As anyone following the American election race will know, events involving Donald Trump scraped the barrel of what is usually acceptable in politics many, many months ago. These days, the most appalling news from the Republican camp can pass with barely an exhausted eye-roll from onlookers – so it was strange to find myself shocked by a recent article in New York Magazine. ‘How “Bitch” Became the Word of the Republican National Convention,’ declared the piece by Annie Lowrey – the headline accompanied by an extraordinarily offensive photograph of a Trump supporter carrying a blow-up doll, its face covered with a Hillary Clinton mask.
The word "bitch", the article explained, was cropping up all over the RNC. The highly popular phrase "Trump That Bitch", with all its insinuated aggression, was being chanted at rallies and worn on T-shirts. "Life’s a Bitch, Don’t Vote for One" badges were selling well at the merchandise stands. The statements were so unapologetically misogynistic that I couldn’t immediately compute how this could happen. As comedy writer Megan Amram tweeted recently: “I’m surprised the Trump slogan isn’t ‘Let’s Beat A Woman’.”
"Bitch" has long been a fraught word. “‘Bicce’ was a standard term for a female dog in Anglo-Saxon or Old English, used from roughly the 6th century AD,” says Tony Thorne, a writer and language consultant at King’s College London. “Probably the first record of it being used pejoratively for a woman is in William Langland's Piers Plowman, written around 1380. Of course, dogs were thought of in Europe as being unclean and despicable, and the truth is that, right from the beginning, it was usually a term that indicated strong dislike and distaste."
Women have been trying to find a new context for ‘bitch’ for several decades – attempting to take the sting out of its tail by using it to assert themselves
Ingrained in the word "bitch" is the idea of speaking down to an inferior, or someone who must submit – whether that’s a dog, a woman or, in one usage of the word, a prison inmate dominated by another. "Bitch" is a word that sets out to deride and demean. This is the sense that radiates poisonously from that anti-Hillary merchandise – they call her a bitch in order to put her in her place.
Trump’s campaign has opened the door to a whole new basement of misogyny (not to mention racism). In years gone by, this language would not have been acceptable in a supposedly heavyweight sphere like politics. It might have been said behind closed doors, but it wasn’t considered appropriate public discourse; in 1984, Barbara Bush referred to politician Geraldine Ferraro as “the four-million dollar – I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘witch’.” Coy and euphemistic, even this putdown was too controversial; Bush later called Ferraro to apologise. Those must have been softer times, because now the word is applied as a weapon without shame.
I use the word "bitch" myself, sometimes. I use it in sympathy when someone has treated a friend badly – “What a bitch.” I use it cheerfully when rapping along to Zebra Katz’s 1 Bad Bitch (“Eeney, meeney, miney, mo; One bad bitch here got to go”). But, most frequently, I use it flippantly; I like it for its sassiness. The other day, having ordered a glass of prosecco while my friend was having a beer, I heard myself add, “…because I’m a fancy bitch.” A search through my WhatsApp history turns up the phrases “sexy bitch”, “resting bitch face”, “lazy bitch”, “mysterious bitch”, “jet lag is a bitch” and “bitches be cray cray”. It is clear that this word is not taboo among my friends, who throw it around liberally for comic effect.
And there are many other areas of our society where words like "bitch" can be used without a derogatory sting. “In the British theatre world, going back a very long time, actors have used these terms as ‘luvvy talk’, without the nasty overtones,” says Thorne. “And I think it’s like this in pop culture and music culture and fashion – words like ‘bitch’ are bandied around all the time by men and women, and it doesn’t have that toxicity. But when it’s being used in a political context, when it’s being used without any trace of irony or humour or self-awareness, it’s just a straightforward misogynist insult.”
Hillary Clinton is just the most high-profile woman currently on the receiving end of ‘bitch’ as a slur – it’s not a one-off
Hearing a man use it to describe a woman – “My ex-girlfriend is a bitch”, for example – feels like I’m hearing an entirely different word to the one I use so carelessly among friends. I bristle – it sounds threatening and hateful. Perhaps it’s hypocritical to take offence at a word in one context and embrace it in another – but, according to Thorne, what I’m sensing is an established rule of linguistics. “It’s not just the use and the usage of the word – it’s the user and the audience,” he says. “Language is very, very context-sensitive.”
Women have been trying to find a new context for "bitch" for several decades – attempting to take the sting out of its tail by using it to assert themselves. Among them is Madonna, who in 1996 famously said, “I’m tough, ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, OK.” Then there was Missy Elliott, with 1999’s magnificent anthem ‘She’s A Bitch’ – and Gloria Steinem, who last year told Cosmopolitan magazine, “The best thing I've ever thought of to say when somebody calls you a bitch is ‘Thank you’.’”
Beyoncé and Rihanna have both used the term in recent years too, but in ways that lie closer to the traditional belittling putdown: “Bow down, bitches,” and “Bitch better have my money.” Still, when a word is used to assert dominance, it can be refreshing and empowering to hear it wielded by women of colour. “I think that black women who are in front of the camera are going, ‘By the way, I’m speaking up on behalf of black women. I’m making sure that you understand that I’m here.’ So by reclaiming a word like 'bitch', they’re reaffirming their strength,” says Bola Agbaje, the writer behind the new play Bitches, which opens this month at London’s Finborough Theatre.
Her script centres on two teenage girls – YouTube vloggers – who believe they’ve reclaimed the word, but soon find that it’s not that simple. “When you’re trying to reclaim a word and trying to make it positive, it doesn’t mean that those negative connotations go away,” says Agbaje.
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Words evolve and occasionally they do seem to be successfully turned on their heads. "Queer", for example, has turned from a homophobic slur into a label championed by the LGBTQ community; this change has probably been helped by the fact that "queer" hasn’t been popular as a derogatory term for some decades. But when the positive and negative meanings of a word are being commonly used side by side, in the same society, things get more difficult. “I don’t believe the N-word has been successfully reclaimed,” says Agbaje, “because people do still use it as an insult. It’s so hard to change meanings of words, because you can’t change people, and you can’t change the intent behind it.”
Similarly, Hillary Clinton is just the most high-profile woman currently on the receiving end of "bitch" as a slur – it’s not a one-off. Perhaps the only solution is to forge ahead with the reappropriation, the "luvvy talk" and the WhatsApp jokes, in the hope that, as misogynists continue to print the word on T-shirts, they will be increasingly out of step. But when the most unpleasant, old-fashioned sense of "bitch" is being legitimised by mainstream 2016 politics – as a siren call to the lowest common denominator – it doesn’t look like the word will lose its power any time soon.