Bitch Please: Claiming and Reclaiming Words

anxiety, sex

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?

Sweetgum’s Own Voice

anxiety, sex

Author’s Note:
In a previous post, I introduced a character from my past named “Derek.” That’s not his real name, and so I’m not sure why I broke from the established (by me) convention of naming my characters after trees. I’ve done it with all the women, but not all the men. Admitting this makes me feel sexist. But instead of going back and editing the last essay to “correct” my error in judgment, I’m just going to ask for forgiveness. I’ll openly say I made a mistake, okay? Furthermore, Derek will now be known as Sweetgum, but it’s the same dude.

The cheerleading squad held tryouts in the fall and announced their picks before winter break. The new lineup became active at the start of the spring term and remained through the next semester. This meant outgoing seniors never cheered the second half of their last year. But they still painted their faces and attended spirit events.

I don’t know if this is the established schedule for high school cheerleading, or if it was just that way at my school. It doesn’t really make sense to me, but nobody asked my opinion.

During our junior year, Sweetgum and two of his buddies decided to reboot the tradition of yell leaders, the name given to male cheerleaders. We hadn’t had any of these in about four years, which means our class had gone through high school having never seen any yell leaders on campus.

It doesn’t matter that they existed at many of the other seventeen area high schools we played sports against. And it didn’t matter that men had been part of cheering squads traditionally for as long as there were cheering squads – which was what, decades? Maybe a couple centuries? I’m not going to waste my time doing the research.

But as far as the bullies were concerned, Sweetgum and his friends were weirdo jerk faggots. Why? Because cheerleaders were girls. Their chief tormentor was Sandy Smith, a soft-bodied rich kid too entitled and undeserving for a pseudonym (maybe Crabgrass applies, but at least crabgrass is useful). Sandy was a vile child who thought he was super fashionable because he shaved the lower ¾ of his head all the way around and dressed in a manner that probably annoyed his parents. He wore “shreds,” extra wide-leg jeans with the bottom hems cut off and left to fray, and oversize polo shirts (barf) to go along with his spaghetti string gold chain necklace. The kid had big teeth and tracks of braces and to imagine this pineapple head brat as a bully now is laughable. Thinking he and his friends are now all likely parents is a scary thought.

At some schools, the cheerleaders represent the elite mean girl super hot and popular visible top notch of the social structure. But at other schools, it’s just an elective club populated by some cliquish subculture or minority who like to dance and wear uniforms and flirt with jocks. My school was somewhere in the middle, but leaning closer to the first one.

The ladies on the team welcomed Sweetgum and the other two, for no other reason, than because it was nice to get some solid stalks for the base of their pyramids. They were neither attracted to or repulsed by these boys, whom they immediately adopted like younger step brothers (but not in the cliché pornographic sense, trust me).

The irony, of course, is that Sweetgum and his buds joined the squad because they wanted to be visible and get closer to girls. It was the opposite of the toxic masculinity tossed at them from Sandy and company. I truly believe if they were actually out gay men Sandy would have been too intimidated by their confidence to talk trash to them.

But it was insecurity on both sides – Sandy’s taking the form of overcompensation, while Sweetgum risked nothing to taste the sweat of the angels – that made them adversaries. They were the same, now that I think about it, except Sweetgum was courageous at a time when conformity amounted to safety.

I no longer remember the point, if I ever had one. I’m sure neither of these guys remember any of this, which makes me wonder why I’m thinking about it at all.

Maybe the answer lies in a speech Sweetgum delivered at the end of his run. I guess the idea was to encourage underclassmen recruits to keep the tradition of cheerleading in pants alive. “Nobody will think you’re gay or anything,” Sweetgum said. He said other things about it being fun and good exercise and all that, but this is the line that stands out. “Nobody will think you’re gay or anything.”

This was probably true, but who knows? Some people certainly said that being a boy cheerleader was an indication of homosexuality. There is plenty of room for a debate about gender expectations and assumed sexual orientation and all viewed through a contemporary lens. But I’m not going to indulge in that at the moment.

I will ask, why did Sweetgum think it was important to add this? It’s ridiculous. And I’ll say I know with almost certainty that Sweetgum did not mull it over first. He wasn’t the type to think before he spoke, or consider the words he said for long afterwards either.

Gay is now a lot more mainstream, of course. Maybe it’s not en vogue exactly, but marginalized voices are almost di rigueur for the storytelling industries. I don’t have a problem with that because I understand the importance of optics. And I believe in equal rights. Also freedom from social stigmas, inasmuch as this is possible, would be nice.

But here’s the thing: I’ve never been one to make much association between arbitrary activities and sexuality or sexual orientation anyway. Sexual activities might suggest one’s sexuality, but other activities? One sport versus another? Theater? Look, I worked as a Beauty Advisor and Makeup Artist for seven years. There are not many straight men doing that. Mostly it’s women. And plenty of these women, and many gay men assumed I was gay simply for being there. I wrote a whole big blog about it asserting my straightness, though I sometimes wish I hadn’t done that. I sometimes wish I was more gay, though I do recognize the fluidity of the spectrum much more now. Can one be more gay? Or less gay?

The associations have never made much sense. What’s a man’s man? What’s a sissy? Is it how you look, how you talk, what you do, who you do it with?
Is it emotional literacy relevant? Real men can cry, right? What’s a real man, though?

Cisgender heterosexual (usually white) men seem to be the ones committing the most acts of domestic terrorism in America. Is that a reach? I’m not saying it’s because they’re closeted gay or anything like that. I am observing that they don’t seem to know how to relate to each other in a philadelphian way.

A guy like Sweetgum – who by the way later joined the military after dropping out of a very good California State University – is not likely to become a mass shooter. Why? I don’t know. But I know he’s not an alienated dude.

Love & Marriage and Writing + Family Planning?

anxiety, booze, sex

I was sitting at my desk editing porn, about to go to lunch when my phone buzzed – an incoming all. This happened in 2005, and no one really texted very much. It was a call from Derek, an old chum of mine from high school. We hadn’t spoken in a while. Maybe I saw him a year or two previously, but we’d drifted apart more or less since graduation. Our ten year reunion was a year away, but I had no intention of attending.

“What’s up?” I said.
“Oh, I meant to call my Uncle Greg. You’re next to each other in my phone.”
“Okay… well you got me now,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Pretty good,” Derek said. “I’m about to get on a plane.”
“Where you headed?”
London.”
“Any reason for the trip?”
“I’m getting married tomorrow.”

I had plenty of follow-up questions for him, but I’d long ago learned not to bother asking for his logic. Derek was a kind and sweet guy, but not especially high wattage. We’d been friends since freshman year, when a girl who liked him wrote his name on a bunch of sanitary napkins and stuck them up all over the side of the building near his lunch spot. She also made a t-shirt that said “My name is Derek [Last Name] and I got this shirt for free.”

It was never clear to me why she did this. He liked to wear promotional and commemorative shirts that you get from going to radio station live events and movie premiers, so that was the angle. But why she’d unleashed her fury on him was a mystery. He just went about peeling the pads off the wall and threw them away.

That Derek was getting married at 26 was neither surprising or unsurprising to me. That he was flying to London was interesting, but not surprising either. He explained that his girlfriend was already over there because she’d just started a theater program. She was going to be there for the next two years.

“So you’re moving to London for two years?” I asked Derek.

No. He lived in Seattle and intended to remain there. I didn’t bother asking him why they were getting married if they were going to spend the next two years separated by a 9-hour flight.

I had one other friend who’d already gotten married by then, but he was even thicker than Derek. He’d moved out of his mother’s house and in with his girlfriend at 19. Five years later, she said he either had to propose or move out. He saved for two months, then bought a ring and suddenly they were engaged. The next year they were married. Kids followed pretty quickly.

***

Recently a woman in her 60s asked me when I’m going to get married. This happens occasionally, and it also happens every time I speak to my mother because she thinks it’s an indication of when she might officially become a grandmother.

“When I was your age,” this woman [not my mother] said, “I had been married for twenty years.”

She did not say this with disdain or judgment. Just stating a fact, and maybe contrasting her life and generation with mine.

“You were married very young,” I said. “But those were different times. A 20-year-old bride these days would be considered unusual, if not unfashionable.” Yes, this is how I talk to older people.

“They were very different times,” she agreed.

“Hemingway was on his third wife when he was my age.”

“Who?”

Ernest Hemingway.”

“Oh, right,” she said. “Hemingway.”

***

Laura Kipnis’s book Against Love is a long argument opposing the commonly accepted form of traditional marriage, understood as cohabitational sexually exclusive monogamy. For the wholesome among us, this is the default view of marriage, although many marriages fall outside of these constraints. And, of course, in this era many relationships fall inside of this definition without the formality of state sanctioned and/or religiously verified matrimony. Monogamy of this kind is the basically understood standard romantic relationship.

The book really has nothing to do with marriage in a modern sense, but rather describes the assumed ritualistic singularity of bound love. As the title suggests, Kipnis’s thesis is that loving like that simply does not work. She suggests it turns people into amateur detectives and petty thieves, forever looking to either skirt the self-imposed rules ourselves or seeking evidence that our partners are cheating us out of our rightfully earned access to their complete and undivided attention, affections, and the broad spectrum of their emotional portfolio.

It is as if the pain they might receive from the risk of loving another person is somehow negotiable, based on a measure of perceived deception and betrayal. To me, that’s a silly and immature way to become involved with others.

Why?

Because:
Life hurts.
Love is loss.
And the bliss you enjoy in love is matched by grief when it’s gone.

The rest are just novel details. But still, we find ourselves hunting for facts, bizarre and inconsequential proof of justified suspicion. Nowhere is this more prevalent and absurd at present than on social media platforms.

***

My mother was afraid of becoming an “old maid” if she did not marry soon after she finished community college. Her wedding was a week after her 25th birthday. Her first child was born a month before she turned 26.

In China, the term sheng nu is a popular way to describe unmarried women over a certain age (negatively). It means “leftover lady,” because they are considered too old to have children, I guess, and therefore will never marry.

Many young women in China, I’ve been told, see a very small window between being a student and becoming sheng nu, because they want to continue their education and increase their earning potential. Since it’s taboo for a man to earn less than his wife, the idea is to become as highly qualified as possible before aging out of marriage.

A friend of mine who works at a law firm in the Bay Area told me that many of her biologically female coworkers have been insisting that the company pay for their fertility interests. They believe their personal lives are put on hold in favor of working long hours that interrupt their ability to procreate. In this case, their personal lives are defined by family planning.

***

Hemingway had a total of four wives, with each marriage commencing no more than a year after its predecessor ended. Morley Callaghan suggested this also coincided with the completion of a major novel for Hemingway.

My friend Derek’s marriage to the thespian only lasted a couple of years, as far as I know. I heard he’s remarried and has a kid or two. Obviously, we haven’t been in touch in a long time (and I’m not on Facebook, where I would easily find out about these things).

The sexagenarian told me it was good that she married so early because her husband died young, and she was happy her grandchildren had a chance to get to know him while he was still with us.

***

In the autobiographical section of Stephen King‘s memoir On Writing, he describes the meet-cute where he and his wife first encountered each other at a poetry reading. The event was near the end of their university days, and he says they married a year and a half later. And then within three years, they had two children that were neither planned or unplanned, according to King. Then he details some of their financial struggles leading up to the publication of Carrie (at 26), a professional debut that turned a corner onto one of the most successful fiction writing careers in American history.

I’m sure a lot of readers view this type of portrait of young American parents fighting to survive until one (or both) of them are recognized for their genius as honorable, if not inspiring. That’s fair, I guess, if for no other reason than because it’s how it happened (King does not call himself a genius, btw). But it’s much easier to give a shit about these sorts of pedestrian tribulations in retrospect, long after the master has been regarded and awarded for their talents.

Reading about this decision, regardless of whether he thought it through at the time or not – and I cannot see how someone could not think this through, personally – strikes me as absurd, foolish and risky. Maybe even selfish, too. Idealistic as I was at 20 – compared to how skeptical and realistic I think I am now – I’m sure I’d have felt the same way if I’d read this account back then.

Maybe I have personal reasons for feeling this way. When I was a kid, most of my friends were the children of divorced parents. They almost all seemed to grow up with the attitude that they’d get married and have families just to prove they could succeed where their parents had failed. As an adult, I’ve noticed that many of my close friends have parents who are still married to each other. Obviously, these cannot be the same friends.

What’s that mean? I don’t know. But I do know that social media is the best friend of a predatory bridal industry. Trust me.

***

What about tradition? I don’t consider that a good question, but it is one worth addressing.

“Tradition is the illusion of permanence.”

Guess who said that? Woody Allen, but before you freak out, he said it as Harry Block, the titular character of Deconstructing Harry (1997). It’s a movie about a fiction writer who is only successful in his work, his art, which he bases on his life, which is completely fucked up. He’s an emotional menace, so selfish and destructive that almost everyone who knows him personally hates him, while everyone who knows his writing loves him (sort of). Maybe they see him as flawed, transparent, vulnerable. Or maybe they just think he’s imaginative. It’s a comedy.

If there’s a point I’m getting at, I guess it’s this:
Religion puts unnecessary constraints on somebody’s pursuit of life, liberty, and all that jazz. It’s not necessary to conduct arbitrary, arcane rituals when there are already so many challenges and restrictions on how we get along in this world.

Transparency: Most of the people I know who get married these days do it after they’ve been together for 7-10 years. Usually, that means they’ve been living together for about five years. Of course, these numbers drop in direct connection with how old they were when they started “dating.” There’s also the magic number for what seems like a vast majority of young women: must be engaged (at least) by age 30. I know there is a biological aspect to this. And I know there are reasonable social and economic conclusions about marriage if you want to make a family together. I know. But most of these things have been divorced from marriage for a generation at least, and in some subcultures, never were really present. So what are we spending all this money on, really?

One thing seems to be booze. White people in the Northeast United States apparently plan their social calendars around getting smashed at weddings. Back in my wasted youth, I declared to a friend that rock concerts were the ultimate venue: get as toasted as you want, wear what you like, dance how you please. Nobody expects anything from you other than not dying, ideally. And, in case this is not obvious, the music is mostly pretty good. Weddings? Well, I’ve seen some shit, but it almost always comes with baggage. Severed family ties, ended friendships, years of gossip, and a dress she’ll only ever wear once.