Dear Surly Amy
With all this talk about “Elevatorgate” I thought I’d ask a question about male privilege and insults. I was reading this article: http://is.gd/GG8hmd and I posted it on a chat room with a the comment “She’s a privileged bitch.” This sparked quite a debate on my use of the word “bitch.” I’ll spare you all the details of the debate, but the tl;dr version is that the argument was the use of “bitch” is anti-feminist because of it’s an engendered term. I try to pay attention to my male privilege, and conceded several points they made. I intend to use the term much less often than I already do, but I can’t get over the fact that nearly every insult is a privileged statement against some group. “Moron” was used to describe mentally handicapped. “Dick” is exclusively a male insult. Etc.
Am I showing my privilege when I use “bitch” and being anti-feminist, or am I just using yet another insult that has a checkered past?
I’m not really sure if this is about privilege as much as it is about being insensitive. Technically, it depends on how you are using the word and in what way. In fact, this question is very interesting to me as I often use the word to describe my friends in a playful manner but I also have also been hurt by it when it was directed towards me in anger. And for the sake of this discussion we are just going to respond to the question of the word, “bitch” and not to other the words mentioned that each carry separate connotations.
And I say we because I decided the best way to answer this question was to call in for some linguistic back-up!
I sent a note to ex-Skepchick and skeptic-friend, Dr Karen Stollznow.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Karen, she has a doctorate in linguistics. She is also the cohost of Point of Inquiry and the Monster Talk podcast. She is the “Naked Skeptic” columnist for Skeptic magazine, contributing editor for Skeptical Inquirer magazine as well as a paranormal investigator and all around awesome gal. She even has a blog called, Skepbitch. I honestly couldn’t think of anyone more qualified to answer this than her. Here is Karen’s response:
“Bitch” has many different meanings and usages.
Of course, it can have negative connotations; it can be wielded as a term
of abuse to label a supposedly “malicious” woman, or used as an insult
term to emasculate a man. It can be used with positive connotations; as a
self-referential term to mean “a strong, powerful woman”, or used to show
solidarity and familiarity between friends, both male and female.
“Bitch” may be seen as “anti-feminist” by some, but there has also been a
movement by feminists to reclaim “bitch”. However, the most salient usage
of the word is as a term of abuse, usually directed towards women. The
pejorative sense usually wins out.
Women can be especially sensitive to men using the term, because it can
seem as though “bitch” is a gendered insult that has no equivalent term
for men. In this way, “bitch” can sound hostile to a woman, towards women
in general, and even sound misogynistic.
There aren’t any hard and fast rules as to when and where “bitch” is
appropriate or inappropriate. If you use the word, even when intended as a
positive term, you are still likely to offend someone. This comes down to
the listener’s interpretation and that can be unpredictable.
Unless it’s intended to be an insult, I’d recommend people just try to be
sensitive to their audience. That can be difficult to predict too, and I
don’t believe in psychic abilities. :)
Thanks so much, Karen!
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