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Joan Collins wearing hat with veil and fur collared coat
figure 1  

 

bitch. (female) A derogatory term for a woman derived from the term for a female dog.

In contrast to “dog” as a reference for a woman, bitch refers to attitude or personality (specifically self-centeredness) rather than looks. John Ayato in Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that the use of the term for a woman dates back to the 14th century.reference 1 When it comes to the nature of bitch-ness, there is a range of interpretation. One source describes a bitch as a woman who will do anything she has to in order to get what she wants. Lying and cheating are not only legitimate means to an end, they are presumed to be the ones used.reference 2 Complaining is also associated with the term.reference 3 Yet another source describes the woman in question as overbearing and spiteful.reference 4 Promiscuity, though less prominent in current usage, is the oldest and most enduring implication. Context usually points to the meaning.

The use of this term by men attempts to undermine, challenge, or intimidate women who are self-assured or unwilling to subsume their lives and interests to those of the men around them. By comparing women to dogs, there is an equation to the behavior of dogs which humans find distasteful, especially if engaged in by humans. For a female human to emulate the sexuality of a female dog in heat would violate taboos in a wide range of societies. It also serves to cast women in a category of quasi- or non-persons. In Womanwords Jane Mills traces the long history of “opprobrious” usage. She notes that the consistent application, still implicit in contemporary use, is the attribution of lewdness.reference 5 The slang usages in which “bitch” figures underline the derogation of women.

1. Ayto, John. 1990. Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Arcade.

2. O'Shea, Robert P. 2000. American-Australian Slang Dictionary. Department of Psychology, University of Otago. Accessed Jun 28 2001 from http:// psy.otago.ac.nz:800/ r_oshea/ slang.html.

3. Scott, Robert Owen, Jr. 2001. Wizard's Gay Slang Dictionary. Wizard. Accessed August 30 2001 from http:// www.hurricane.net/~wizard/ 19.html.

4. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth. 2000. Bartleby.com. Accessed August 26 2001 from http:// www.bartleby.com/61/51/ B0285100.html

5. Mills, Jane. 1993. Womanwords: a Dictionary of Words About Women. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

In Words and Women, Casey Miller and Kate Swift cite an example from a 1972 sex discrimination case regarding the use of the term “bitch.” The counsel in the case drew comparisons directly with canine behavior and noted the social implications. When in heat, a female dog will actively seek sex and indiscriminately accept partners; such behavior is considered “lewd” by contemporary standards. Pre- and post-partum dogs are, by reputation, spiteful, malicious, and selfish. Counsel argued that using bitch “betrays a preconceived judgment that a woman's behavior is directed by her reproductive function; it also repudiates her for want of docility to the male.” Great stuff, isn't it? And they won the case.reference 6 6 . Miller, Casey and Kate Swift. 1977. Words and Women: New Language in New Times. London: Victor Gollancz.

There has been a movement among some women to reclaim this name as one of power rather than of selfishness or of antisocial sexuality. “The BITCH Manifesto” of 1970 begins with this line: “BITCH is an organization which does not yet exist. The name is not an acronym. It stands for exactly what it sounds like.”reference 7 It goes on to reinterpret the traditional definitions of “bitch” as affirmative and valuable. I am not sure how the members of this group feel about the one of the current manifestations of this manifesto: Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, a print magazine with a reported circulation of 15,000. Their editorial mission statement comments on the title, noting that it puts some people off:

woman wearing tee shirt with the word bitch on the front
figure 2  

If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we'll take that as a compliment, thanks.

Furthermore, if we take it as a compliment, it loses its power to hurt us. And if we can get people thinking about what they're saying when they use the word, that's even better.

And, last but certainly not least, “bitch” describes all at once who we are when we speak up, what it is we're too worked up over to be quiet about, and the act of making ourselves heard.reference 9

7. Joreen and Know, Inc. 1970. The BITCH Manifesto. Special Collections Library, Duke University. Accessed August 30 2001 from http:// scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/ wlm/bitch

8. Kuczynski, Alex. 2001. The New Feminist Mystique. New York Times, Sept. 10, C8.

 

 

 

 

9. Miya-Jervis, Lisa, ed. 2001. Bitch | Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Bitch. Accessed Sept. 9 2001 from http:// www.bitchmagazine.com/.
In certain cases, bitch may be used to describe an attractive woman, similar to the term “bitchin’.” Whether this makes it an affirmative use is not so clear. Since it appears to be a term employed largely by men about women, it may serve to reinforce the standing power dynamic, even, perhaps, underlining the expectation that women's appearances are the product of men's desires.  
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About the illustrations: Figure 1: Joan Collins, depicted here, whose characters are often cited as epitomes of bitchiness, even starred in a film called The Bitch. The image is unauthorized, from a fan web site. This image is excerpted from a publicity photograph, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the publisher or the creator of the image. I believe that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images of such photographs to provide critical commentary on the film in question or of the image itself qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Figure 2 shows someone modeling a Bitch Magazine tee shirt. This image is copyrighted and unlicensed. I believe that the use of this scaled-down, low-resolution portion of an image to illustrate the article “bitch” qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

see also: bitch (man); bitch (verb); bitchin'; son of a bitch; I'm not your bitch; like a bitch in heat
cf: dog (female); minx; feist, feisty
Last updated: February 24, 2009
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