The majority of women have dealt with the experience of interacting with the word “bitch”. Some reject it altogether. Some have reclaimed the word for their own empowerment. Some view being a bitch as being manipulative, harsh, and cold. Some view being a bitch as being confident, powerful, and in control of their own destiny. And while these aspects of the conversation are very essential, I believe we often leave a key component out of the conversation when speaking cross-culturally. The word “bitch” means something very different for women of color as it does for white women. The “bitch” persona cannot easily be disconnected from the schema of a woman of color as it can for a white woman.
Case in point: the Oxford dictionary, one of the most prominent dictionaries, presents a subset to the definition of bitch that, when I first saw it, both angered me and made me feel ashamed as a woman of color, specifically a black woman. Here it is:
2: informal derogatory a spiteful or unpleasant woman.
–> black slang: a woman.
Now, just a quick tidbit of supplemental information: dictionaries are based on usage. They track the amount of times people use a word and how the word is used to determine the necessity of adding such word into a dictionary with a specific definition. Normally, it takes tens of thousands of recorded uses of a word to enter a word into the dictionary (hence “d’oh!” and “bootylicious”).
There are two things to ponder about this definition from Oxford. One is our culture has attached the word “bitch” to the character of a black woman so many times that it deserves to be integrated into our formal language system. Regardless of the word “slang” existing within the definition, it is still there. This is not present for other racial groups in the way it is present for black women. This says to the world that when I walk down the street, and people see me and identify me as black, it is acceptable to connect the word “bitch” to me and everything that it carries way before I even open my mouth or complete any sort of action.
The second aspect presented by this definition is that since it is considered “black slang”, that black people are responsible for creating this form for addressing a woman. Well…where could this notion have possibly emerged?
One thing I constantly struggle with as a conscious admirer of the hip-hop culture is the misogyny embedded into almost every facet of the experience. If there is one aspect of popular culture that is more disrespectful to women than anywhere else, it is hip-hop, and the worst part is that is it on display for the entire world to see and it is coming from the hands (and mouths) of black men predominately. But we as women, particularly black women, still partake in the culture. Most do not question it. Most end up embodying the objectifying persona. Few question or attack it. Recently, however, discussion has sparked back up regarding the usage of the word bitch within hip-hop as a reflection of the misogyny it represents.
Bitch Bad, Woman Good, Lady Better
On June 25th, prominent hip-hop artist from Chicago Lupe Fiasco released a single from his newest album Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album titled “Bitch Bad“. On August 22nd, he released the music video for the track. Now, the song presents many layers to the discussion of misogyny, including the recurrence of the “blackface” era, which is why I linked to RapGenius, a website that allows artists and listeners to present interpretations of rap lyrics. With that being said, I encourage you to play the video three times: first time just to listen to the song, then replay it a second time to watch the actual video, and then replay it a third time to listen to the song while reading the RapGenius interpretation. Here is the video:
There has been mixed criticism of “Bitch Bad”, including the fiery critique from Spin Magazine, sparking Fiasco’s decision to start a boycott of the publication, as well as a more positive critique from Colorlines.
From my vantage point, there is something to be said about the structure of the piece and how it perpetuates this idea of “bitch” and “black woman” being sometimes mutually inclusive and often confusing.
We are invited on a journey with a young boy and a young girl as they come of age in the era of hip-hop and the misogyny included in the culture. We see the young boy observing his mother singing rap songs that cause her to indirectly identify as being a “bad bitch” even though everything about her signals strength and honor. We see the young girl observing rap videos and seeing the supposedly successful black men, obviously men she is learning to be attracted to, praising the “bad bitches” in scantily-clad (lack of) clothing with coke-bottle bodies who will let these men do any and everything to them (“bad bitches, bad bitches, bad bitches/that’s all I want and all I like in life is bad bitches, bad bitches”). As a result, these two youth meet later in life with completely different views of what a bad bitch entails. The girl grows to embody the video-girl bad bitch externally, but since the boy does not grow to equate respect with the video-girl schema since his mother never carried herself in such a way, he does not see the girl as a bad bitch. To him, a bad bitch is an upstanding woman, and she is far from it. To her, she can be a bad bitch, as long as she can spin it to her advantage; if someone else calls her a bitch, however, it is automatically disrespectful. See the confusion?
Going back to the Oxford definition, Lupe presents a cause to such prevalence in this complex to the point it would be added to the dictionary. The music video is framed around a modern minstrel show. Minstrel shows occurred in the early 20th century, and the popularity of blackface gained its momentum in these venues. White actors would paint their faces black, often with materials such as tar, as well as paint stereotypical features of blacks such as large, red lips, and they would portray their characters as controversially stereotypical. Since the rise of television and film was still in its early stages, theatrical performances were the largest visual mass media outlet outside of print, so it was very easy to develop a stereotypical phenotype of African-Americans through this outlet. Over time, the prevalence of blackface waned, although it still occasionally arises in our current society, particularly around Halloween.
Fast forward to today and the “Bitch Bad” video, we see these “actors” (who are presumed African-American and not white like early minstrel shows) donning blackface and selling it to the masses through the venue of a music video/minstrel show. Now, we all know that the majority of society, especially American society, forms their judgments through the media, and what Fiasco is saying with this extended metaphor is that we are being sold these false, stereotypical images, and that popular African-Americans in the industry are being used as pawns to deliver these images. This is why Oxford titles the definition “black slang” instead of just “slang”–it is assumed that African-Americans are making these decisions, so the specificity within the definition is necessary.
How did Femmes Respond?
Some of the feminist-centered criticism I observed regarding “Bitch Bad” focuses on the fact that Fiasco feels obligated to address this even though he is a man, and that his decision to say being called a “lady” is better than “woman” perpetuates patriarchy and leaves no room for black women because the term “lady” was initially intended to be racially specific towards white women. These critiques hold true, but only in some instances.
First: how many black women within hip-hop currentlydo you see rejecting this notion of a bad bitch that are the forerunners of the genre (like Nicki Minaj-status of popularity)? I’ll wait…
Second: how many black women have achieved Nicki Minaj-status within hip hop as compared to men? I’ll still wait…
Third: It is okay to have allies who can do their part to address how folks within their identity add to the problem, which is what I believe Fiasco does partially.
Fourth: Before we get to the women vs. lady issue, we have to dismantle the bad-bitch schema and its power to consume the identities of women of color. It a huge task to accomplish and it cripples women of color moreso than any other term in our modern society.
The place where I fall in support of the femmes is there are instances in “Bitch Bad” where the blame is also placed on women, which I do not get down with (any “-isms” include prejudice plus power–women do not hold the power in this scenario). We see that in the first verse, where the boy accredits his mother with learning what a bad bitch is–the discussion of the father’s role or even the discussion of young boys watching music videos is left out. In the third verse as well, the boy has to be the one who rejects the girl, and the girl has to be the only one to have contradictory definitions of a bad bitch infused in her worldview. This infers that women the ones perpetuating the issue even though they hold less power (it is the man selling the “minstrel show”, not the woman).
I still struggle with the term “lady”, mainly because I grew up learning that the word should be used a way to respectfully address your female elders. The racial implications of “lady” were not addressed to me until recently.
Wrapping Up (Sorry if My Blogs are Long. *Shrug*)
Hopefully, with this addition to the controversy surrounding the word “bitch”, we can better address its impact on women across all identities. It can be more crippling that just being referred to as an unpleasant person. It can, and often does, affect some women’s standing and quality of life in all sectors of society.