Has The Word "Bitch" Lost Its Bite?S

Yesterday, reports started circulating that New York Senator Chuck Schumer called a flight attendant a 'bitch' - now, Republicans are trying to make an issue out of it. One question: does anyone even care about the word "bitch" anymore?

According to Chuck Schumer's office, he made an "off-the-cuff comment under his breath" on Sunday after a US Airways flight attendant told him to turn off his cell phone. According to a Republican aide who was lucky enough to overhear the exchange, that "off-the-cuff comment" would be the b-word. This was apparently enough for Republicans to accuse Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was sitting next to Schumer, of being a bad feminist. The National Republican Senatorial Committee says:

For a politician who claims to have a "family first" agenda and who claims to fight for women's rights, Kirsten Gillibrand's silence is stunning. It appears clear that when push comes to shove, she's far more worried about offending her political mentor, Chuck Schumer, than standing up for women in the workplace. It's our hope that those womens' rights organizations that have already endorsed her campaign for the Senate will ask Kirsten Gillibrand why she believes it's acceptable to call a female flight attendant a "bitch."

Why didn't she strangle him with her bra immediately? Sarah Palin totally would've. Kidding aside, though, the whole incident raises the question of whether "bitch" is a big deal anymore. On the one hand, Bitch Magazine and others have worked to reclaim the word. It's so much a part of common parlance that I hardly think twice when someone uses it casually. And it was hardly shocking when Double X ran a piece by Hanna Rosin yesterday under the headline, "The Rise of the Kitchen Bitch." Then again, that essay also illustrated some of the lingering problems with the word. Rosin says Sandra Tsing Loh uses the term "kitchen bitch" to refer to "a friend's husband who was anal and fussy and altogether too feminine-he belonged to an online fennel club, for God's sake." When a man gets called a bitch — as when he's called a pussy — it usually means he's acting stereotypically feminine. Which means, in turn, that simply being a woman remains a stinging insult.

But what of "bitch" as applied to women? Like "slut," women sling it around often enough affectionately. And many who say it without affection just use it as they would "asshole" — a word to describe someone whose behavior sucks. But it can also be used to put a woman in her place — to insult her, for instance, for rejecting a man's advances or for speaking her mind. The word "bitch" can imply that a man is too feminine, but it can also imply that a woman isn't feminine enough — and these connotations alone make its use problematic, even if the user doesn't mean to make any kind of gendered statement.

I'm a pretty conciliatory person, and I don't get in a lot of wars of words — or any other kind. But I do remember the first time (that I know of) that someone called me a bitch. It was early in college, and I'd been clashing with a fellow student who was my superior at work. After a particularly heated argument, I heard that my superior was telling our coworkers what a "bitch" I was. To be honest, I was thrilled. "Bitch" meant that I'd stuck up for myself, when I'd often been too passive to do so in the past. It meant someone thought I was difficult, and perhaps even insufficiently feminine — but it also meant I had a certain kind of power. I'd become someone who wouldn't back down, someone whose opponents' only recourse was to throw around a word whose meaning I could, in fact, choose to interpret for myself. And if bitch is to be truly reclaimed, that's what I'd like it to mean.

Sen. Schumer Regrets Comment To Flight Attendant [AP, via MSNBC]
Word Prompts Apology From Schumer [NYT]
NRSC Plays The Feminism Card [Washington Independent]
The Rise Of The Kitchen Bitch [Double X]
Bitch [Dictionary.com]