On the word bitch

Over on the post that asks folks to vote for which PETA is most offensive, someone says that by criticizing PETA, we at Bitch are just calling the kettle black.

Of course I'm offended by the PETA ad campaigns. As a long-time radical lesbian feminist, I abhor the explotation of the female body and the objectification of women as nothing more than sexual beings.

I would never give a dime to PETA even though I am also strongly in favor of the humane treatment of animals

However, how does its strategy of using "shock" to draw attention differ from your magazine? After all, isn't calling yourself "BITCH" simply a way to show how chic and clever and modern you are, how 'in your face' you can be, and how you like to flaunt convensional standards of language and cultural acceptance

The word bitch (unless applied to certain animals) has always been and is still a derogatory and borderline vulgar term for women. Old fashioned ideas? Sure. But so is not displaying naked women in suggestive poses just to sell products or ideas.

For "Bitch" to complain about PETA is disingenuous and hypocritical.

I want to make clear up front that this post (as all of my posts) represents my own thinking, not necessarily the perspective of the organization...

The b-word is something I think about a lot in my work here at Bitch. All the time, actually. It's mighty strange to be the director of an organization whose title I'd long felt conflicted about (to clarify, I wasn't around when Lisa and Andi founded Bitch). (To clarify futher, because I'm obsessive like that, I've never been conflicted about the work we do; only whether it's best to continue doing it under the name Bitch.)

It's not that I didn't understand why Lisa and Andi decided to call it Bitch. As Andi explained recently in the Washington Post:

Bitch is a word we use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. We use the term for a woman on the street who doesn't respond to men's catcalls or smile when they say, "Cheer up, baby, it can't be thatbad." We use it for the woman who has a better job than a man and doesn't apologize for it. We use it for the woman who doesn't back down from a confrontation.

So let's not be disingenuous. Is it a bad word? Of course it is. As a culture, we've done everything possible to make sure of that, starting with a constantly perpetuated mindset that deems powerful women to be scary, angry and, of course, unfeminine -- and sees uncompromising speech by women as anathema to a tidy, well-run world.

It's for just these reasons that when Lisa Jervis and I started the magazine in 1996, no other title was even up for consideration. As young women who had been bombarded with the word for, say, daring to walk down the street in tank tops, we knew what kinds of insults would be hurled when we started publishing articles on sexism
in consumer and popular culture.

How can anyone argue with that?

My major hang up has been that I know many women who have visceral reactions to the word, sometimes because they've had it hurled at them in abusive relationships. Several months ago, for instance, a feminist therapist friend told me some of the people she works with said they felt assaulted in what was supposed to be a "safe" space when she left some issues of Bitch in the lobby. My heart sank when I heard this.

My other main hang up has been concern that, despite what I think is huge potential to work with youth around issues of media literacy and media criticism, our title will continue to be an obstacle in these efforts.

But the thing is, whenever I ask people if we should consider changing our name, almost without exception, I heard a loud, NO! Even people who work with youth, or who have children of their own, felt that our title is an essential component to our work.

It's not that we're trying to be clever, modern, or even necessarily 'in your face.' It's that we're trying to claim the word bitch as something smart, powerful, strong. And yes, show that being uncompromising and angry is not just necessary sometimes, but that it can lead to positive change.

In all honesty, it was only recently that the scales tipped for me, affirming in my own mind/heart the fight for the word Bitch. I was waiting to cross a busy street. On the other side of the street a boy chased another boy and yelled, "Bitch!" when he couldn't catch up.

They were probably 8 years old. The way he yelled Bitch was... I don't know how to explain it... ugly... aggressive... mean... he was clearly trying to yell the most hateful thing he could think of at the other boy.

And I don't know how to explain this either, except to say that I had my first visceral reaction to the word. Even though it wasn't directed at me, I totally understood what the fight was about. That the only way to de-charge a loaded word is to use it, reclaim it, (re)appropriate it.

I'm not saying it's not complicated, or that we shouldn't listen to the people who feel assaulted by the word, or give up on trying to work with youth when schools tell us that they won't allow the magazine on their grounds, but that I think this work -- including using the word Bitch -- remains just as critical now as it did back when Bitch was founded 12 years ago.

I'd love to know what others think.

by Debbie Rasmussen
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5 Comments Have Been Posted

I have often defended the

I have often defended the name of the mag to others. And I have used it as an example of women reclaiming the word, just as we've reclaimed "Queer". So I was thinking "don't change it!" Then I read this part:

"Several months ago, for instance, a feminist therapist friend told me some of the people she works with said they felt assaulted in what was supposed to be a "safe" space when she left some issues of Bitch in the lobby. My heart sank when I heard this. "

My heart sank too. Ms. magazine has a program for sending the magazine to women in prison, which would be great for Bitch also, but would it have the same effect on these women who have so often been abused? And then you said this:

"My other main hang up has been concern that, despite what I think is huge potential to work with youth around issues of media literacy and media criticism, our title will continue to be an obstacle in these efforts."

And that to me, is a tragedy. Bitch mag is hip and fun and relevant to young women. For it to not be able to be used to it's full potential to reach out to young women because of it's *name*? tragic. And then I think about some parents who might not want their daughters to read Bitch because of it's name? Also tragic.

So at this point, as much as it pains me, I think you should consider it. Because isn't your mission to reach as many women as possible with positive feminist content? And is it worth missing out on a lot of those people who really need it because we're all emotionally attached to the magazine's name?

Just something to consider.



sinking hearts

i definitely hear you on all of this, and yes, we intend to take as much into consideration as possible -- including these points -- in our upcoming visioning process. speaking of, if you have an opinion about our title that you'd like us to take into account as we begin this process, now's a good time to say something.

a number of people have sent me individual messages but didn't want to post here. while i appreciate any feedback wherever you want to give it, it'd be nice to hear from people in a more open forum.

another layer of complexity for us tho comes from the fact that we've been around for 12 years, and changing names now would be (obviously) risky. in gross marketing terms, it's called "branding" but i like to think of it as having a healthy, accountable relationship with our supporters.


Um. The comparison between the word "Bitch" and PETA's advertising methods are rather silly.

But, I agree that PETA and Bitch are similar in certain ways - I certainly don't like everything that goes into the magazine, but I like the fact that there is a magazine dedicated to women's empowerment and whatnot.

I'll give PETA creative props for their ads. It draws attention and they've been creative in ways that Bitch isn't, really. Going outside of the box deserves some credit.

Nevertheless, I fail to support PETA entirely because - they care about animals quite a bit, but they're not always realistic and fail to look at the "big picture" [which is my main complaint with "bitch"]

However, they have amazing support and represent a great activist organization that actually DOES things and addresses the important issues concerning animal cruelty.

Bitch, however, is a good name for the magazine - of course it draws a bit of shock - feminists have never been known for their subtlety, which is a good thing entirely.

proudly Bitch

In the original post's definitions, they forgot to mention the big secondary use of the word "Bitch" (although this is alluded to in the story at the end), which is the feminization of men - "bitch" when directed at a man is aimed to feminize or emasculate him by associating him with what is "clearly" a lesser being - a woman. Since I refuse to acknowledge that feminization is a negative thing (or that women could be lesser in any degree), I have never taken "bitch," when directed at me, as an insult. In fact, like many gay men, it is something of a badge of pride. I might direct it at my friends when they're being prickly or stubborn or clever (or all 3) or they with me, but always with a hint of a smile.

The title of Bitch was precisely the reason I bought the magazine. I knew nothing about it, just saw the cover and bought myself an issue. And surprised myself by reading it cover-to-cover. I know the title is controversial, but, although it may repel some, it also attracts others (so in terms of saleability, it is roughly a wash - I don't think it's losing significantly by its title).

It's very unfortunate that this word has such strong negative resonance for some women; however, I don't think that alone is reason enough to abandon the word. As mentioned above, this word (unlike other common insults) does have some semi-positive connotations and ones that strongly correspond to the feminist movement (i.e., woman standing up for herself, not trying to please men) and in that sense, is very much worth claiming as a positive. It can be very empowering for someone to receive an insult and to be able to respond confidently, "Yeah, so what?" This will most likely confuse the attempted insulter.

Also, I consider Bitch magazine to include some controversial material and therefore, it lives up to its name. And, reluctantly, I'd like to bring up the sad fact that many, many words are used negatively against women, including the word "woman" and it would be unreasonable to try and avoid them all. Admittedly, "bitch" is one of the more charged ones, but it's precisely the fact that it's so common and charged (and used most often against women who disagree with or don't obey men) that makes it a powerful title (and something worth standing behind).

Finally, in response to the response above, I agree mostly with the comments about PETA, but disagree strongly with the comparison. Bitch doesn't need to go outside the box because it recognizes that there is no box (PETA goes outside the box only in the sense of non-human animal treatment - it stays within the lines as far as gender roles and other negative boundaries that society likes to imagine and try to enforce).

I don't agree with every article or word printed in Bitch, but I <i><b>like</b></i> that I don't agree with everything - I like that it's providing various perspectives and not just "singing to the choir" as happens in many movements. I think the diversity of opinions in Bitch is a great strength. On the other side, though I agree with much of PETA's intent, their methods are consistently lacking in empathy for humans in difficult or disempowered situations (immigrants, women, etc.) - they like to shock by breaking the human-animal boundary, but they're not breaking the mainstream "rules" in any other way. That is not diversity.

For a little more on this...

see the newly posted <a href="/article/editors-letter-orange">Editors' Letter from the Orange issue (#8)</a>.

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