Sun, Feb 04, 2007 - Page 17 News List

BITCH

It's an insult often thrown at women who are strong, ambitious and outspoken. We'll take that as a compliment then

By Kate Figes  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Bitches are people too, as Meryl Streep showed in her performance as the powerful editor of a famous fashion magazine in last year's hit movie The Devil Wears Prada.

PHOTOS: AP

Far more unites men and women than divides us, but when it comes to negative stereotypes, women win hands down. Girls are "bossy" and grow into women who "nag," while boys of all ages are "authoritative" and "natural-born leaders." When men go out for a drink together it is considered positive social interaction or "networking," when women get together they "gossip." But the stereotype that many women hate the most is "bitch." Men bitch too, of course, only in their case it is dubbed Machiavellian (with a palpable hint of respect) or they are hailed for their acerbic wit. As the actor Bette Davis once said: "When a man gives his opinion, he's a man; when a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch."

For centuries, the straight definition of the word bitch was simply a sexually promiscuous woman. Then, as women became more powerful throughout the 20th century, the definition expanded to include being duplicitous. Now men tend to call women bitches when they do not get what they want from them. So, if a woman turns a man down for a date, she is a bitch. If she climbs the career ladder faster than him, she is a bitch. If she becomes his boss and turns down one of his ideas, she is — you guessed it — a bitch.

Current slang associations underline the fact that, for some, the idea of being called a bitch is just as derogatory as ever. Bikers "ride bitch" (pillion), but only when their own bike is unavailable, of course. Among heroin users, the major artery for injection is known as "your bitch," hence the Prodigy's most famous track Smack My Bitch Up. That small, unattractive tuft of hair that some men like to grow beneath their lower lip is also known as a bitch, presumably because of its vague resemblance to female genitalia.

Given all its negative connotations, it is not surprising that women fear being called a bitch. In fact, though, it is something that we should embrace. Why? The US feminist magazine BITCH explains it like this on its Web site: "When it's being used as an insult, bitch is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and do not shy away from expressing them and who do not sit by and smile uncomfortably if they are bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we will take that as a compliment, thanks."

The Web Site Heartless Bitches International agrees, announcing on its homepage that Bitch means Being In Total Control Honey. It is a sign of strength in a woman and of honesty.

After all, look at some of the women who get called bitches. Michiko Kakutani, the famously ferocious book critic on the New York Times, has been accused by the male literary establishment of being "weird," and a "feminist" who deliberately trashes the likes of Norman Mailer simply because he is male. You can almost read the word bitch between the lines, can't you? But Kakutani is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who is dedicated to literature. Her reviews are honest appraisals of each book rather than sycophantic hero-worship of incredibly well-known authors, which we tend to get this side of the Atlantic. It is hard to believe Kakutani would suffer the same sort of criticism for giving her opinion if she were a man.

Bitching thrills because it flouts manners and speaks the truth. Feminists such as Germaine Greer and the British journalist Julie Burchill excel at the art because they dare to say what they really think of other people, even when that offends. Then there is Joan Rivers, one of the funniest women alive, who has made her name savaging other famous women, usually over their appearance. What she says she hates is the dishonesty, the pretence, that they have had no cosmetic surgery. And what could be seen as cruelty is mitigated by her own self-deprecation: "I wish I had a twin so that I could know what I looked like without plastic surgery. My best birth control now is to leave the lights on."

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