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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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,
gay men do this, too. Maybe there’s a subtle freedom in already
identifying as what the oppressors are worried about being mistaken
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 bitchthe 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?
I used to write a blog called COSMENAUT: true adventures of a straight male makeup artist. It was about me working in the cosmetics section of a legacy department store, my experiences in the makeup and beauty industry, and my personal life – not always in that order. But I usually tried to connect these elements in a novel way, because I thought it was interesting coming from a place with no understanding about this business to having heavy awareness for its effects.
As a man who dates women, in seemed appealing to learn and share insider knowledge of the beauty industry, both as I was exposed to it through sales and marketing campaigns, and in the practical use and application of products by my friends and lovers. To be sure, I regret a lot of what I wrote during that time. I was learning and drinking and exploring. It’s only worth revisiting to see how far I’ve come and I’d prefer if I was not vilified for whatever I wrote back then about people and circumstances I did not understand well.
products I thought were useless and unnecessary, and answering
questions about bullshit concerns created by a culture of marketing
inane and superficial competition, enlightened me about our
perceptions of personal values and individual worth. But it seemed
like I was suddenly expected to make priority out of absurdity. And
I was not passionate about sales.
Especially sales derived from preying upon natural human insecurities.
I named my blog Cosmenaut as a play on words, like a cosmonaut for cosmetics, an explorer in a foreign land blah blah blah. But it was the subtitle that was meant for exposure. That was the hook: I was a rooster in the hen house. I did not belong there, but I was there, and I was sensitive enough to see the secrets.
sent me a message asking why I “felt the need” to exert my
hetero-masculine (assumed cis gender) sexuality into my branding.
Was I “insecure” about it, they wanted to know.
truth is I never was. I was simply just trying to be distinct. The
cosmetics environment as I experienced it was something like 85%
women, 12% gay men, and the remainder could be anybody else, but
really that means trans women and me.
far as these trans women were concerned: they were women, both in my
view and theirs. But that did not keep them from being the subject
of vicious gossip.
The store had a fairly progressive attitude toward inclusion, at least. There were expressed, written policies on tolerance, acceptance, and accommodation for customers and staff, though I never heard any issues about access to appropriate bathrooms or dressing rooms or any of that. It was San Francisco, after all. (Personally, I’ve long believed that every rest room and dressing room should be a single occupant all gender inclusive situation because I like privacy).
were some other straight men in the department, but they almost
exclusively sold fragrances and skincare. These products, like the
men who sold them, fit safely behind a gender line defined on their
packaging. The classic view of the perfume lady spraying
unsuspecting passersby had long ago been replaced by the flirty dude
with a car salesman’s grin plastered across his face.
The main difference between the fragrance bros and myself was that I also sold color by performing practical applications. In other words, I did makeovers. I knew about makeup.
brand had a men’s line that consisted of the exact same products
packaged into steely gray containers with the words FOR MEN stamped
across them for safety. These were skincare products, but
occasionally they’d try out a concealer or something.
Thanks to toxic masculinity, straight guys need reassurance like this. The marketing might say the formulations are specific to men’s skin, but that’s just pitch sizzle. In truth, it’s so the fragile heteronormative cig gender man can feel safe in knowing people won’t wonder about him if they see his facewash. That’s because he’s been told that unqualified vanity is gay.
wrote back to my inquisitor that the subtitle to my blog was just a
gimmick. But, just to clarify, I suggested that sexual
orientation is who about who you desire, and sexuality is
about how you demonstrate that desire.
Savage commonly defines it as a layer cake: at the bottom is who you
want, in the middle is who you get, and the top is what you tell
people. Within that, there’s a difference between sex and romance,
and room for fluidity on each tier.
you hear about “guyliner” & “manscaping” put in such
common usage that people don’t think about them anymore. Why do
fragile heteronormative cig gender men need alternative terminology
for the same shit? Toxic masculinity. Duh. Or is that the joke?
One of my lady coworkers (from Great Britain) told me that if she went over to a guy’s apartment and saw flowers there that were not left by or intended for a woman, she’d immediately assume he was closeted gay. So, I asked her, if I like the look and smell of fresh flowers in my home, how does that somehow mean I also like to suck dicks?
Then there’s the whole question of ass play. Women asked me all the time if their boyfriends were gay because they wanted their salads tossed. So, I replied, your boyfriend wants you to lick his anus. You’re not a man. If he wanted a man to lick him, that might be gay, but if he wants you to do it, why is that an issue? He likes when you blow him, right? Many gay men like to give and receive blowjobs, but your boyfriend wants to receive one from you, so…
There’s an element of toxic masculinity outside of abusing women, though certainly related to it, that speaks to male competition. Consumer culture has long exploited this. But is it more than machismo?
I recently asked an old friend who is now a married father of two young children if parenting in a more inclusive and socially conscious time (like now) has affected his view of himself as a younger man. From my perspective, I see him back then as an alcoholic cokehead who’d frequently say, “Treat them like shit, that’s what they like,” about women. He had apparently determined that indifference sometimes reads as confidence, both personally and professionally; often enough, it seemed, that he could be self-destructive and indulgent and still get laid occasionally.
At first, he told me he was afraid of his kids getting bullied. Maybe that’s because he’d mostly been a bully himself, I think. I clarified the question, explaining that I was interested more in his view of himself than I am in his concerns as a parent.
This was his answer:
Yes, a confusing triple negative preceded by a joke and then redirected onto a disgraced celebrity for comparison. Throughout the conversation he made several attempts to change the subject, but I’m not sure he ever got the point. I was not accusing him of sexual assault against women. I was asking him, probably not directly enough, if he knew he’d been afflicted with toxic masculinity. Or if he saw it that way now. Did he remember drunkenly punching me in the face to show his dominance? Does he regret constantly accusing his straight friends of being gay just to watch them squirm? Did he care about making historically marginalized people feel welcome in his presence?
If we now live in a time when straight men can sometimes have gay sex, and when gay men can occasionally screw women, and women are so whimsically fluid that being a woman has indefinite meaning – physiologically, we’re all women for at least six weeks anyway – if masculine and feminine energy can apply to anyone, if being a mascot or a femme bot are just fleeting fashion choices, if chromosomal biology carries no dictates, so much the better. But I wonder if it kind of makes some of these labels obsolete. Or does it?
Like Gore Vidal said, we are all potentially bisexual. Like RuPaul said, it’s all drag and life is hard for everybody.
So, is identity how we see ourselves or how we want others to see us? Sometimes safety requires wearing a mask. I’ve worn many.
Post Script: One night in 2004, which was well before makeup artistry came into my life, myself and two blonde American women encountered a Swedish man while out drinking. He told us casually that he sometimes had sex with men. “I’m not gay,” he said, “Just horny.” The ladies said they thought this was very hot. I felt a little reduced for not being regarded as so adventurously open-minded. Of course, we ended up back at his apartment, where one of the women hinted at a group sex possibility. The other woman shut her down because she claimed she hadn’t shaved recently and said she did not want to “be the hairy girl at an orgy.” The ladies ultimately fell asleep huddled together on the couch. The Swede brought out a futon mattress for me to crash on, and he might have alternatively invited me to join him back in his room. I politely declined, but this exchange may have been imagined or part of a semi-conscious dream sequence. The next morning, the ladies and I left early without seeing our host again. The supposedly hairy girl said to the other one, “I can’t believe you wanted me to fuck that gay guy.” Did I mention these two were sisters? They had the same father.