Feminist Challenges in Reclaiming B**ch

Language warning ahead. Postmodernist feminists argue that the words used to demean women might be reclaimed to change their meaning. I’ve previously spoken that some swear words like c**t might be reconfigured, but I note that they are damaging when used to put down other people. The word bitch has more diverse connotations, especially in rap music. Let’s consider how Missy Elliots subverts expectations

In hip hop, male MCs have long used the word bitch to put down other men, but women rappers have used this word as a tool of empowerment. Patricia Hill Collins argues that this term means “a woman who handles her business and is in control of her sexuality.” Benita Dix notes that songs like Missy Elliot’s “She’s a Bitch” use the term bitch to disrupt women’s subservient role. A bitch is a woman who is not afraid to be in charge, and who enjoys her success without apology. The video’s imagery is unapologetically feminist. This video is the 7th most expensive clip produced in the previous decade; Missy Elliot uses her deluxe sets and costumes to play around with with the way she presents her body. She exaggerates her shape, she dresses as a futuristic superhero, she drives (and raps about) sports cars, and she delivers her lines without the need to smile or play into a “safe” version of femininity usually used to sell music. As Missy Elliot raps, she’s happy to be called a bitch “When I do my thing,” putting herself at the centre of her success.

Emily Heist Moss sees things differently. She argues that feminist projects that aim to reclaim the word “bitch” are difficult to reconcile with the aims of feminism. She writes:

“I take ‘bitch’ more seriously than other insults because it attempts to use a piece of my identity – my femaleness – as a weapon, and consequently feels more personal… ‘Bitch’ is about not fitting the mold that women are supposed to fit. It is aimed at women who behave in ‘male’ ways, women who are too ambitious or aggressive, women who are not as nice or as quiet as some people would like them to be.”

I am a huge Missy Elliot fan and I’m always interested in women who subvert stereotypes and who consciously use language to make political statements. At the same time, I see many issues with reclaiming this particular word. As Dix points out, in women’s rap music, “the bitch” is still placed in a gender hierarchy. In songs by Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, the bitch is a “queen,” while “hos and sluts” are looked down upon. The connotation being that it’s okay to be in control of one’s sexuality so long as one does not sleep around “too much.”

More broadly, there are other, non-swear words that are already loaded with gender politics, such as “confidence.” If a man shows confidence this is a good thing; if a woman shows too much confidence, she’s being too much like a man; she’s unpleasant and therefore a bitch. The connotation is that being overly confident should not part of femininity. We have an uphill battle changing the meaning of supposedly gender-neutral adjectives.

Is it worth reclaiming the word bitch as a feminist project?

Learn more

* Heist Moss quote: http://buff.ly/1ng2X8Z

* Missy Elliot, “She’s a Bitch”: http://goo.gl/lw1CuU

* Hill Collins: http://goo.gl/8j4F2W

* Betina Dix: http://goo.gl/fcQfhZ

* Image: [Text] “I need feminism because an assertive woman is NOT a bitch (she’s jus assertive!) via: http://buff.ly/1ng2Uu1 

5 thoughts on “Feminist Challenges in Reclaiming B**ch

  1. this is an interesting topic thank you for posting.  It is always a touchy subject because in my mind, it comes down to the idea of ownership of a certain derogatory word or phrase.  The group that once felt controlled or demeaned by it finds power in reclaiming it.  There might be some value to that.


  2. Thanks for your thoughts Shanta LE Very true – and its use has to be negotiated to reach some measure of consensus amongst the groups these words are used on (and taking into consideration why). Some minority groups embrace contentious words and in some cases the new meaning is widely supported, such as queer, which now describes a self-claimed gender identity. I’m ambivalent about bitch. I don’t mind it when women rappers use it as a form of empowerment, specifically to point out gender dynamics. I’d prefer to more broadly change the way society positions assertive/confident women – as people who should be admired for their strength, as men are applauded for showing these same qualities.


  3. The Other Sociologist well stated.  What do you think about this repositioning in regards to banning the term bossy?  I know they had that took place or started a dialogue over the summer (or just before summer).  I have mixed feelings about it.


  4. Hi again Shanta LE I intensely dislike the Sheryl Sandberg vision of “equality.” It’s woefully ignorant of class and race differences. The “ban bossy” campaign is an extension of her book Lean In. Women who lack power, minorities especially, can’t simply ask people to help them as they have to navigate multiple issues. One can’t ask for gender inequality if you’re also being discriminated against as a woman of colour or for not heterosexual and so on. I think “ban bossy” suffers from the same blinkered view.

    The campaign tells girls if they’re just more confident and don’t see confidence as a bad thing, success will follow. The problem isn’t women not having confidence, or not having the desire to step into leadership roles – it’s lack of opportunities and other barriers to full participation and inclusion. This isn’t addressed by banning bossy. The issue isn’t with individual women – it’s society and those in power specifically. Telling individuals to battle stereotypes within themselves does nothing to understand how those stereotypes are internalised and used by others and how these unexplored biases are sustained by institutions.


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