On Kanye West, Feminism, And The Word ‘Bitch’
If you follow rapper Kanye West on Twitter, you’re probably used to his occasional outbursts of thought sharing that span dozens of tweets in quick succession. From his views on social issues to his disdain for being given bottled water on airplanes, he’s well known for using the social media platform to voice opinions on a wide variety of subjects.
Most recently and interestingly to us, West logged on and engaged his following of 8 million+ in a conversation on the word ‘bitch.’
Off the bat, I want to say that I don’t think West is alone in this. A lot of us struggle with the word ‘bitch,’ particularly those of us who care about female equality and dignity. What we have here is a word that is very deeply ingrained in the vocabulary of our society and has evolved and transformed itself over time to have many different meanings and uses. It brings up a lot of questions, and so does Kanye, but we’ll get back to that in a minute.
Let’s first start from the beginning, shall we? As most of us know, if you go to the dictionary to find an official definition of the word, you’ll find that it means ‘female dog.’ The exact origin of the word is unknown, but according to the Online Etymology Dictionary it was used as a “term of contempt applied to women” dating back to the year 1400, and dating back to 1500 as a “playful” term of contempt for men “in the sense of ‘dog.’” As of the 1990s, it has been used as a slang word “with reference to a man as sexually contemptuous, from the ‘woman’ insult.”
According to Wikipedia, the word has also “suggested high sexual desire in a woman, comparable to a dog in heat.” It often means “someone who is belligerent, unreasonable, rudely intrusive or aggressive” and is “used as a denigrating term applied to a person, commonly a woman.”
From this we can see that ‘bitch,’ in its most common form, is far from complimentary. It has an incredibly long history of demeaning women and also demeaning men for acting in a way that is seen as weak or ‘womanlike.’ It implies scorn for the female gender and is often used as a way to put women “in their place” when they are asserting themselves.
Which begs the question: Is ‘bitch’ a word that women and feminists should remove from their vernaculars, or are there times when it’s appropriate? Could it be that use of the word is both situational and subjective, or should it be universally condemned?
On Sunday night I scrolled through my Twitter feed and considered these questions, feeling just as unsure as Kanye West must have been. Each question led to another, as illustrated by West’s 13 tweets on the matter, and I couldn’t come up with any solid answers.
In an effort to gain some insight, I turned to my friends and fellow writers at Feminspire and asked for their thoughts. Opinions varied from not being offended by the word at all, being okay with the term used jokingly, being okay with the word when used non-gender specifically, to refusing to use the word regardless of the circumstance.
However, it was a comment from writer Tricia Gilbride that stood out to me. As she put it, “I think for now, intention is really key. Using it negatively towards a woman or a man, especially to imply something negative about traditional femininity, isn’t helping anyone.”
I took this comment and grabbed onto it for more solid footing on the issue. Opinions among the women I respect were certainly varied, but no one agreed that it should be used in a way that is disrespectful to women or traditionally ‘womanlike’ behaviors. Which led to another question: As a word that is defined as “derogatory,” can we use ‘bitch’ in a way that isn’t negative?
So I again asked my friends to give their take. Writer Jessica Bagnall shared, “I see the phrase ‘bad bitch’ as being empowering in the situations I’ve seen it used in.”
Writer Laura Kent pursued the question even further. As she said, “I don’t find it insulting in the slightest to be called a bitch or hear the word used, even for gender specific reasons aimed at women. To me, someone calling me a bitch means they think I’m aggressive, asserting my control, in charge, whatever, and they’re probably threatened by that. I am those things, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be, and the shock attached to the use of the phrase by whoever’s saying it that suggests I shouldn’t be those things is what annoys me most. I find it more offensive that weak people are called ‘pussies’ and that there’s so much infantalising language that is directed toward women (which is usually even intended as positive, unlike ‘bitch’).”
So, are positive phrases like ‘bad bitch’ a way of reclaiming a word that for so long was used solely to express contempt for women? And what about ‘bitch’ by itself, is saying it with positive intent a way of doing the same? Could part of reclaiming ‘bitch’ be in the way individual women receive the word?
I think it’s important to consider that most insults are gendered, meaning that their original meanings are specific to either men or women. Gender specific insults toward women can hold a lot of power thanks to our history of women being marginalized in society. However, language has a way of changing as culture does over time, and some words evolve to encompass a variety of different meanings. What we’re seeing with ‘bitch’ is a word that can still demean and scorn women as a group, but can also empower them or even simply insult a person in a way that isn’t specific to the female gender at all.
At the end of the day, it seems there are no concrete answers for Kanye West and the other men and women who struggle with the word. It’s something that I think most of us can agree should be examined on a case-by-case basis. Maybe the only answer, as Kanye ultimately tweeted, is that “it depends on how [the words] are used and by whom.”
Thank you, Kanye West, for bringing these thoughts to the minds of your many followers and encouraging people to think constructively about the language they use and how they use it. For this, you are awesome.
How do you feel about the word ‘bitch’? Did you find Kanye’s Twitter discussion to be illuminating or off-base? Join the discussion and share with us in the comments.
Written by Rhiannon Payne
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