This month, Bitch Magazine has provided us with questions for our Lady in The House feature. The Editors.
When was the first time you remember being called a bitch? What were the circumstances?
The first time I heard the word bitch I was about four years old on vacation with my family and another family. The other family’s daughter, who was my age, told me she heard about some bad words. I was intrigued. Later that night, she tried saying the word to her mother and her mother was shocked and told her it was a “strong word.” My friend asked, “Like a swear?” and her mom said, “Sort of like a swear but very insulting.” I didn’t have a sense for what the word meant at that point, but I was immediately aware of the the power behind it. The first time I was called a bitch was when I was 14 at summer camp–I wasn’t interested in a boy that thought we should be “seeing each other” (or any boys, for that matter) and his friends decided that I was, of course, a bitch.
What is your own definition of the word?
This word “bitch” has had a complicated history for me because, in my experience, it always emerged when a woman wasn’t doing something that a man, or group of men, thought she should be. I learned, via summer camp, that you didn’t have to “act bitchy” to be a bitch–you could simply be shy, withholding, afraid, disinterested, firm, strong, or any other adjective that makes up one’s character. The bottom line was that if you were not submissive, cooing, flirtatious, relenting–you were a bitch. Later, I would go on to have internships in corporate environments where I’d hear men talking about female supervisors both onsite and afterhours as “bitches”–for a variety of reasons. Maybe one of the men received a negative performance review. Bitch. Maybe the boss was silent about her personal life and was (gasp) businesslike at work. Bitch. You get the idea. I have male friends who are amazing, enlightened, sensitive beings who will use the word when they don’t like a woman. We all complain, get frustrated, and confide in our friends. But there have been occasions where I have said to a couple of these friends, “I have no idea what you mean by that or why she offends you. All I know from the word “bitch” is that you are talking about a woman. That word communicates nothing.” That may seem over the top in casual conversation, but it has become infuriating to me that the word ‘bitch’ gets tossed around as a lazy stand-in for “woman doing something I don’t like.”
The word became more interesting and nuanced to me as I discovered poetry a few years later. I will always remember the first time I read Anne Sexton’s “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife”, and came across the lines:
I give you permission —
for the fuse inside her, throbbing
angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her
and the burying of her wound —
for the burying of her small red wound alive —
How fascinating to read a woman using that word to describe another woman—and to describe a type of power, no less! In fact, power is paramount in this poem—the man with a wife and a mistress (a typical patriarchal structure) has the obvious cake/eating it too complex, but in Sexton’s poem, the wife, wronged, also has power–she is strong, fiery, the bitch a FUSE inside her. And then, of course, there is the moment where the speaker, the mistress, declares that she gives her lover permission. Suddenly, it is not so easy to reduce the moment to historical power constructions. And so bitch, here, takes on a new context.
I also can enjoy how “bitch” has been reclaimed almost playfully in language outside of heterosexual power complexes. It’s complicated, of course, because those instances co-exist with instances where it is still a lazy, derogatory designation. And, of course, it’s contextual— and laborious to unpack. What are the implications when the drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race call each other bitch? What are the implications when leaders of girl groups in movies like Pitch Perfect refer to their members as bitches? What are the implications when Drake, on his emo-esque “Take Care” (an album I admittedly love), almost exclusively refers to women as bitches? What are the implications when Azealia Banks, on the track “212” does the same, while declaring she herself is “the beacon, the bitch that wants to compete” ?
Language is shifty. All of these instances seem, to me, more nuanced than the scenario where I was directly referred to as a bitch at 14 for not having an interest in a boy. Some uses of “bitch” are obviously catty and humorous; some simultaneously assert power and serve as a smokescreen for loneliness or lack of a meaningful connection; some are sharp-edged, cutting, and reek of institutionalized sexism. And lots of things in between or beyond.
Carolyn Kizer once wrote of “a bitch” inside her. What lives inside you?
To answer this question literally, right now, I have a daughter inside me. She’s present when I’m writing, reading, and thinking now in ways I couldnt have imagined. I think constantly about the language she will grow up with–what terms will be empowered in her youth, what widespread messaging she will receive from her family, friends, media–and of course about her own private engagement with language. How will she make sense of an unjust world? Where will she see the indescribable beauty that also exists, and how will she transcribe or communicate it?
Many women suffer from the affliction of “Bitchy Resting Face.” http://www.happyplace.com/24440/resting-bitch-face-psa-funny Have you ever been asked to “cheer up!” when in reality, you’re just thinking?
Hahahaha, I am so glad this condition now has its own designation. I’m pretty expressive, but when “resting” (i.e. walking down the street, waiting at a bus stop, window shopping, etc.) I’ve been told my face is very “serious.” Which is fine, but I cannot explain the rage I would feel when out of nowhere, interrupting a thought, daydream, or even the beginnings of a poem, some dude would call out, “Smile!” Yep, I have heard ALL the BRF comments, with surprising frequency: “Who hurt your feelings, gorgeous?” “You should try smiling, you’d be so much prettier” “Cheer up!” “When a man gives you a compliment, you should smile.” When this happens, I go to a very specific place in my mind–when I was 23, and working for a literary agency, I was walking by Gourmet Garage in the West Village. There was a man in a small delivery truck yelling things at me as he drove–mostly of the “Cmon, give me a smile” variety. The more I ignored him, the more insistent he was. Until he was leaning out the window, yelling that I would have a lonely life if I couldn’t smile when asked. At that point, I turned the corner just in time to see his truck plow into a double parked car. True story.
If you had to choose between being perpetually angry or perpetually fearful, which would you pick?
Congratulations. This is an extremely difficult question. I immediately wanted to find a reason to say “perpetually fearful.” What does that say about the way I am socially conditioned? And yet, I couldn’t find a way to rationalize fear any more than I could find a way to rationalize anger. In thinking about fear as a stopping force and anger as a driving force, I’d probably rather be perpetually angry. I don’t think that anger has to be synonymous with aggression–it can instead be a call to action, to some kind of act, even if internal. I’ve been angry about injustice in ways that have taught me to find deeper modes of empathy. I’ve been angry about my own helplessness enough to want to understand it in productive ways–mostly through writing. But anger can only really be the first part of the equation for me–it can become its own stopping force when other emotions and strategies don’t mitigate it. And worse, it can be isolating, which feels antithetical to the work I’m trying to do, which is largely about how we are all in relation to one another. The bitch inside me is an interdependent bitch.