Allison Yarrow is an award-winning journalist and the author of the bestselling book, “90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality.”
How the Sexism and Racism of “Bitch” Undermines Women
When Donald Trump called his fired communications director Omarosa Manigault-Newman a dog as she launched her book tour this month, the euphemism did not go unnoticed. “Women are not dogs. We are not bitches. We are people,” replied The Women’s March Twitter account.
This is not the first time Trump has been publicly associated with the term bitch. “I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there,” he said of a woman who rejected his sexual advances, in the Access Hollywood tape released before the election. In Trump’s America, women are subhuman. It shouldn’t surprise us when “bitch” is invoked to drive home that point.
Make no mistake, “bitch” is a gendered insult that has undercut women and reduced them to their sexual function as long as it has existed. Greeks and Romans insulted women by calling them dogs that begged for sex with men, and etymologists believe that insult evolved into the word “bitch.” The 1811 dictionary Slang and its Analogues Past and Present defined it “a she dog” and “the worst name one could call an Englishwoman, more provocative and insulting than ‘whore.’” Use of the word in the last 100 years has increased as women have gained power in society. Its usage spikes when women advance, to blunt their their progress, according to researchers.
Our very recent past is even more instructive in understanding why President Trump would want to use this term. “Bitch” was deployed throughout the 90s to suppress women’s influence, and bitchification — reducing women to their sexual function — was a 90s epidemic. Any woman who had power, wanted power or was a feature of popular culture, entertainment, politics, or the news, was systematically and universally bitchified. 90s women were undermined, objectified, and dismissed by the media, Hollywood, and Washington. News coverage and societal narratives bitchified them using every grotesque synonym and metaphor imaginable.
For instance, after figure skater Nancy Kerrigan exhibited unladylike behavior in 1994 — dissing another skater, and mocking Disney World — The Washington Postasked “Is Nancy a bitch?” and offered her “cat’s eyes and chiclet teeth” as potential evidence. Rocker Courtney Love — frontwoman of Hole, whose album Celebrity Skin turns twenty in September — was maligned for her ambition and blamed for her husband’s 1992 suicide. “No wonder Courtney Love behaved like an absolute bitch in her babydoll phase, it’s the only way to counterbalance all the frills,” wrote the Evening Standard. And, speaking of ambition, let’s not forget Hillary Clinton. Recalling Clinton in the 90s, Doug Thompson, the editor of the news site Capitol Hill Blue said, “During my time in Washington, I heard Hillary Clinton called many things,” he wrote. “‘Bitch’ is one of the more polite terms.” Outside of Washington, the pioneering reality show The Real World successfully seeded the bitch trope during its 1992 Los Angeles season, and made “the bitch” a recurring character who continues to shape reality television today. Women auditioning for the show during the 90s told reporters that they hoped to be cast as “the bitch.”
In researching and writing about the political and cultural history of the 90s, it was impossible to overlook how black women in particular were subjected to bitchification. White women fought sexism, while black women were forced to confront both sexism and racism — an undeniably more difficult task.
Take Anita Hill, who charged sexual harassment against her former boss, Clarence Thomas, and without whom #MeToo wouldn’t exist. She was painted as a frigid bitch — a “scorned woman” as Senator Howell Hefflin phrased it. The racism she faced is less discussed today than the sexism, though she certainly faced both. Thomas was able to claim the mantle of victim as a black man, or “play the race card” as the George Bush White House celebrated him for at the time, when he called the hearings “a high tech lynching.” Hill then was rendered raceless, or a “white woman” rather than a victim, according to scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. Hill was not only deprived her of victimhood, she was cast as a perpetrator, threatening a powerful man with her sexuality.
Other black women newsmakers received this treatment, too. The first black woman surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders was fired for discussing masturbation in the context of HIV/AIDS prevention, then mocked for going rogue and seeming to be too sexual. TLC, one the the best selling girl groups of all time, was likened to the racist stereotypes of the lascivious Jezebel and Sapphire, particularly Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes who was cast as the angry black woman for torching her partner, Andre Rison’s house. A Vibe magazine reporter spent time with the trio to determine whether or not they were “bitches.” Black women’s anger and sexuality have long been feared, and continue to make them targets.
Just as it did in the 90s, “bitchification” continues to undermine women. Even modern reclamations fuel this effort. Boss bitches are celebrated for nastiness. Basic bitches are skewered for their uncool consumer choices. As a verb, “bitch” means to complain. Today, the word remains steeped in a history of stopping women’s progress and reducing them to their sexual function — dogs who beg for men. It has become too easy to use, being mistaken for being reclaimed.
Language matters. And in this post-#MeToo, Trump’s America, feminist backlash moment, we should question everything, especially language that is used as a gendered weapon — and especially when such language is being used by the White House itself. Linguist George Lakoff argues that Trump is winning the news cycle and succeeding by repeating activating language — like bitch — that can “change how we view the world.” Maybe this moment — seeing how bitch is used in a public forum to insult a threatening black woman by the President of the United States — will wake us up to the term’s harm, and convince us to stop using it once and for all.
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