Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bitch: The Parts of Speech

Everyone knows a female dog is referred to as a "bitch."  That's a noun. And when applied to a female human, well, it can signify a defiant,  manipulative, overbearing, termagantish, tough, no-nonsense, even Lady MacBeth-esque cold-blooded, "unnatural" woman. Earlier in its history, "bitch" referred to a sexually promiscuous woman. (There is of course no equivalent for promiscuous men. Who could object to being called a Lothario or a playboy or even a womanizer, the latter  which, while not exactly complimentary, still carries a bit of whimsy with it?)

The word "bitch"  is often used by women themselves about other women.  Who can ever forget that moment in the cult film Alien when Ellen Ripley (aka Sigourney Weaver), when confronted by massive naughty female power, screams to the alien, "Get away from her, you bitch!" All the women in the theater I attended began to clap and yell.

There are also women who will say in the hazy spirit of what some might view as "proud reappropriation," "I'm such a bitch."  But despite the fact that there's a feminist magazine called Bitch, and many young women seem to use the word as freely as their male counterparts, I remain unconvinced that the word can really be recouped.

For me,  the word has evolved specitically to denigrate women whom others view  as too strong and powerful, women who speak their minds, women who don't kowtow.  I don't mean women guilty of savagery or nastiness to others.  If that's the case, let's just say, "She's been so nasty." But why  does nastiness make her a "bitch,"  a word that is intended to divest a woman of her humanity and her strength of personhood.    That "bitch" is so often used to describe noncompliant, self-assertive, autonomous women, while behaviors in men are well-regarded, even encouraged, it is hard not to feel the visceral effects of its gendered.  Despite a long tradition of comparing people to nonhuman animals (clever as a fox, sneaky as a cat),  the terms used to distinguish between  gender  in animals carry different values. A "stud," for example, or a "young buck" translates to a  strong, virile manly figure of sexual prowess. A "studly guy" is admired and even envied.  The "bitch," however, is the female who is bred (or "fucked"), who carries her young and feeds them, often with distinctive changes to her body (large, hanging nipples, etc.).  In addition, in the purebred world, many bitches need to be restrained during breeding. In the dog fighting world, the term of art for contraptions to keep the female dogs from resisting the male is "rape stand."   Many dog fighters mutilate the bitches by removing their teeth so they can't protect themselves.   Put another way, the image of the "bitch's" body is one of helpless machine to be manipulated for the simple purpose of reproduction. 

When the noun   "bitch" is applied to a man, it signals weakness (of the feminine kind), the one who is "done to," a man who can be metaphorically "fucked."  The female  "bitch" challenges male authority, and  doesn't follow gender rules. But the very speech act itselfof calling her a "bitch"  returns her to her "proper place."  She may act high and mighty, but underneath it all, she's "nothing but an animal."

As interjection, the word can be funny or violent, but never both. As predicate nominative for an inanimate object like "It's been a bitch of a day," it’s world-weary cool. As verb, it describes the act of complaint or whininess. As adjective, it’s diminutive-ized by that cute little "y" and means someone's cranky. As participle with "ing," it’s a compliment, as in "Bitchin' outfit!"

But as direct address, it hits with the force of a rock.

The other day, mid-morning, on my way to go dog-walking with a friend, I turned, as routine would have it,  down the dirt road running east of the University cross-country running course. It is  a road also used by various vehicles like dump trucks carrying stone and earth.  Ahead of me, parked in the middle of the road and making it impassible, sat  a red car with the driver's side open.  A white-haired, chubby man, with his back to me, was urinating in the road, in full view of whoever came along. I gently tapped my horn to let him know I was there, to save him embarrassment. He wheeled around, still urinating, and screamed something at me. Then he zipped himself up and stood there, refusing to move his car. I rolled down my window and said, "Excuse me, sir, can you pull up?"
This was the beginning. In response to my request he called me a bitch. I pointed out, "Sir, you're urinating in a public road. I need to drive ahead. Can you pull up?"

I should add that he had plenty of room to do so.

But instead of simply making room for me, he began advancing toward me, red face  whipped into a fury. What came out of his mouth was a string of ugly words,ugly, I should add, because of the anger and hatred imbuing them,  but the one repeated over and over, from his gaping mouth, stretched from mono-syllable into two was "bitch." "Yew biatch!" he kept screaming.  I quickly wound up my window, watching, rattled, as he came so close his face  was just inches from mine, and only the glass between us prevented the spit flying from his mouth from hitting me.

I sat there quietly, trying to steel my nerves. I kept thinking how sad this all was, how this man must feel so utterly powerless in the world, perhaps even humiliated that I caught him urinating, but unable to give a quick apology and pull his car forward.

When I refused to react, he walked back to his car,  and got in, but  instead of pulling up a few feet where he could have easily turned around on another road, he went into reverse, coming as close to my front bumper as he could without touching it. He was making a point. He was going to force me to go backwards, too. It was far more difficult for me to drive in reverse, because  the road at this point was narrow, and I would be backing out into a busier road. So I motioned  again for him to move forward. In my mind, I was pleading with him. When he wouldn't, I thought he'd misunderstood, and motioned again.

He got back out of his car and began his tirade again.  This time he included the word "bastard" (since, as we all know, a bastard is the offspring of the aforementioned promiscuous bitch,  which I found almost funny), and then  he amped up  "bitch" with the adjective "fucking" and so I had, in that moment, become the worst kind of bitch there is, a fucking bitch, .

Fearing he might have a gun, I nodded and  began to back my car out of the way. He jumped back in his car and backed up so fast he was threatening to hit my front bumper, as if to make a point. I quickly moved aside as soon as I could, pulling up on an embankment, but he pulled up beside me and continued to scream at me through his open window, how I was a fucking bitch, he was going to have me arrested, he was on diuretics and had to urinate (even though this wasn't the point), and so on.

And then he pulled off in a cloud of dust and went tearing around the corner.

"Bitch" may be one of the most violent words I know. And no amount of reappropriation or reclamation, if it's even possible, is going to change that (even the title of  Bitch Magazine, the feisty feminist publication that critiques gender in smart way, strikes me as a misfire).   And I'm sorry, but over the years when friends of mine have thrown  variations on "fabulous bitches" parties, I just can't get behind it. I'm happy to be fabulous, but I'm not happy to be anybody's bitch.

  "Bitch"  is specifically a word that goes to the heart of being female (biological or otherwise) and all the attendant misogyny, whether spoken by a woman or a man.  Aside from the word "nigger," which in American English remains maybe the most troubled word (others have written whole articles and even a book on its history so I'll avoid my own analysis here), even when it's "re-appropriated" by African Americans, and even when  it's the affectionate "my nigga," which is arguably  a different word, though not enough different to justify its use in any setting except maybe between intimates, the word "bitch" is one of the scariest words I know.  And when the word is spoken by a man, to my face, I automatically duck, to avoid the fist.

In truth, I have never been hit by a man, though there have been some close calls. I'm not sure what percentile of lucky women that puts me into, but I have always avoided men who seem inclined, regardless of their initial charm.   I did not grow up with male violence, but I have seen plenty of it, and you don't have to look far. I've witnessed on several occasions over the years women friends being beaten by male partners who initiated the violence with the word "bitch." I lived next door here in Bloomington for two years to a man and his "woman" who I'm sure were selling drugs, and when the man, who was also fond of screaming out racist and homophobic epithets, got ready to "kick off in the woman's ass," the prelude was always "bitch." As his anger mounted, she was now  "fucking bitch."  It was always at night. Always after midnight, in fact, when the world shrinks and another person's pain is yours, too. What followed was the sickening sound of glass bottles breaking, and then a  woman's voice  screaming back, then pleading. More sounds of thumps and breakage.  Then the slam of the back door,  and footsteps out to the driveway, and then the car motor gunning, and a squeal of tires, and then that gut-wrenching word again, often accompanied with a threat, "I'm gonna kill you, you bitch!"  I would wait----a part of me just wanted him to get it over with and just do it..  A part of me wanted to die with her, so she could be relieved of the misery.  And then the man was gone, and there would come the awful  silence. A silence that hung over me like a heavy curtain, making it hard to breathe, because I didn't know if she really was dead, or if she was hiding somewhere in that sad house, weeping to herself. It's then  I would reach for the phone in the darkness of my bedroom and dial 911.

 For me the  word "bitch" unlocks a door in a man's head.  Once you're a "bitch," you deserve what you get. Once you're a bitch, the quotation marks are gone.  It's not something someone else has said, it's who you are. And once you're no longer you, you're fair game. You're the generic target at the shooting range.  You've become every woman who's ever made this man feel small.

And the figure of "the bitch" is so deeply embedded in our culture, and so opposite of what little girls are supposed to learn to be, that I doubt there's any woman in America who doesn't know what a bitch looks like and what she does. The bitch isn't maternal or soft. The bitch might even have the nerve to be selfish, to live her life for herself.

The "bitch" is ubiquitous in literature, film, and television. Often, she's the kind of woman that other women hate, too, because in addition to being smart and clever and often very successful, she's man-hungry, overly sexualized,  very attractive, hard-hearted, and manipulative. She is, in a word, competition. She's also a threat to all "good women."  She wants your man. Or she wants your woman.

Nothing good ultimately comes from the bitch. Though she "gets away" with her bad behavior for a while, she finally  gets her comeuppance one way or another. Bitches never win.

Like witches and stepmothers in fairytales of yore, the  "bitch" is a figure in a cautionary tale.  

I've been called "bitch" so many times in my life that it's a wonder my psyche doesn't look like swiss cheese. Sometimes it's been by a man who believes I am not doing what he wants me to (a stranger on the street  who insists I say hello or smile and I don't), or someone I've inadvertently challenged in some way (could even be something as simple as a mixup at the gas pump).   Each time I hear the word, something inside me shatters.  Even as I walk away, I feel my chest tighten----take a breath---for what could follow on the heels of that word. I don't dare look back. But   I am counting, one step, two steps, three steps, until the word begins to fade on the air, which means he's not coming after me.

Though I take a linguist's view of language and love the nuances and colors and sounds of words, including slang and swearing, etc., I am in deep conflict over the word "bitch."  As a First Amendment baby, and because I'm also a pragmatist, I don't believe in speech codes, and I also believe the answer to "bad speech" is "more speech."  I'm anti-censorship, and I'd rather just get it all out there where you can actually see it. But, unlike other epithets,  the word "bitch" doesn't have a good comeback. In some ways, it moves beyond language and comes about as close to physical assault as any word I know.  It's the fist in my face.

The majority of times I've been called a "bitch" it's a man yelling at me, but there's the occasional woman driver, in a fit of road rage, who will use the word, as well, as she passes at 80 miles an hour.  Cycling alone, I've often been yelled at by men who apparently think it's funny to frighten a woman on a bicycle. Biking  through San Francisco, I was heading up the impossible incline of 25th Street, and feeling the incredible rush of overloaded muscles powering on, when a carload of guys pulled up next to me. I was out of breath, and with each pedal stroke, I was pulling down with the full force of whatever last shreads of strength  I had left.  The car slowed  and paced itself next to me. The windows were down. One of the guys made a grab for my ass. I almoTo dogde him, I almost lost control. But I hung on to the handlebars. Another began to chant in a sing-song, "Push, Bitch, push. Push, Bitch, push." The ass-grab I could ignore. But the repetition of that word "bitch," as I struggled to stay on top, threw off my balance. I lost my momentum, the pedal locked on me, and I almost fell over. My sandal  actually slipped  off my foot and caught on the pedal, and   for a moment, I was hobbled. My helpless clumsiness caused great merriment---- the driver gunned the motor, and the car shot off, with the accusations of "bitch" floating back over the air.

Each time I've been called "bitch," it's as if everything I am evaporates, and I'm left with a deep, sad emptiness. It's hard to shake. Being yelled at by strangers, or intimates, is never pleasant, but that damnable word cuts through to my very being. 

I have no problem being linked to a female dog. I love dogs. I love female dogs. But the word "bitch," when spoken in contempt and rage, no longer has any connection to the cheerful, adventurous,  freedom-loving  canine I imagine lives deep within me.

I should mention that the angry man on the road that day also called me a "motherfucker." Another word with a nasty history, it's pretty lost all its taint, and has turned into what I call a "tofu word," flavorless on its own, until it's spiced up by syntax and rhythm.   Truth is,  I don't think I've ever been called a "motherfucker" before, and that didn't bother me one bit.  Maybe because a motherfucker technically refers  to a man who, well, fucks someone's mother.   Though interestingly it also has a very gendered (and racialized) history, most people using it these days never think much about what it means as they drop it with the same casualness teenagers pepper their speech with "like."

Is it possible that the word "bitch" will eventually be divested of its violence?  Could it ever be about as uninteresting as library paste? I want to say maybe, but as long as I read the overwhelming statistics on violence against women, when I help another woman file a protective order against the man who's threatened to kill her, or I read  about another woman raped and murdered as she hiked alone in a forest or  slept at home in her own bed, I can't ignore the weight of the violence in that word. "Bitch" is mother-hatred, woman-hatred.

 Usage has become so mainstream that my students rely on  it in common parlance. And they don't seem to think twice about it. The other day in class, a sweet-faced male student referred to a character we were reading about as a "bitch."  Jolted,  I quickly glanced around the room at all the women, checking their reactions before I spoke.  I was poised to step in and ask the student to explain what he meant. To challenge him to think about the nuances of the word.  But there  was absolutely no response.  No one glanced up from their books.  Someone else had already moved the conversation ahead.  I felt alone as the word slid  through me like an arrow. The truth is, it  came out the other side, clean. I was still standing.  It didn't hurt as much, maybe because it wasn't directed to a live woman, or maybe because the young man used it without anger in his voice. Maybe, just maybe, the word has gotten softer for them, less loaded. Maybe, I thought, the word slips off their tongues without the power to pierce.

No comments: