In a new novel I’m currently pitching to agents and publishers, I introduce one of the main characters as an “alcoholic, bulimic bitch.” She arrives in chapter three, so not everyone gets a sample large enough to include this part, but the language makes me nervous anyway.
It’s not because I think it’s linguistically inappropriate. It fits the character, genre, temperament; the language is right. And this is both how others see her and how she often describes herself. It fits.
However, I am a man and I know that this word is loaded. Bitch. When I was a kid, it had very specific applications. Men called other men bitches to reduce them, to emasculate them, to suggest that they were weak. Not men. Sometimes it meant they were so soft that they were actually the property of the person defining them that way. You’re my bitch, you do what I say.
It was basically the same if a woman called a man a bitch, maybe worse, but with the same meaning. However, if anyone called a woman a bitch, it meant pretty much the opposite. That she was strong, tough, spiteful maybe, self-serving, unkind and uncaring. Driven beyond compromise. It wasn’t exactly a reduction of femininity, but it was reserved for a certain type of mean woman.
The polarity of any single word fascinates me. Bitch isn’t about who says it, who has a claim on it, really. But it changes meaning depending on who it is being thrown at.
Of course, my brother called me a bitch when he wasn’t calling me a runt or whatever else. My mom didn’t like that and she told him as much. It was heavier than it seemed like it should be.
The other form of the word is as a verb: to complain. And sometimes verbs become nouns because they describe a behavior that is so common it creates a condition, a type. A person who bitches too much might be a bitch. A whiner. But what does that mean? Which genders does it apply to in this context?
In high school, or maybe in college, I noticed that women were self-applying the word. They’d say, “I’m going out with my bitches,” or they’d run into some friends and say, “What’s up, bitches?!?!”
Sometimes gay men do this, too. Maybe there’s a subtle freedom in already identifying as what the oppressors are worried about being mistaken for.
In an excellent piece for The Paris Review, poet Danez Smith asks if we can reclaim a word that was never ours. They explore several other incendiary words along with discussing intent, audience, audacity.
The essay concludes:
Who owns language? Does my man-shaped body have any hold on a word that is a violence thrown at women? Where do I get off using “bitch” to capture my love for my menfolk friends? This is the danger that I live for, the bad words with definitions forever in flux, words that show us how tonal and relational English can be. Bitch, in another man’s mouth, a knife. In mine, sugar. In mine, a knife if some stranger hears it. And here is where I make an intention: to never use bitch the way it’s been used against good bitches, to drain the poison from the wound until it’s just another door to the body, a door from me to you, my good bitch.
I see this and I believe I get it. It’s real, raw, true. And I know I’m not exactly describing the character in my new novel affectionately. But she would say it about herself, I keep hearing myself say in defense. Yes, maybe, but also not affectionately. More like self-deprecation. She might say it about herself, but she wouldn’t like to hear it thrown at her like a rock.
Too many of my friends have told me about ugly pursuits made after them by creepy men. Men who are overly sweet and immediate toward strangers, who turn into monsters just as fast when they don’t get any sweetness in return. Men who think that a pretty lady or whoever is on the other end of their Hey baby is suddenly a bitch for not showing them some warmth.
I respect Danez Smith’s desire to re-frame bitch into a context where a recipient only feels inclusive affection, but the core of the word is rooted culturally, generationally somewhere else. Can it change that quickly? Or like they say in the essay, how does a stranger’s ear consider the unknown intent?
My character, Abbie, embodies all that being called a bitch can be. She’s mean; she’s bitchy, whiny; she’s also a friend, an intimate who gets to be affectionately called out for her antics. But since she’s my invention, does that mean I get to treat her the same way her friends do? Does it matter who I am?
Maybe I’ll get the chance to frame this as a discussion question or something eventually.
Or maybe I just did?