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Why We Use The Word “Bitch” In Our Column About Badass Women

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Why We Use The Word “Bitch” In Our Column About Badass Women

An email from a reader inspired us to explore the meaning—and power—of the term

BY HILARY SHEPHERD

PEOPLE  -  MARCH 11

On November 9, the day it was announced that Hillary Clinton officially lost the 2016 presidential election, we decided to publish a weekly column called “Badass Bitch of the Week,” in which we celebrate women we admire. (Our inaugural badass bitch was, of course, Clinton.) “She is not just an advocate, but an inspiration for women everywhere,” our editor-in-chief wrote. Since then, FU staffers have applauded everyone from Sophie Theallet and Michelle Obama to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Lena Dunham. To cap off the end of last year, we also compiled a list of women who deserved celebrating before we launched the series, like Solange, Kamala Harris, Ashley Graham, and the members of Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot.

The column has received an overwhelmingly positive response, but last month, we received the following email from a reader:

I strongly suggest you change “Badass Bitch of the Week” to “Badass of the Week.” The current title perpetuates the message that strong women are bitches, a dated concept that needs to change. It would be far more powerful to celebrate females being badasses without calling them bitches. Celebrate female strength positively.

An internal email thread quickly formed. “I don’t disagree with her,” one editor said. “I agree with her stance, but what it leaves out is how words are changed via the context of their use,” said another. Was the title of our column an ineloquent and patriarchal oversight? An easy and clichéd moniker that, while not ill-intentioned, tarnished what we set out to accomplish? “I think seeing as how many of us on staff say it to each other, it’s a reflection of our personal voice,” someone added. (Indeed it is—one needn’t do so much as type the word “bitch” into our search bar to find the many beauty articles, news pieces, and long-form features that all include some variation of the word.) But the overall consensus was this: We see what the reader is saying, but let’s keep it as is. And here’s why. 

Tracing its lineage, you’ll find that the word’s etymology stems from a derogatory place (its first-known use around the 12th century was a way to describe a female dog, per Merriam Webster). The negative connotations of the word—which technically describes a “lewd or immoral woman”—are seemingly endless. If a woman is a bitch, that generally means she’s difficult or unpleasant. If a man is a bitch, he’s weak or delicate. If something is a bitch, it’s annoying. At the same time, the word is widely used in a playful context, a shift that gradually occurred over the course of time. Examples: “It’s Britney, bitch,” “I’m in Miami, bitch,” “I’m a free bitch, baby!” There are basic bitches (bad) and bitchin’ cars (good). Vice has even likened the incongruous nature of the word to “a handful of Silly Putty.” All the while, the word has also been offensively hurled (mostly by men) at powerful women like Elizabeth Warren (another Badass Bitch of the Week), Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and, yes, Clinton. It’s also safe to assume at one point or another, almost every woman has been called a “bitch” in her lifetime.  

So, to the reader who wrote to us—and any other readers who find the title of our celebratory column off-putting—please know this: In calling these amazing, smart women “bitches,” we’re aiming to subvert the word’s negative connotation. And in that regard, rather than subtly attempting to re-appropriate it, as many men and women are wont to do by using it as a term of affection, we are using it as a badge of honor. Similar to the ethos of feminist independent quarterly Bitch, we’re employing the word to show that these women are, indeed, bitches—if being a bitch means being outspoken, fearless, opinionated, and, yes, irksome to misogynists. We know it’s used as a hurtful epithet, but we are rallying against that by using it in a positive context. As Tina Fey and Amy Poehler once famously said on SNL’s Weekend Update back in 2008, "bitches get stuff done." And we think that’s worth celebrating. 

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