Big B.


natalie said...

I just read about the teenage authors of a book called Red - one girl wrote about women's rights internationally but says she isn't a feminist. She just wants to help women.

What do people think this word means?

Here's the link:

La Pobre Habladora said...

The comments on the Jezebel post are really telling as well.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Uhhh... I might have been more eloquent about the bitch issue in my comments on Feministing than I was here - so I'll copy what I wrote there on over (That right, it's our blog and we'll do what we please!):

People either accept the term and its negative meaning ("oh, I don't want to be a bitch, so I'll keep my mouth shut), partially accept the negativity of the term ("if being assertive is bad, I don't want to be good - I'm a bitch!"), or reject the negative meaning of the word (like Zeisler attempts to do in the article linked above). It seems to be the partial acceptance that gets under your skin, dananddanica, as it does mine, simply because it is one step short of real empowerment (being assertive isn't bad).

Anonymous said...

I am a proud feminist.

And I am voting for Hillary because she is a woman. I don't care about her voting history. I would vote for Condi, too. (Although Lady Dem beats Lady Repub any day.)

[Ducking to avoid thrown objects from crowd].

La Pobre Habladora said...

You would not vote for Condi!

Yet, why do we call them Condi and Hillary, but Obama and Edwards (not Barack and John)?