Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Big Bitch Theory

Kurt Vonnegut was known as a fiction writer.  It seems he may have been a bit of a prophet.

In one of his futuristic short stories, he described a United States where barriers against foul language in public had been dropped: "This was a period of great permissiveness in matters of language, so even the President was saying shit and fuck and so on, without anybody’s feeling threatened or taking offense. It was perfectly OK."

I know things haven't gotten that bad, but I have noticed the  pervasiveness of the word "bitch" lately.  It seems every few years a new word breaks the language barrier for television and public discourse.  Before "bitch" the hot word was "douche."  That went from a word not even used in commercials for one to a cheap laugh on sitcoms, from How I Met Your Mother to Cougartown.  (A blogger noted the douche-phenomenon in 2010.)

I am no prude when it comes to language.  I learned to curse in a news room, after all.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and it seems that "bitch" has become the curse du jour -- it is everywhere these days.  There is Bitch wine and Skinny Bitch cookbooks.  Internet memes of "Bitch please" (yes, usually  missing the appropriate punctuation) have become passe -- even those depicting the epitome of wholesomeness, Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

Perhaps an early sign of the word's impending invasion was in 2007.  That is when a character as unvulgar and untimidating as Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory used the word.  In an episode titled "The Big Bran Hypothesis" he says, "Ah, gravity.  Thou art a heartless bitch." 

The word has even made its way into the names of two TV series: GCB (Good Christian Bitches) and Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23.

I should say "bitch" is implied in both titles, but I have heard that the original titles spelled the word out.  Oddly enough, both shows are on ABC.  I always thought that B stood for Broadcasting.  I guess not.

But the word is used in ways other than to refer to bad-tempered women.  For instance, Wolowitz and Raj, again from The Big Bang Theory, have both referred to their male friends this way.  In "The Hofstadter Isotope" Raj says, "Let's roll, bitches."  In "The Luminous Fish Effect" Wolowitz says, "What up, science bitches?"

The comedy results from the disjunction between their personas as nerdy guys from Cal Tech and the "street" use of "bitches."  Raj is probably saying it ironically, knowing it sounds funny, but Wolowitz, in this instance, is trying act tough and cool to his friends in order to impress a woman.  The use of "bitches" here implies he is the leader of the gang and they are his subordinates.

Even when bitches refers to men, it still carries its misogynistic meanings.  In the distant past, the word had meant only a "bad-tempered woman."  However, thanks to rap lyrics (and prison jargon), it now carries a host of other meanings -- all pejorative and all misogynistic.

In an academic study titled "Misogyny in Rap Music," the authors, Ronald Weitzer and Charis Kubrin, state the masculinity espoused by popular media representations of men "glorify men's use of physical force, a daring demeanor, virility, and emotional distance." Rap lyrics exaggerate those tendencies into caricatures, but those caricatures can have powerful influences on audiences.

We can see why the writers of The Big Bang Theory would make comedy of their man-child characters taking hypermasculine poses.

This masculine ideal conveyed in rap lyrics many times depends upon the domination, exploitation, and degradation of women -- and of other men, who, since they can be dominated, are associated with women.  That is to say, the word perpetuates the destructive idea that female = bad.  Women are sex objects.  Women are weak.  Women are inferior.  Dominating women (and men who are like them) is socially acceptable.

So, when "bitch" gains such widespread -- even laughing -- acceptance, I get worried that its misogynistic implications also are gaining that acceptance.  Some people might argue that frequently using the word robs it of its power and somehow weakens the values it conveys.   But I am not convinced this is true.

I hate to produce a grand narrative that sound like conspiracy theories, but the wide acceptance of "bitch" could be part of the larger cultural battles being waged elsewhere -- in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, in the controversy surrounding Rush Limbaugh's comments about Sandra Fluke, in the debates on contraception being covered by health insurance plans, and in the various efforts by state legislatures to dictate how women can interact with their doctors.

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