On Bitch, Lady, and The Problems of Reclaiming

“For as long as we’ve been publishing Bitch, there’s one question that gets asked over and over. And over. “Why did you choose that word as the name of your magazine?” While we’re aware that the magazine’s title, and the organization’s name, is off-putting to some people, we think it’s worth it. And here’s why. The writer Rebecca West said, “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” We’d argue that the word “bitch” is usually deployed for the same purpose. When it’s being used as an insult, “bitch” is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment. We know that not everyone’s down with the term. Believe us, we’ve heard all about it. But we stand firm in our belief that if we choose to reappropriate the word, 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. Bitch. It’s a noun. It’s a verb. It’s a magazine. It’s a feminist media organization.” – Bitch magazine [emphasis mine]

I’ve been thinking about the reappropriation of words recently, after I was told by someone that I need act more ‘ladylike’. My response was to tell them that I didn’t care that much at all if they considered me a lady, because I don’t think of myself that way. That night, I listened to an interview featuring Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, who has been promoting The Book of Jezebel, whose subtitle is ‘An Illustrated Encyclopedia¬†of Lady Things’.
In the interview she expresses her thoughts on the subtitle, the word lady, and the ambivalence surrounding reclaiming the term [the exchange begins at 18:20].

[BoJ definition of lady] Your grandmother prefered to to be called, a quote, lady, end quote, because it implied refinement. Your mother prefered to be called, a quote, woman, end quote, because she felt the distinction between lady and woman was dumb old-fashioned bullshit. You started ironically referring to yourself and your female friends as ladies somewhere in the late 90s or early 00s, at first because you felt weird referring to yourself as a woman, and then later out of habit. By the time your daughters are grown, it will seem like a dumb old-fashioned bullshit term again.

[BoJ definition of ladylike behaviour] A type of behavior that some people think women should aspire to, even¬†though the refinement thing went out during your great-grandma’s time.

Although I can appreciate the impulse behind the attempt to reclaim certain words, there’s just something that doesn’t work here for me, specifically when it comes to the words ‘bitch’ and ‘lady’. Both of these words don’t speak to me, or perhaps, it’s because they speak to me too much.

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 22.11.58

Being told to behave like a lady constricts and constraints me – to be a lady means to act in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect the person that I am. I don’t want to be a lady if being a lady means that I need to start grooming myself in socially acceptable ways, to start wearing pearls and twinsets and stop cursing. There’s nothing wrong if a woman chooses these choices for herself, but to be a lady has always seemed so prescriptive and limiting to me. That’s why it’s so interesting that there has been a desire to use the word lady in non-traditional ways, from ladyparts to lady things. What sort of lady-ness is being invoked here?

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 22.12.04On the other hand, although I admire and respect Bitch magazine so so much (they aren’t one of my favorite reads for nothing), I can’t bring myself to happily accept the term in relation to myself. Yes, it’s mainly been applied to me when I speak up or act in a way that challenges certain kinds of power structures. But knowing this doesn’t erase the pain that this word has caused me. I can know intellectually all of the things outlined by Bitch’s editors above, but there in an excess to the word that I only feel when it’s being used as an insult. I cannot transcend this meaning, try as I might.

The only word that I can think of that has been re-appropriated successfully for me is queer. This could be down to a multiple of factors: because I have never experienced oppression with the term, unlike the very different oppressions I feel with the terms lady and bitch, because I’ve encountered queer both academically (through queer studies and movements such as New Queer Cinema) and personally, because the term has a flexibility and possibility that the other two don’t offer. The excess here seems like a possibility for transcendence, and not a further reification of societal norms of female behavior.

What’s your take on this? Are there any words you feel that cannot be rehabilitated, try as we might? Or conversely, are there any terms that you can identify as potential sources of power, despite their previous usage?

{please note that I realize that there are many many more examples of the problems that happen when reclaiming and re appropriating words. I picked those included above as they are the ones that speak to my experience most directly, but they aren’t the only ones. For instance, this Salon article is a wonderful piece, that speaks to an intersectional experience that is resistant to reclaim the word ‘slut’ when the term has not only been gendered but deeply racialized within American culture. There are many many more examples and critiques of reclaiming out there!)


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