Girls of Color Embracing the Word Bitch: Transgressive or Oppressive?

07 Feb

Over the years, I have listened to some of the girls that I work with contend that they are not bothered by the fact that many singers and performers call women “bitches” and “hos” in their music and on film. Their oft-heard refrain is “if you’re not a bitch or a ho, why are you going to get mad? They’re not talking about you.”

Other girls mention that they wear these insults as badges of honor — they call themselves “gangsta bitches.” They say that they are reclaiming the word to mean strong and capable, having a take no prisoner attitude. In a March 7, 2004 New York Times article, Nina Bernstein wrote about the emergence of a new culture of restraint among teenagers which she suggested might help to explain the fall in teen pregnancy rates during that period. The main subjects of her story were Alberto and Jasmine, both 16 years old. She writes of Jasmine:

“She also believes in girl power. Her mother, 53, a school-crossing guard, once tried to throw away [her] favorite belt, the silver one inscribed BITCH. Jasmine insists it is actually a defiant acronym for Beautiful, Intelligent, Talented, Caring and Honest — something that her pop-star idol, Christina Aguilera, might wear.”

This quote illustrates the tug of war over the word “Bitch” as the mother sees it as negative and the daughter has transformed it into a positive appellation. Cole and Guy-Sheftall (2003) are just two of the many authors who have tried to make sense of the ready acceptance of the label “bitch or ho” particularly by some girls of color. They write:

“The way in which some Black women actually embrace the use of the terms bitches and hos creates controversy within Black communities similar to the one surrounding the use of the term nigga. Some women consider their embrace of the term ho as a transgressive gesture because they are encroaching on male territory and reclaiming a derogatory term as something affirming their sexuality. This defiance is also seen as exposing a double standard, whereby men’s expression of their sexuality is celebrated, while women’s naming of their sexual desires generates shock and moral indictment. The latter was the intent of the female gangsta rappers “Bytches With Problems” (BWP), who said they embraced the term because they were angry with the way women were portrayed and wanted to make fun of double standards. The question we raise is whether BWP is really being transgressive by embracing a word that has no positive connotations. (204-205)”

The question that they pose about whether it is possible to be “transgressive by embracing a word that has no positive connotations” has real resonance for those of us who are working with girls of color. An important part of growing up is deciding which labels you will embrace and which you will reject. Labeling ourselves is an important aspect of our identity development. No one wants to curtail that ability — so where does that leave us when thinking about the use of “bitch” or “ho?”

Joan Morgan (1996) offers her take on this issue:

“The idea for fly-girls came to me a few years ago while waiting on 157th for the downtown Broadway local, eavesdropping on a conversation between two teenagers. No more than 16, they were arguing over the lyrics from Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Mostly they were arguing over the lyrical use of the ‘B-word.’ The dreadlocked cutie in his saggin’ Girbauds argued that Cube was just talkin’ reality. ‘There really are girls like that, especially from the projects. They get pregnant just to trap you and take your money.’ Miss Thang — with neck, eyes and dookie earrings rolling — let him know, in no uncertain terms, that she didn’t care. ‘That’s still no reason to call all girls bitches,’ she said punctuating each syllable with a snap of her long, freshly manicured acrylic tips. ‘I ain’t nobody’s bitch!’ As I continued to watch this all-too-rare discussion of gender in the black community, I was amazed, once again, how far-reaching the power of hip hop can be. Here was an audience, one that contemporary feminist discourse has sorely failed to reach, kickin’ it on the subway platform. That hip-hop could be a way to help heal a community in desperate need of healthy, loving relationships — some good ol’ black-on-black love – had my nose wide open. Truth be told, they both had a point.”

It has to be said that the young man’s contention that girls “especially in the projects” are predators is not in any way challenged by Morgan. The inherent classism and sexism present in his characterization of black girls is not critically analyzed or acknowledged. Morgan’s anecdote plays to all of the stereotypes that exist about urban black girls — they are take no nonsense, finger snapping, wise cracking caricatures. This image might be a true one for a minority of black girls but surely this isn’t their only or even primary character.

What about the vulnerable, scared young woman who is wondering how she is going to improve her lot in life? And the young woman who is introverted and observant rather than loud and boisterous? Where does she fit into this image of the take-no-prisoners urban black female? Morgan does have a point that contemporary feminist discourse has no relevance to the lives of the girls that I work with. It doesn’t speak to the complexities of their lives. That, I think, will be the struggle for fourth wave feminism. How do we acknowledge that yes, some girls do indeed throw themselves at the feet of powerful male entertainers but that it is equally important to understand what leads them there? Morgan points out later on in her article that “sex has long been the bartering chip that women use to gain protection, money, and the vicarious benefits of power. In the black community, where women are given less access to all of the above, “trickin’” becomes a means of leveling the playing field (p.33).” She is right that sexual relations between black men and women are often extremely complicated and fraught with misunderstanding and conflict. But the reasons for this are innumerable and young women’s need for economic security plays only a small role.

A few years ago, a study by MEE productions found that:

“Black females are dissed by almost everyone. Young African American females hold little status within their communities, reflected in the name-calling and devaluing of young girls. Not only do males not trust females, but overwhelmingly, girls reported that they do not even trust each other.”

Surely, we can all agree that this is an alarming finding. As we take the measure of all of the sources of violence impinging on young black women, it seems important to raise questions about derogatory words as one more form of violence that they encounter. The question remains: “How should we foster more discussion about this issue?”

1 Comment

Posted by on February 7, 2011 in Racism, Violence, Youth voices


One response to “Girls of Color Embracing the Word Bitch: Transgressive or Oppressive?

  1. Pmrp

    August 9, 2011 at 11:34 am

    This is extremely interesting since I also employ the usage of the word “bitch” when talking with my friends both male, usually gay, and female. Though we use it for the pure comedy of sounding like 13 yr old Latina hood rats, which we were about 10 years ago, we don’t consider it to be an empowering term. I can see how “nigga” is used in the black community as a term that brings people together because they have gone through the same suffering, but “bitch” is different. It is distinct because women have forever been oppressed regardless of their color, creed, or orientation. People should reflect on the meaning of the word “bitch” and ask themselves why would calling someone a “female dog” be worse than just calling them “dog” or more generally an “animal” ? Once again, you’ll encounter a bias against females, and this time discrimination of females regardless of species. I do not condemn people who embrace it or who use it (I already said my friends and I use it playfully), I just hope people get educated about the etymology and social implications of the word and are comfortable with whatever definition they decide to give it before incorporating it into their daily lingo.



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