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Meredith Holt, Published May 09 2013

The B-word: Women differ over whether derogatory word can be made positive

FARGO - “You say I’m a bitch like it’s a bad thing.”

Well, most people still think it’s a bad thing.

But some women have been using the word as a title of empowerment or a term of affection rather than a degrading slur.

Kristine Wallin is one of them. She says she’s taking the word back.

The artist uses the word to describe herself, as a greeting with friends, and in her collages.

“It’s just like saying, ‘Hey, girl,’ ‘Hey, sweetheart,’ ‘Hey, love,’ ” she says.

The B-word may be showing up more in some circles and in pop culture, but not everyone’s ready to accept it as anything other than an insult.

Erienne Fawcett, assistant director of women and gender studies at North Dakota State University, says it’s a hot topic in her field, both locally and nationally.

“Even though we’re hearing it more, I still think it’s being used in hurtful ways. I rarely see or hear the word ‘bitch’ used in media as a good thing,” she says.

Fawcett says she doesn’t know if it’ll always have a negative connotation, but it’s a ways away from becoming positive.

“I think what artists and Bitch magazine are doing is still relatively groundbreaking,” she says.

The B in ‘Bipolart’

Like popular artist Anne Taintor, Wallin places tongue-in-cheek captions over images of “domestic goddess” types from midcentury advertisements.

Her work, which she calls Kristine Wallin Creations “Bipolart,” features women proclaiming sayings like “Bitch with wisdom” and “I have a master’s in bitchology.”

“I look at their faces and think to myself, ‘If they were my friends, what would they be saying?’ ” she says.

Wallin says she hasn’t received any complaints from customers – young or old – about her B-word pieces.

Her 15-year-old son, however, isn’t a fan.

When he sees her working on her buttons, rings and luggage tags on the floor of the living room, he’ll say, “Really, Mom? The B-word? Do you have to do that?”

When she talks about the word, Wallin emphasizes the importance of context. How it’s perceived depends on the audience, intent and tone.

“It can mean whatever you want it to mean. It can be lewd, it can be derogatory, but when I say it, it’s empowering,” Wallin says.

The B in abuse

Definitions vary, but they’re usually some combination of the words selfish, spiteful, lewd, unpleasant, aggressive, mean and malicious.

Merriam-Webster says it’s a “generalized term of abuse.” And it’s specific to women.

NDSU’s Fawcett says the list of derogatory names for women is far longer than for men. She says some feel the word is so rooted in patriarchy and the hatred of women that there’s nothing to be reclaimed.

Her colleague, Elizabeth “Betsy” Birmingham, agrees.

“I think that notion of re-appropriation or reclaiming doesn’t quite work for that word in the same way that reclaiming ‘queer’ has worked for gay culture,” says Birmingham, an associate professor in NDSU’s English department.

Although she understands the motivation to use the B-word to embolden women, she’s still sensitive to it.

“It’s a word for an animal, and generally, when we refer to women in animal terms, it’s a dehumanizing linguistic move,” she says.

Even in banter, Fawcett says it conjures images of emotional and physical violence.

“I don’t know that there are very many other words that can make you feel less respected,” she says.

And Birmingham, who teaches a language bias class, says it’s even harsher when it’s coming from a man.

“I think if a man called me that word, I would feel physically threatened,” she says. “If a woman called me that word, I might be angry or feel hurt, but I wouldn’t feel like it carried the connotation of physical fear.”

The B in behavior

The most common use of the word Birmingham has heard – at least on campus – is as a self-check on behavior.

Instead of “I was really assertive in that meeting today,” it’s “Was I too much of a bitch in that meeting today?”

She sees that as women undermining their right to express anger and frustration over their wants or needs, or to stand up for others’.

“We don’t even have the right to our own negative emotions without putting a pejorative term on them,” she says.

Birmingham says women do that to themselves because they’re aware of how their actions might be interpreted.

“When women use that word about their own behavior, especially if it was completely appropriate and in line, but was just expressing some real desire, I think that’s about how women have internalized society’s lack of respect for us,” she says.

As Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg lays out in her best-seller, “Lean In,” women, especially in professional settings, often become stuck between the idea that if they don’t ask for what they want or need, they won’t get it, but if they do, they’ll be labeled.

“How do you maintain the notion that you aren’t a ‘gender traitor,’ that you are a feminine woman, while at the same time, articulate the things you need to be successful or for other people to be successful?” Birmingham says.

Fawcett questions whether any dismissive usage of the B-word signifies a move toward reclamation.

“Whether it’s changing or we’re just getting used to it – that’s a big question,” she says.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590