How becoming a bro made me rethink our use of gendered swear words
Can women fight for gender equality by adopting misogynistic language?
As soon as I met them, all I wanted to do was fit in with The Bros. My boyfriend and I had just started dating, and when he introduced me to his group of guys, I wanted to impress. I caught on quickly to their roast-your-friends sense of humor, and jumped into the arena with my skewers drawn. Within an hour of meeting them for the first time, I began dishing serious burns like I had known them for years. After the words left my lips, the room would get so quiet you could hear the grease drip from the well-cooked meat of my latest victim.
Then, the boys would burst out laughing, and exclaim to him over and over: “Where did you find her??”
The boys seemed to like me because I Wasn’t Like Other Girls. I was confrontational and sometimes downright aggressive, which is usually a death sentence for women trying to get people to like them. But instead of burning me at the stake, the boys accepted a witch into their brotherhood and took me in.
As the weeks passed, the bros and I became friends, but that didn’t mean I was One Of The Boys. My final rite of passage into becoming a bro didn’t happen until I uttered one simple word: bitch.
Bitch. Every time there were shots to be taken, bongs to be hit, or weights to be lifted, the boys would urge each other on with their age-old mantra: Don’t be a bitch. One night, as one of the bros was turning down a third shot, I blurted out:
“What, you tellin’ me you’re a bitch?”
He narrowed his eyes at me, laughed, and downed the shot. Later that night he clapped me on the back and told me I was one of them. I was a “bro.”
I had gotten what I wanted. I belonged. But as we continued to joke and tease, I started to worry about the meaning of the words we chose. Each time we said “Don’t be a bitch,” I wondered what that actually meant. Was “Don’t be a woman” what we were really saying? Were our thoughtless jokes, in some subconscious way, promoting a contempt of femininity? Did our words have a power we couldn’t quite perceive?
I began to think I had betrayed my feminist values by condoning the jokes we made. I felt complicit in a system of language that associated weakness with womanhood, and motivated men to be more machismo by threatening to classify them as women if they failed a test of manhood.
Not that, in any way, my bros were machismo. They were sweet, sensitive, caring, and kind. Which is why I felt so confused about the slang they used. In our group, “don’t be a bitch” was never an ultimatum, it was still perfectly acceptable to say no after being told to stop being a bitch. But it seemed to me that “Don’t be a bitch” could be translated to “Don’t be a woman,” making the use of the phrase a dangerous practice for our perception of womanhood.
But then I realized there was something I wasn’t considering. As soon as I began to say it to them, they included me in the ritual, telling me not to be a bitch as well. I thought the phrase “Don’t be a bitch” translated to “Don’t be a woman,” but that if that were the case, it wouldn’t make any sense to say it to me. Telling me “don’t be a bitch” felt as natural as telling anyone else in the group. It was as if we had removed the feminine nature of the word, making it a gender-neutral term that meant something like “chicken” or “scaredy-cat”.
I think the effect of me saying “don’t be a bitch” was actually the opposite of what I feared. Instead of promoting harmful, gendered language, I was helping to change the definition of bitch to a gender-neutral term. By including me in the group, the boys were helping to de-associate the word bitch from the idea of womanhood, and adopt a gender-neutral system of slang.
The truth of the matter is, our gendered curse words are harmful. Words like bitch, pussy, dick, asshole, and douchebag promote negative ideas about women, hyper-masculine ideas about men, and polarize the genders to extremes. But the good news is, we as a collective determine what these words mean. By treating these words as gender-neutral, we have the power to make them gender-neutral, just as the bros and I have done with the word “bitch.”
So call your brother a bitch, your sister a dick, and everyone an asshole. Keep the root definitions of these words, but remove the gendered connotation they carry. That way we can enjoy the ritual of roasting each other, guilt-free.
Read more by Grace Hawkins here.