‘Bitch…’ Ouch, that hurt right? Most women will go out of their way to avoid being called a bitch. It is this negative term, an insult associated with being unliked and disapproved of. But why is this word interpreted as such a hurtful insult? And how does it contribute to the conditioning of women?
In her feminist podcast called UnF*ck Your Brain, Kara Loewentheil argues that society conditions our minds to follow stereotypical gender role. Specifically, she speaks about the four mindf*cks of patriarchy: imposter syndrome, perfectionism, validation seeking, and people pleasing. It is precisely that last one, people pleasing, that has attracted my attention lately.
Society conditions women to aim to please other people. It teaches them not to pursue their desires or express their opinions, in fear of hurting or disappointing other people. For example, it teaches women to visit family events even if they do not want to, just to avoid disappointing their family. Or to keep silent about that co-worker’s sexist comment because they should not ‘ruin the mood’. Or to let guys kiss or touch them, even though they do not want to, just to avoid hurting their feelings.
People pleasing behaviour tends to create anxiety and stress. After all, when you see it as your responsibility to make other people happy, you feel anxious whenever you fail to keep others happy, or when you try to prioritise yourself. But ironically, there is no guarantee that people pleasing pleases people. The truth is that you could move mountains for other people, and they could still be unhappy or not even notice our efforts at all. While you cannot control other people’s feelings and thoughts, you can control your own by prioritising your own needs.
But ironically, there is no guarantee that people pleasing pleases people.
So, if there is no reason to prioritise someone else’s needs, then what is our motive for doing it? It is the uncomfortable feeling and anxiety we encounter whenever we fight the taught need to put other people’s need
The relationship between female conditioning and the term ‘bitch’
If society has conditioned women to put other people’s needs above their own, then women are likely to experience a backlash if they fail to live up to this expectation. Being called a bitch is a form of the backlash. The truth is that women are called bitches whenever they speak up about their opinions and prioritise their own needs, especially when disagreeing or contradicting men.
Women are called bitches whenever they break the habit of people pleasing. It is an effective way of making women feel bad about not living up to the expectation for them to be accommodating to other people (especially men) and not to disturb the peace. Because women are conditioned to want to live up to societal expectations laid upon them, being called a bitch is a negative experience. They will try to avoid this experience in the future by altering their behaviour. Essentially, being called a bitch is a punishment and a crucial part to society’s conditioning of women.
The truth is that women are called bitches whenever they speak up about their opinions and prioritise their own needs, especially when disagreeing or contradicting men.
So, why should women want to re-appropriate this insult?
When suppressed groups reclaim words that were formerly used to suppress and humiliate them and give them a new positive meaning, it takes away the power of the insult, and thereby of the suppressor. Some examples of this so-called ‘appropriation’ of insults are the reclaiming of the terms ‘nasty women’ and ‘pussy’ by feminists and the terms ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ by the LGTBI community. Moreover, reappropriation does not just work for words, but also for actions. During the American civil rights movements, for example, the act of getting arrested was turned from something criminal into something heroic.
When women are aware of societies effort to condition them to conform to gender roles, the mechanisms to do so lose their effectiveness. In this process, insults lose their value and come to mean something totally different. The word ‘bitch’, for examples, comes to mean ‘a woman who expresses her opinion and prioritises her own needs, and who does not look at others for validation’.
Reappropriation has the power to change insults such as the word ‘bitch’ into compliment and a sign that you are on the right path. Or in the words of Kat D: “Being a Heartless Bitch isn’t about stepping on other people, or reality TV-style sabotage antics. It is about working hard for what you want, and knowing when to stand up for what you deserve. It is not about demoralising others; its about self-empowerment. It is not about being arrogant; it is about displaying your confidence and intellect as a badge of pride. It is not asserting any inherent superiority or self-entitlement, but recognising your own self-worth and value.”
Chantal is from the Netherlands and has a background in human rights, social studies and public health. She has a broad interest in current affairs, varying from environmental problems to human rights issues.