How becoming a bro made me rethink our use of gendered swear words

Grace Hawkins
Jul 5, 2018 · 4 min read

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.

Athena Talks

A hub of conversation to help young women mature, budding professionals become leaders and leaders become advocates for equality.

Grace Hawkins

Written by

Smart Feminist. Opinion and creative writer. www.smartfeminist.com

Athena Talks

A hub of conversation to help young women mature, budding professionals become leaders and leaders become advocates for equality.

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