The New York Times says we should want a bitch in the White House. Or, a little more specifically (and a little less clickbaity), writing for the New York Times opinion page, Andi Zeisler of Bitch Media proposes embracing the term that’s been so maliciously lobbied against Hillary Clinton. Zeisler’s argument is that Clinton’s called a bitch because she doesn’t put being likable above all else and because she has presidential-level tenacity and ambition. Zeisler evokes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s 2008 declaration that “bitches get stuff done” and asks “what if that’s not a bad thing”?
I like where Zeisler’s going but, before jumping on the bitch bandwagon, I want to take a little stroll down language, meaning, and reclamation lane.
Most words are what we in the biz call sign systems or sign chains: they communicate complex and extended meanings. Take the term “public bathroom.” In the U.S., a public bathroom probably won’t have a bath but we all know what’s in there and what it’s for. Here’s another one: “9/11.” It’s just two numbers. But for those in the U.S. of a certain age, these two numbers immediately evoke images of death, destruction, fear, loss, and war. The meaning tied into those numbers is much more than just the sum of the numbers themselves. Here’s one more: “feminist.” It characterizes a person who has particular social and institutional views, politics, and goals. And yet when a person is publicly called a feminist, it might have little to do with her political leanings and everything to do with how she is perceived as shrill, unfeminine, opinionated, and man-hating. In other words, a bitch.
Some words are loaded with histories of abuse and degradation. Some words were created for the explicit purpose of dehumanizing and justifying oppression. You know that old kiddy rhyme “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurts me”? That rhyme is BULLSHIT. Words can absolutely hurt. They can invalidate. They can belittle. And, very significantly, some words are used to incite and justify violence.
Reclamation is the project of taking the shitty part of a particular term and dispersing it, then replacing with more positive stuff. Reclamation has been fairly successful with the term “queer.” Sixty years ago (let’s get real, twenty years ago), queer was not something you could just call people. Or actually you could if you wanted to demean or belittle that person. Today, I teach for a Queer Studies program; in my classroom, the term is not only acceptable, it’s considered more appropriate than some other terms. Queer is now often used to give people respect and humanity, to create inclusion. My 69-year-old mother used to avoid using that term like the fucking plague, and she now proudly tells people her daughter teaches queer theory. Queer shows the power of reclamation.
Now let’s look at the N-word. That’s right, I’m not even gonna write it. That’s because this term has not been successfully reclaimed. Mass inhumanity and violence happened alongside this term and, while some have tried to bend it toward an inclusion and family meaning, it’s not been able to fully shake the filthy legacy. It’s unusable by ethical White people, and still controversial when used by Black people (see Larry Wilmore’s Correspondents Dinner speech).*
I don’t know exactly why some terms have a chance at reclamation and others just don’t. I’m guessing it’s an intricate balance of the histories and legacies poured into the word plus time, distance, and respect. My point is this: reclamation has a ton of potential but isn’t a guaranteed success. Some words never shake free.
Back to the bitch. Zeisler acknowledges that people are never gonna stop calling Clinton a bitch (cause haters, also cause gendered expectations). So Zeisler’s like, cool let’s just fucking reclaim this term then. Let Clinton embrace her bitchness, let the term signal her get-things-done attitude and her ceiling-breaking pathway to the Presidency. Zeisler urges us to frame Clinton as “the bitch America needs.”
Great. Cool. I like it. In theory. But also, bitch is deeply historically and socially situated. It doesn’t just name a tough person who doesn’t fall into gender line, it’s systematically used to invalidate women by dehumanizing them, effectively reducing them to a breeding animal in need of control. Bitch is also frequently used to create an allowable context for violence, rape, and murder against women. That’s why every Law & Order creeper says: “the bitch got what she deserved.”
Not everything is equivalent, but let’s play the equivalent game. If mass publics were systematically calling President Obama a “porch monkey” (yes, I know some did and yes, I know, GROSS), I wonder how many articles would declare that he should embrace and reclaim the term because his Blackness is a strength and a valuable asset to his Presidency. I’m guessing that few people asked President Obama to channel his strength and value through a really disgusting racist term.
There’s power in flipping negatives into positives and simultaneously justifying behavior that doesn’t fall into stratified gender ideals. But I don’t know if we can just flip the script on bitch, or if Clinton should feel obligated to embrace this label as something that empowers her and validates her kick-assness. I’m not sure if bitch can be totally reclaimed, and I’m not totally convinced it should be.
But this is just one bitch’s opinion.
*rather than saying “the N-word,” some of my Black students will replace the term with the word “ninja.” I don’t know exactly why this happens, but it’s clever-as-fuck.