This week, in a courtroom in California, there are two legal teams fighting in front of a panel of judges over the definition of the word “bitch”.
This is part of the ongoing lawsuit that Olivia de Havilland has brought against FX for their depiction of her in the Ryan Murphy series, Feud: Bette And Joan. De Havilland, now 101 years old and Joan Fontaine’s sister, told The Guardian, “The creators of Feud used my identity without my consent and put false words in my mouth, including having me publicly calling my sister, Joan Fontaine, a ‘bitch’.”
It turns out that a large part of the case hinges on this one rather strange, yet irresistibly salacious detail: whether the fictional de Havilland’s use of the word “bitch” to refer to her sister, Joan Fontaine, is worse than the actual insult the actress used in real life – “dragon lady”. (For future reference, this is the exact reason people make biopics, life is often so much weirder than fiction.)
There’s something so high school-esque about this story. The who-said-whatness of the whole thing – the denials, the exaggerations, the language. The completely bonkers fact that a word sisters often hurl at each other indiscriminately is now on trial in a courtroom in California. But it’s also started a conversation about what it means to use the word “bitch”. Obviously, for de Havilland, this isn’t a word she wants people to think she used in the context of her sister. She is 101 years old and this is not how she wants the world to remember their relationship, it’s not how she wants the world to remember her – and she’s got a court case to prove it. But, for many others, it’s a word they readily use to describe their best friends, a word that represents being independent and empowered and free.
These differing definitions have tripped up the lawyers, both of whom offered up competing dictionary definitions for “bitch” and “dragon lady”, with FX arguing the terms are interchangeable and Smith contesting they harbour vastly different meanings. “Bitch is a vulgarity,” Smith explained. “In my household, if you say bitch, you get your mouth washed out.”
The irony of there being a feud over a biopic called Feud is sweeter than a June-time strawberry. But it does raise an interesting point about the word “bitch” and what, exactly, we mean when we use it
For the record, de Havilland has outright rejected the idea that she called her sister a bitch, saying: “This kind of vulgarity is not language that I use.” To which, FX’s attorneys responded by compiling outtake reels from several classic films, available on YouTube, in which the actress says, “Oh, Christ”, “God damn it” and “son of a bitch” after messing up her lines. De Havilland dismissed those examples, insisting they were “unguarded, impulsive moments, wherein I felt I was in a confidential setting.”
The irony of there being a feud over a biopic called Feud is sweeter than a June-time strawberry. But it does raise an interesting point about the word “bitch” and what, exactly, we mean when we use it.
The word bitch has always been shrouded in sexism – it became a popular slur in the 1920s and was used to insult women who were campaigning for the right to vote, to own property, to have a life outside the home. In short, it was a word utilised by anxious men to try and put women back in their place. But men would have needed more than a canine-based slur to force the lid back on that Pandora’s box of women’s rights.
Since then, slews of women have been trying to subvert the word. In the 1990s, feminist musicians employed the word as a term of empowerment, the most notable example being Meredith Brooks in her hit song, Bitch, which included the refrain, “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I do not feel ashamed.” There are now books you can buy on Amazon that instruct women how to become a “Rich Bitch”. There is Bitch magazine, which refers to itself as “a feminist response to pop culture”.
But reclaiming a word is a tricky business. Especially when it’s a word that’s dripping with a century's worth of sexist connotations – a word that men still yell from car windows to intimidate you, and male rappers still use to degrade the women they sing about. But there is something so alluring about taking the power out of that slur, about turning a word men used to try and keep women down into a battlecry to try and lift women up.
For de Havilland, her relationship with her sister – which was obviously complex and colourful – has been reduced to this word, a word that she insists she never even used. And while this case is in no way clear cut, it feels disingenuous to pretend that the terms “dragon lady” and “bitch” are interchangeable when one is rooted, inextricably, in a long history of degrading and undermining women.