You Say "Bitch" Like It's a Bad Thing
I don’t remember the first time I heard the word “bitch.” I was young; I know that for sure, because I have a distinct memory of the moment when I learned what it meant. I hadn’t been called that particular epithet yet, but before I was even seven years old it crept around the perimeter of my social life. I was curious: I knew enough to be certain that I did not want the word hurled in my direction, but I had no idea why. And so, I asked my mother to explain what exactly “bitch” signifies, not realizing at the time that I was giving her the perfect opportunity to kick-start my feminist education. “Honey,” she sighed, or laughed, or probably both, “If anyone ever calls you a bitch, you just yell right back, ‘You say ‘bitch’ as if it’s a bad thing!’”
Years passed before I understood what she meant. As I grew up and started getting called a bitch, however, her advice started to make sense. Every time someone called me the name, they did so because I was voicing my opinion, taking up space, or pursuing my desires. As a young woman, I quickly learned that the more confidence and self-assuredness I showed, the “bitchier” I was. The word became a litmus test to make sure my personal growth was on track. And yet, there are still times when the word stings, rubbing acid misogyny in my wounds.
I was walking home from a friend’s place a few weeks ago, talking on the phone with my partner, taking the same route I follow every Monday night after my friends’ customary trash-TV session. I slid by a pair of middle-aged men on the sidewalk paused with their two adorable pugs. I like cute dogs in general, and humans with their cute dogs specifically. It was an altogether normal and pleasant thing to pass on the street. That is, until I felt the word collide with my back as if there was a target on it: “Dumb bitch!”
I turned around in shock. Partly because I’m used to street harassment at least starting in the realm of flirty sexism rather than jumping right to insults. Partly because I have more privilege than any person should reasonably possess, so harassment doesn’t happen to me all that often. Partly because the men appeared to be a couple out for a routine stroll on a summer evening. And I suppose mostly because nobody is ever truly prepared for a stranger to verbally abuse them on the sidewalk, though as a woman I’ve learned to expect it.
At a loss for what to say, but feeling like I had to say something, all I managed to blurt out was, “Did you really just call me a dumb bitch?” To which our friend responded that yes indeed he did, and what the hell was I doing talking on my phone, and I should pay attention, and also get a life. I was momentarily convinced that some Freaky Friday moment had occurred and teleported an 11-year-old boy into this man’s body, and then I remembered that grown men harass women all the time in the most absurd ways. All I could think to say to him was, “I hope you become a kinder person.” I wanted to give him my mother’s trademark retort, but my sense of self-preservation stopped me. Women know all too well that the progression from verbal to physical violence is rapid indeed.
My experience that night was on the mild end of the street harassment and gender-based violence spectrum. No violent threats, no racism (I’m white) or transphobia (I’m cis), no violation of my personal space, no following me home, no assault. But still. “Dumb bitch” hangs in the air long after the men are gone, after I’ve gone home and poured a glass of wine to calm down, after that guy forgets what he said to the woman he passed that evening. “Dumb bitch” is what I am for walking on the sidewalk. For talking. For existing.
The same epithet that made me want to disappear inside myself as a little girl is the same one that reminds me that public space is not mine as a woman. I have new tools as an adult, though, and my mother’s retort has never left my lips. When a man tried to make me feel like I did not belong in the public space of the street, I responded in the online space of my blog. My self-expression in the face of oppression invited others to share in communal healing of our collective wounds inflicted by misogyny and cissexism. To reclaim “bitch” is to reclaim our space, our identities, and our safety.