How "Bitch" Became A Bad Thing — & Why It's Time To Take It Back

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
One of the things that happens when you edit a book called The Bitch in the House is that you become a sort of honorary bitch. People send you stuff: bitch chewing gum, bitch cocktail napkins, the Badass Bitch Soy Candle, even the Spray the Bitch Away aromatherapy mist/perfume ("for when you’re irritated, pissed off, or have an overall bad attitude"). When I walk into my bookstore, the employees yell, "The bitch is in the house!"

I love it. As Olympia Dukakis once said, "You say I'm a bitch like that's a bad thing?"

I would not, however, have been thrilled about all this a few decades ago. In my teens or 20s, “bitch” was something no woman wanted to be called, or to call herself — at least in my world. The word was reserved for, say, the girl who hooked up with your boyfriend, the teacher who humiliated you in class, the beautiful but evil villain on your favorite soap opera (watched on one of the seven channels on your TV — I know, I’m dating myself). And even now, if my husband called me a bitch (which he never would, or he would not be my husband) or some random person yelled “bitch!” after I’d, say, honked at them for cutting me off — well, that’s a whole other thing. At best, I’d be insulted or enraged; at worst, I’d yell (something worse) back, or even get out of the car and confront the person.

I’m not proud of my knee-jerk rage, which I inherited from my father. But I am proud of my toughness, which is not a bad thing for a female to possess. I once fought off a guy who jumped me. I’m not a large woman. Just one who doesn’t take any shit.

Does that make me a bitch? Hard to say. Because, as with “queer” or “dank” or even “bad,” the word has evolved, and these days it can have a very different connotation depending on context and whose mouth it’s coming out of. This election season, of course, has highlighted this polarity: When Trump supporters say “Trump that Bitch” referring to Hillary, for example, that’s insulting. (I probably don’t need to explain why, other than to say that these are the same people who hold signs that say, “KFC Hillary Special: two fat thighs, two small breasts…left wing”.) But if Hillary wants to stand up and call herself one tough bitch, all but the most rigid of her supporters would probably be delighted.

Andi Zeisler, the founder of Bitch Media, noted that "bitch" is both an epithet and an honorific for Clinton. "For more than 20 years in American politics, Mrs. Clinton has embodied what we might call Classic Bitch,” Zeisler recently wrote in The New York Times. "She’s perceived as an interloper who challenges or threatens masculinity, entitlement and a status-quo worldview; she’s the scandal magnet who can seem as heartless and venal as any old-boy’s-club member. Worst of all, she’s the woman who accepts that she will be disliked and carries on anyway."

To which I say: Go Hillary. To which I also say: Here’s to The Bitch in the White House. Fingers crossed.

A woman who is “shrill,” who doesn’t smile enough for the boys, leading our country! Imagine that. I do, every day.

Cathi Hanauer
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In 1854, a man named Coventry Patmore wrote a poem about his wife, who he called “The Angel in the House.” If you want to throw up a little, Google the poem, which is about a woman who’s pure, sweet, selfless, passive, and unconditionally devoted to her man. Happily, feminist writers later parodied the whole concept — most notably Virginia Woolf, who called the Angel "intensely sympathetic” and “immensely charming." “If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.”

I used those lines for the epigraph of The Bitch in the House, because the book is about the exact opposite kind of woman. It's about the one who’s not afraid to say, “Excuse me, but it’s cold in here. Would someone mind shutting the goddamn window?” Or better yet, the one who would get up and shut it herself — loudly. She’s the woman who knows you have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else fit theirs, because if you can’t breathe yourself, you won’t be worth much to anyone.

A woman who is “shrill,” who doesn’t smile enough for the boys, leading our country! Imagine that. I do, every day. When she wins, I am sending her a Bitch Gift Box: bitch gum to chew whenever the hell she wants, bitch cocktail napkins so she can break out the Scotch any damn time of the day, and the Badass Bitch candle, so she can work late at night making the world better — for children, men, and especially bitches.

As for me, I’ve just published the sequel to The Bitch in the House — called (naturally) The Bitch is Back. My editor, my agent, and I now refer to ourselves as Team Bitch; events for the book we call BitchCon or Bitch Fest. And on Halloween, we may do a blowout called Night of the Living Bitches. I guess we’ve decided it’s time to embrace the word and run with it: far and wide, fast and furious, cackling all the way.

Cathi Hanauer is the author of three novels — Gone, Sweet Ruin, and My Sister’s Bones —and the editor of the New York Times bestselling essay anthology The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. Her new anthology, The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, was published on September 27, 2016 by William Morrow/HarperCollins.

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