Discussion: Embracing The B-Word

Jun 24, 2011

Recently, I was sitting on the roof of my building chatting with a neighbor about her new job.  She’s been having a bit of a rough go, because she and another co-worker collaborate on a number of creative projects and rarely see eye-to-eye.  Earlier this week, she was horrified when, following a tense discussion about the direction of an ad campaign, he told another co-worker that she was a bitch.

I absolutely believe that his behavior was unprofessional.  However, my neighbor (who gave me permission to post this) was more concerned that he thought she was “the B-word.”  She couldn’t even say it aloud. 

While I’m sorry that she was genuinely hurt by what he said, and sorry that she’s having such a tough time working with him, I was kind of surprised that there are still women who are sensitive to the word bitch.  Don’t get me wrong, we shouldn’t be walking around calling each other names in the workplace, but I’ve always seen being called a bitch as something of a badge of honor.

But maybe that’s just because I’m called a bitch so frequently, I had to develop some kind of coping mechanism. *wink*

All kidding aside, women have spent centuries pushing for gender equality.  We fight for equal pay, equal treatment and equal expectations, and we don’t always get them.  And as a result of societal norms, behavior that would be perfectly acceptable for a man can label a woman as a bitch in no time flat.

As Tina Fey said, “Bitch is the new black,”  and I completely agree.  Usually, when someone calls me “the B-word” it’s because I’ve stood up for myself or refused to defer to someone else’s opinion when I didn’t agree. The word bitch no longer holds any sting for me.  In fact, if all you can do is call me names, then I’ve already won.  And when someone uses this word in reference to me, I just shrug my shoulders and move on with my day.  I don’t dwell on it, and I don’t let it get me down.

My neighbor felt differently.  She “doesn’t think name calling should be a source of personal pride” and refuses to accept that “the word should ever be used except in reference to a female dog.” 

So what do you think?  Should she be offended by “the B-word” or is being called a bitch nothing to fret about?



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  1. Jessica says:

    The two words that are completely removed from my vocabulary are “whore” and “slut.” I absolutely cannot stand that woman choose to call other women these names! Frankly, you're just making it worse for yourself. And when you call a friend that in jest that really makes my skin crawl. I'm a little less sensitive to the “b-word,” but I much prefer describing someone's personality traits over name calling. I don't think I've used the “b-word” since college. If someone's being mean or disagreeable I say just that.

  2. B says:

    You know Belle, I'm all for being opinionated, letting someone know to shut the hell up or piss off when they are out of line, but i don't think the word “bitch” is ever one that I will reclaim and be ok with being called. I agree that, if someone calls me a bitch for knowing my boundaries, like you've described you do for yourself, then that's their problem- not mine or yours- and i won't go home being too overly upset about it. But it doesn't change the fact that I can be assertive or opinionated, just like a man or anyone else, but it doesn't make me a bitch. The word bitch is used when women act in a way that we're “not supposed to.” I'm not always quiet and unassuming, but that doesn't make me a bitch.

    Bottom line is, the way your friend's coworker treated your friend is not acceptable and his continuing to talk that way marginalizes her and puts her in a position of submission. And your friend need not take the word to heart and let it hurt her, but if she doesn't want to be called a bitch again, be marginalized again, be put into submission again, she needs to articulate to him that her assertiveness does not make her a bitch and he better not call her that again.

  3. KP says:

    One time a middle school student shouted “short white bitch” at me. I had to laugh because it was true and so succinctly phrased.

  4. KLo says:

    I should say first, I absolutely do not disagree with B. That said … as my best friends (and sometimes complete strangers) can confirm, I have the world's worst vocabulary (and it's on my bucket list to improve, promise). Your neighbor absolutely has the right to feel hurt or marginalized by any word under the sun (“hon” gets me more than anything). But I can't help but feel that when she got hurt by being called a bitch, she accepted her position as marginalized. Sticks and stones. You got over when someone called you Fatty Patty (or whatever your fabulous kindergarten nickname was), right? Why should bitch be any different now?

  5. grlnextdoor says:

    Hate the b-word. Reminds me of back-alley street women. Let's expand our vocabulary, people.

  6. Kathy says:

    I've been called so many names in my lifetime I don't even give a second thought to it if someone calls me the b-word. I'm not offended but don't wear it as a badge either. And I think that when you are calling someone a “bitch” or any other name it's really just putting them in a narrow box – on your terms, not theirs. Maybe a particular action a person took or something they said was “bitchy” but that can't encapsulate their entire being. Unless your neighbor owns the label “bitch” as her own and has made those feelings publicly known, no one should think they have the right to call her that (even if they are angry or frustrated with her).

  7. Cori Sue says:

    Obviously, the Bitches Who Brunch are fans of the word in the same manner that Belle explains. While I would never refer to someone as a “whore” or a “slut,” and I do NOT think profanity, lude/sexual references or anything not completely PC should ever occur in the workplace, I am very much OK with using the word “Bitch” in common speak. Our friend, Miss Helena Andrews, author of “Bitch is the New Black,” clearly feels similarly.

    The reason I've been called a Bitch is the same reasons as Belle– because I'm not afraid to voice my opinions, I'm direct, no-bones-about it and honest. When people ask why we're the Bitches Who Brunch it's because we're busy, successful women who are too busy to take BS from anybody. I very much agree with the phrase, “you call me a Bitch like it's a bad thing” (which I have seen on notecards). But, whenever I meet someone and tell them I'm with the Bitches Who Brunch, they are always surprised that I am nice.

    In addition to Helena's book, there's also a great relationship book (so I'm told, I havent read it, though I loved “Bitch is the New Black”) called “Why Men Love Bitches.” I'm pretty sure the Bitches Who Brunch' boyfriends fall into that category. An excerpt from the book: “The woman I'm describing is kind yet strong. She doesn't give up her life, and she won't chase a man.”

    So, in terms of the workplace, I would not use the word “Bitch” in an office. But, would I use it to describe myself, or someone else in a positive (or negative manner, if they were being really nasty) outside of the workplace. Probably.

  8. Nina says:

    For women in the working world the alternative to being a bitch is being a doormat. Just like there is no middle ground in societies sexual judgment of women, you're either a whore or a prude, there is rarely middle ground between professional judgments. When I hear people talk about female co-workers it's either they're “sweet” “nice” “fun” “cute” or a “bitch” (or worse expletives). I'd rather be the later.

  9. Katie says:

    I agree with your neighbor, I would be equally offended because it was within a work setting. The B word is used to improperly (and used as a derogatory term) describe women who stand up for themselves, are independent, and voice their opinion. Should a male say or do the same thing, he's not any 'word', but doing what's expected. It's an issue with respect.

  10. MidwestChic says:

    I agree with you, Belle. Being called the “b-word” is sort of like a badge of honor. People aften sink to calling you that name when you stand up for yourself or disagree with something they are saying. Sadly, I too let the word roll right off of my back… if someone really wants to make something stick with me, then they are going to have to think of something more intelligent to say.

  11. Dakota says:

    Calling someone a bitch is such a cop-out. There are thousands of other words available to more accurately express what is actually going on! I think bitch has turned into a pathetic shorthand for scenarios when the speaker is unable to come up with something better! Honestly, the most that being called bitch would elicit from me is a (private) eye roll.

  12. cia says:

    “Usually, when someone calls me “the B-word” it’s because I’ve stood up for myself or refused to defer to someone else's opinion when I didn't agree.”

    I understand what you're saying, but to me, that's the problem. Why is a man who stands up for himself “assertive,” but a woman who stands up for herself is a “bitch”? Seems like “embracing it” is still just working to set us back even more.

    I'm against the word except (and maybe this IS hypocritical) in playful connotations, such as the Bitches Who Brunch example above.

    Thank you for providing a forum where we can discuss our differing opinions!

  13. Belle says:

    This argument has as many valid derivations as there are women willing to discuss it. I see bitch as a “seriously, that's all you've got” kind of thing. I don't see the word as the problem. And while CIA makes a good point about the usage being the issue, I think that's even more reason not to let it get to you.

  14. Rae says:

    I wouldn't be as offended as just shocked that someone would have such low class and lack of professionalism to call a co-worker that.

  15. oedipa says:

    I'm dating a guy who refuses to say the word – ever – because it's denigrating to women. He puts it firmly in the same category as racial slurs. It's made me consider in more depth the way I view the term – I'm one of the women who feels that the term is often used when someone really means “assertive.” As a result, I wouldn't let anyone's use of the word alter my self-image or confidence.

    However, it would dramatically lower my opinion of the other person; to me, it indicates a limited vocabulary and an even more limited ability to interact with other people. In a work setting, any criticism levied at coworkers should be based on the content of the work being discussed; I would like to imagine that your friend's coworker wouldn't use a racial slur to express his disagreement, so why would a gender slur be different?

    I don't use it in self-reference, but if other women want to (in a positive, empowering way)? Fine by me.

  16. Charleigh says:

    Most of my guy friends are gay, so words like bitch, slut, whore, fag, dyke, and queer get thrown around just about every other word.

    Historically, especially the words “dyke” “queer” and “fag” used to be (and actually still are) used by those who were uneducated and intolerant, and who wished to use the most degrading words they could to hurt and cut down those within the gay community. They would yell them out of car windows, or in the streets, or in the hallways of schools. That is the sad history of these words. However, these words have since been “re-claimed” and now the gay community uses them with one another, even as terms of self-expression. They are no longer barbed words that can particularly hurt someone if they are thrown out as a slur.

    I feel the same goes for the words “whore” and “slut.” I hear these words used for men nowadays (even straight men) as much as I do for women, and I certainly throw them around with gusto for my female as well as male friends, and always in fun.

    When you take a word, no matter how “bad” it is, and use it often, and in every way… it has absolutely no meaning of being a “bad” word anymore. People use the F-word to describe having sex with someone all the time, even among couples when they are having ahem.. a particularly good time. “Damn” has such little meaning now, it may as well be “aaw, shoot.”

    In fact, the only word that I can now think of that may have some sort of bad-connotative meaning is the C-word. However even this one I hear being thrown around all the time in an offhand way.

    Being referred to as a “Bitch” in the workplace is inappropriate only because the word was used in a work setting. As much as I throw around any and all of the above mentioned words in settings with friends, I would never use any of them at work. Just as I would never talk about a more raucous drinking night out with friends.

    And, I agree with most of the posters, and Belle, on how I would take being referred to as a “bitch” by a co-worker in what they thought was a demeaning way. I would think well done. I am doing my job exactly as I should, and I will continue to do so. I would think in regards to my co-worker — if you can't keep up, then you will be left behind. Only children get anywhere by throwing a tantrum, and usually not in the way they would prefer.

  17. Vicky says:

    I just moved to DC and I love your blog.

    I don't connect any more meaning with that word than I do with any other curse word. I don't consider it a badge of honor or a slur. The emotion is really in the way you use it.

    As far as I'm concerned, there is no way that calling another person a name with negative conotations – any name – should be tolerated in the workplace. It doesn't matter what the word is.

  18. L says:

    Calling someone a name like that is usually a direct reflection of the name-caller's intelligence. It's just like when people attack women for being “fat” or “ugly.” It shows there is no substance in their argument and that they can't articulate themselves enough to actually form a well thought out opinion. It's crass and shallow.

  19. w says:

    If someone called me a bitch at work, I'd smile… and file a complaint with HR. Then, I'd let it go. Life is too short.

  20. Allison says:

    You don't have to be a bitch to get ahead at work, or succeed in a “man's world”. That is just playing into the box that men want to put you in, if you are smart and successful, which make some men feel threatened, they want you to be the bitch so that they can write you off as a sad, mean, lonely, hateful woman. I think working women should resist falling into that category, you can be friendly, enjoyable to work with, and fantastic at your job. I would not be proud if a co-worker thought that I was mean, and I can't write that off as, “oh well, successful women are bitchy.” We are just demeaning ourselves by letting ourselves fall into that stereotype that lets (some) men write us off. Sure, some people will call you a bitch when you aren't, what I mean here is don't be one and shrug it off as the working woman norm. Plus, if you are the office bitch that no one wants to work with… good luck with getting a management position.

  21. Belle says:

    Who says you're actually being a bitch? My neighbor was just standing up for herself and was being labeled a bitch. Those two things are not the same thing.

    Nobody is advocating that you should go out of your way to be a bitch, but that you should simply stand up for yourself and look out for yourself as anyone would.

    No one is advocating that you should be “sad, mean, lonely and hateful,” but it says a lot that you think that's what I'm talking about. Being labeled something and being it are two different issues.

  22. anonymous says:

    This made me think of something, and not sure where to post it (I guess I can send it into ask belle?) When you apply to a job with a congressional office, do they google your name?

  23. Belle says:

    Most do. I always did. And if you had a common name, I'd google the name and something off of your resume (college, hometown, etc.).

  24. amy b.s. says:

    amen. i've definitely had to embrace the word bitch because it's definitely a common word thrown my way. Most of the time in a good way though.

  25. m says:

    I do take offense to being called a bitch, but I'm also somewhat amused at the connotation. I'm guessing a loose definition is a rude, unpleasant woman… as if the fact that all women aren't sugar and spice requires its own slur. How dare you be anything less than a complete sycophant!

  26. Jennifer says:

    I've been called a bitch before, and it was when I was in a leadership position over a lot of males. Not everyone has the same opinion of where the line is between assertiveness and bitchiness, so depending on the person and the situation it could be offensive or just a sign of different expectations in how people communicate/ lead/ whatever.
    That being said, the one who said bitch in the workplace as a way to express displeasure at your neighbor was the one who was unprofessional. I would use the word to tell my friends of sister when they were crossing a line in their personal lives, but I would never say it out loud about a coworker in the workplace (venting to a friend outside the office could happen, I'm only human).
    At the end of the day, your behavior should lead most people to respect you for your intelligence, hard work, attention to detail, etc. above all else. Depending on where you are in life and what your career goals are should dictate whether you are known beyond that as a team player or aggressive or whatever other descriptions.
    Do I see the word bitch as a compliment or badge of honor? No. Is it an insult? No. It can, however, be a chance for you to take a look at your behavior, and decide for yourself if it is in line with how you want to perceived in your workplace. If it was, ignore it and if it wasn't, modify your behavior in the future.

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