In an excellent op-ed last week in The New York Times, Andi Zeisler describes Hillary Clinton’s longstanding, often contentious relationship with the word “bitch.” Zeisler notes that no shortage of Trump supporters and unapologetic misogynists have used the word to attack the presidential candidate, but also describes a reclaiming of sorts by Clinton’s supporters. “[T]here’s a whole other group of people embracing and amplifying Mrs. Clinton’s bitchiness,” Ziesler writes. “The person showcased and celebrated in Tumblrs, photo captions and satirical statements from the candidate herself is revolutionary not just for her political stature, but for demonstrating that likability is no longer the heaviest cudgel a woman can wield.”
A few days later, public editor Liz Spayd responded to criticism of the piece’s message, ostensibly limiting her focus to its headline: “The Bitch America Needs.” Spayd also highlighted the dishonorable intentions of many who employ the term, describing “Trump That Bitch” t-shirts, cheers at Trump rallies, and a young boy at one such event who shouted “Take the bitch down.” (All three examples were presented as a rebuttal to Zeisler’s piece, and all three examples were highlighted by Zeisler herself.) Spayd sides with critics who decried the paper’s use of the word, insisting that, in all cases, the word is “surely intended as crude and demeaning.” “[R]eferring to the first female presidential nominee as the right bitch for the job brings an air of the legitimacy to the word,” she writes, “that seems beyond where we are at this moment in history.”
Spayd’s implication that the use of a slur is always crude might be accurate, but her contention that its use is always intended as demeaning is far more contentious. In the “Epithets and Attitudes” chapter of his 2008 book “When Truth Gives Out,” Harvard philosophy professor Mark Richard offers several unobjectionable uses of slurs. “Slurs can be used without displaying contempt or causing hurt,” he wrote. “This happens, for example, when a slur is appropriated by its targets: it is an insult to no one, save perhaps the homophobe, for gay people to call themselves queer. A slur can be self-ascribed to record one’s status as a victim of discrimination or worse.”
The question of whether “bitch” qualifies as a slur, however, turns out to be quite complicated. A working definition put forth by Richard suggests that a slur’s use assigns a moral judgment to a morally neutral trait. “A slur directed towards African Americans means to a first, rough approximation, something like black and despicable because of it,” he wrote. But Zeisler argues that the word has traditionally been applied to describe women “flexing influence, standing up for their beliefs, not acting according to feminine norms and expectations.” It is a testament to the strength and pervasiveness of sexism that we’ve accepted as a slur a word whose definition isn’t just neutral, let alone negative, but is downright positive.
But for all intents and purposes, Richard’s exceptions to the general anti-epithet rule are applicable here. Using “bitch” in the context in which Zeisler and others have reclaimed it is not just an act of appropriation, it’s also an act of recording Clinton’s status as a member of an oppressed class, the victim of discrimination (or worse). It doesn’t use sexism to degrade women who are targets of it; it highlights that sexism is at play.
There are alternative philosophies on the utility of recording that status. One argues that to do so worsens oppression, that by continuing to bemoan the effects of sexism (or racism, or the like), one is highlighting one’s differences in an inescapably sexist way. It is a view MSNBC’s Irin Carmon sarcastically summarized as “Feminists are the real sexists” when tweeting Spayd’s piece. That view generally holds that ignoring differences and focusing on bettering one’s station, uneven playing field be damned, is the best way to combat discrimination.
Another more robust philosophy argues instead that one can simultaneously try to outwork oppression to achieve success on an individual level and champion greater tolerance and fairness on a societal one. It even holds that doing the former is necessary to effectively do the latter, even if such “unbridled ambition” is likely to get one branded a bad name.
Spayd essentially argues that since the word is employed hatefully, it’s impossible for its targets to re-appropriate it. She holds, instead, that we ought to bow down to the word’s power until, magically, it’s powerless, at which point non-misogynists are free to employ it once more. She neglects to gesture at how the force of the word might be lessened without tacts such as re-appropriation; nor does she acknowledge that once a word is no longer used as a weapon, wielding it in a non-hateful manner is no longer appropriation at all.
But more troubling is that Spayd may have more in common with the worldview of the obviously deplorable “Trump that bitch”-ers than she admits. Women — and in particular feminists — aren’t passive recipients of linguistic messages. They can, instead, be full and active participants in linguistic discourse, helping to reframe the social, cultural and political connotations of even the ugliest of words. If a word’s power derives from its capacity to stifle their ambition and silence their voices, they can exhaust that ambition trying to live up to impossible standards, or use those voices to reject them entirely. To, in other words, take that “bitch” down.