Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)
(Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail)

The B-word - whose is it, anyway? Add to ...

“I got 99 problems but a rather difficult and frustrating woman isn’t one of them.”

Reimagining Jay-Z’s lyrics without the word “bitch” is a ridiculous enterprise, one that fans relished when news emerged that the rapper would stop using the derogatory term following the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy, earlier this month.

More related to this story

A poem initially attributed to the hip-hop mogul but later credited to blogger Renee Gardner announced that Jay-Z’s little bundle had brought on an epiphany about the slur: “I rapped, I flipped it, I sold it, I lived it/Now with my daughter in this world I curse those that give it.”

The flap pitched feminists against misogynists and fans against fans, leaving cultural critics grappling over the current state of the b-word in Western culture: Who can use it, and how? Have women – including Jay-Z’s rabid female fans, women from all socio-economic backgrounds – reclaimed the term, or simply become habituated to it?

“Hip-hop culture is no longer an isolated subcategory of culture. It is American culture now, and so it’s a much larger question of how are women represented,” Samhita Mukhopadhyay said from Brooklyn.

The executive editor of Feministing.com has had trouble justifying her love for Jay-Z because of his lyrics: “I was a feminist first and a hip-hop fan second. I ultimately have never been fully able to reconcile some of the really violent misogyny.”

What originated as an uncomplicated agricultural term for “female dog” now has myriad meanings in as many contexts: a scheming, controlling woman; a term of endearment among partying girlfriends; a cheeky compliment for someone who’s succeeded; a misogynist putdown between straight men. Gay men use it too, lovingly and scathingly.

In certain strains of hip hop, the word connotes a “money-hungry, scandalous, manipulating, and demanding woman,” according to a 2006 paper published in the Journal of Black Studies. Problematically, the term is often used to describe women as a group – not one particular gold digger.

“More than in any other genre in the history of black music, commercially celebrated hip-hop swagger depends on a brand of manhood that consistently defines black women as disrespected objects,” Tricia Rose, professor at Brown University and author of The Hip Hop Wars, wrote in The Guardian on Tuesday.

“And fans of all racial backgrounds, but especially young white males, who make up the bulk of U.S. consumers, eat it up.”

A tally by Time magazine found that 109 of Jay-Z’s 217 songs contain the word, making up 50.2 per cent of his entire output.

Ms. Mukhopadhyay noted that critics who ballyhooed the rapper’s remorseful turn (before it was attributed to Ms. Gardner) felt he’d gone soft.

“There’s an idea that being politically correct ruins art. You don’t want something raw like the lyrical mastery of Jay-Z to be diluted by these PC notions – that women are humans too. ... But if we think of the basic reality that women are humans as ‘politically correct,’ we’ve got a major problem.”

Beyond hip hop, recent U.S. presidential campaigns have seen the term routinely lobbed at female candidates, most notably in 2008, when critics used the profanity “10 ways from Sunday” for Hillary Clinton, said Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch magazine.

“It’s inherently gendered. You don’t hear female politicians being called ‘jerks’ or ‘a-holes,’” Ms. Zeisler said.

Last November, late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon issued an apology to U.S. Republican Michele Bachmann after his house band, the Roots, played on the politician with a 1985 Fishbone song that used the slur in its title.

“I’m honored that @MicheleBachmann was on our show yesterday and I’m so sorry about the intro mess. I really hope she comes back,” a sheepish Mr. Fallon tweeted the next day.

“We as a culture have not been able to issue a white paper on how we’re all going to be using the word,” said Ms. Zeisler. “I don’t really know when the line is drawn. I think that’s the state we’re in now.”

In her personal life, Ms. Zeisler refrains from using the word as a pejorative, using it instead as a verb.

“If someone’s doing something you don’t like that has nothing to do with their gender, why gender it? Really what we’re saying when we automatically gender those things is that we have different standards for men’s and women’s behaviour.”

Feminists have attempted to reappropriate the word since the sixties, much like gays successfully took back “queer.”

Women stamped with the b-word “are accused of domineering when doing what would be considered natural by a man,” feminist Jo Freeman wrote in her 1968 manifesto. “You may not like her, but you cannot ignore her.”

Over the years, several hokey backronyms have sprung up for the word, including, “Babe In Total Control of Herself” and “Being In Total Control, Honey,” that one from a women’s humour website out of Ottawa.

Ms. Zeisler and her colleagues co-opted the word for their magazine as “anticipatory retaliation.” It was “going to be used against us so we decided to go ahead and beat people to it,” she said.

But when they launched the publication in 1996, the term hardly had the cultural life it does today: “You were just starting to hear it in songs on the radio. It had just been approved by the FCC to be part of prime-time programming in the U.S. You were starting to hear it on night-time dramas like NYPD Blue.”

Now, young women use the word constantly, many without any political aspirations of reappropriation.

"There is a bit of taking the term back when girls or women are using it. It’s a term of endearment,” said Kelly Valen, author of the recent book The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships.

“But it’s something to be thinking about as we did with the SlutWalk movement. Among feminist leaders, they disagreed about whether that’s the way you want to go with this,” Ms. Valen said.

Exhibit A: “Huge Group of Girls,” a YouTube video inching toward half a million views among the college set this month features a “drunken tidal wave” of young women dancing and texting in micro-minis, hissing the slur at a rival clan that “hate on us because they’re fat and bitter.”

Is reappropriation really just complicity?

Although he believes the word isn’t particularly “dirty in relative terms right now,” University of Toronto linguistics professor Jack Chambers suggests, “We know from behaviour how we can become desensitized.”

The term has been “neutralized and with the tremendous repetition it loses its sting. But maybe it doesn’t lose its sting and we just get inured to it,” Prof. Chambers said.

Pointing to the flagrant use of the word in music and on reality-TV, Ms. Mukhopadhyay said, “The mainstream is so addicted to a culture of misogyny that Jay-Z will be continually rewarded for saying negative things about women. That still sells.”

Still, some are taking a stand, suggesting it’s up to women to take the high road with each other.

During an Oct. 2010 speech at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference in California, Oprah Winfrey announced that OWN, her cable network, would be “fun and entertaining without tearing people down and calling them bitches. Imagine that.”

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular