Please note that I use a number of words in this entry that may be upsetting. Proceed with caution.
Generally, I’m against censorship. I don’t think there’s anything offensive about words like “fuck,” and I don’t think most curse words are somehow harmful to children. Once I was old enough to understand that curse words were only for adults, my mom said “fuck” all the time. I never repeated it.
I noticed that WordPress censored the title of a recent post on the Freshly Pressed page. The original title had the word “bitch” in it; the censored version replaced “bitch” with “complain.” I wouldn’t have clicked on the link had WordPress kept the original title. I don’t have a problem with most curse words, but I do have a problem with “bitch,” because it’s a gendered insult that enforces sexist ideas.
It’s one of the words that’s allowed on television, even though it’s a bad word. You can also say “ass” (but not “asshole”) and “damn” (but not “goddamn”). It seems fairly arbitrary to me, but I’m not going to try to understand the censors’ logic. Women are called bitches; men are called bitches for acting weak or unmanly. People bitch about this and bitch about that. Some task is a bitch.
I’ve worked hard to scrub the word from my vocabulary, because it is a sexist term. It’s been more difficult than I expected. I got rid of the word “gyp” (a racist term against Romani people), and I’ve never said “retarded” or called something “gay.” But “bitch” is so persistent in our language that I’m having trouble getting rid of it. I even see plenty of feminist women using it as an insult.
I’ve also seen it being reclaimed by feminists, most notably by the publication Bitch magazine. I don’t have a problem with that, but I do have a problem with people who shrug off the sexism of the word. People often look at problematic words and say, “It’s just a word,” as if words don’t mean anything. Of course words mean something. That’s what words do; that’s all they do. And like it or not, a lot of words come with some baggage that we can’t ignore.
I saw an episode of South Park once where bike riders were called faggots–different, the show claimed, from calling a gay man a faggot. I don’t expect nuanced and thoughtful commentary from South Park, but I think that episode says something about how people look at words. People want to use any word without being told they can’t or shouldn’t. A lot of people don’t understand that free speech doesn’t mean saying whatever you want with no consequence. Just as you’re allowed to call me a bitch, I’m allowed to point out the sexism of the word.
People get upset when you tell them they shouldn’t use a word. I don’t get that. Why is it so terrible to not use a hurtful word? What people who cry things like “you’re just too PC” are trying to avoid acknowledging is that they are hurting others.
“Bitch” is a casual word that both men and women can use to dismiss women, and it’s powerful for that reason. You don’t hear people using “cunt” all that often, probably because it’s a shocking word, at least in the United States. I don’t hear “twat” too much either. If you want to let people know that a woman was being shrill, overly emotional, or just obnoxious, you can call her a bitch and everyone will nod in understanding.
I’m not saying that women can’t be shrill, obnoxious, or overly emotional, but “bitch” is more than a word to describe such a person. It’s a method of regulating how women speak and act. I know there are things I don’t say because I don’t want to be considered a bitch. I don’t think I’m the only woman who has ever bit her tongue because she didn’t want to be called a bitch.
So what would happen if people stopped using that word? Would women speak up more? I have to wonder and hope to see that come to pass.