Notes from a bitch…

Let’s talk a bit about taking back words.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me about one of my nicknames this bitch would be damn near debt free (wink). I’ve had the nickname Shark-Fu…or some variation on that theme…since I was a wee bitch of five. And the ABB nickname was the inspiration of readers of my blog The interesting thing is that both my nickname and the name of my blog are the result of my deliberate claiming of language and words previously used against me.
Shall we?
I became the victim of a bully the first day of kindergarten and remained a steady target throughout my grade school career. There were a lot of reasons why I appealed to bullies…this bitch was one of the only students of color, my brother was well known around the neighborhood for public displays of autism and I was always good for a post ridicule cry. But when I began to experience dental drama as a result of an overcrowded mouth…well, an already miserable situation went into overdrive.
Two of my permanent teeth decided to come in where they could get in and that happened to be behind my bottom row of teeth. While my mother consulted with my dentist and the family pocketbook, my fellow students began to taunt me on the bus. When I came home…crying, of course…because I’d been called a shark my mother rolled her eyes and told me “then you need to be a shark, girl, and stop letting those fools get under your skin.”
I thought about it all night and decided to give it a try. So, I spent a week researching sharks at the library and found out that they are fantabulous and fierce creatures worthy of respect not bus-based taunting. The next time a classmate called me a shark I replied with a “thank you.” And damn if that didn’t shut him up for a week!
The teeth eventually were pulled but I’ve been Shark-Fu (my sister settled on that version) ever since.
Years later I found myself gifted with a blog for my birthday and searching around unsuccessfully for a title. I thought about what I wanted to share and discuss through my blog, but that didn’t inspire any title ideas. Then I thought about how people may respond to my posts and added a dash of fucking with folk’s expectations and that led to the AngryBlackBitch title.
See, I realized that the women being labeled angry black bitches were pretty damned fantabulous. The label was meant to diffuse their power and shut them up…it being built on an understanding of the so-called benefits of conformity and silence that my family passed down like other families passed down good glassware.
Don’t raise your voice…loud black women are threatening.
Don’t use naughty language… they already think black people can’t speak proper.
Don’t make and maintain eye contact…you may come across as intimidating.
Try not to be so “ethnic”…you don’t want to go around reminding folks through your name, accent, hair, clothing, food or music that you are different.
And, for the love of social acceptance and peace, don’t get angry!
Just don’t…or you’ll pay a price.
Hold it in, because if you let it out they’re going to you’re just another…uh huh, that’s right.
And then they will dismiss your point but only because you frightened them…right?
If you had only sat perfectly straight in your chair whilst wearing that acceptable outfit with oh so non-ethnic hair and spoken in low viciously proper sentences as you expressed your frustration over the wrong done to you without passion or conviction they would have listened.
That’s the pitch…trust a bitch, I’ve heard it my entire life…and it is, has always been and will always be bullshit.
I reject that contract even as I reclaim my anger and my bitchitude…and a bunch of naughty words that I simply adore using.
Now, I’m not saying that all y’all need to get down with it.
Some folks will never dig it and that’s cool – there isn’t a bitchitude mandate that I’m aware of…yet.
But for this bitch claiming and taking back language has proven to be just as empowering as embracing my inner shark…
…with the added benefit of stumping those knavish trolls who can’t come up with anything else to call me in the comments.

Join the Conversation

  • Catriona

    Having been the victim of bullying in school myself, I just want to say, you’re awesome.

  • alixana

    I want to start off by saying I LOVE the image of a young girl spending a week researching sharks after being called a shark.
    As for the word “bitch” – I have issues with it that are my own personal ones, I’m well aware. I totally understand the idea of taking the word back. I feel that way about being called an angry feminist – YEAH, I’m angry!
    The only time I’ve been called a derogatory-female name is when an ex-boyfriend would call me a brat whenever I wasn’t all submissive to his assholeness. I haven’t felt any desire to reclaim that name, because I’m NOT a brat. I’m a strong, independant woman.
    When I think, “That woman is a bitch,” I’m thinking that about truly mean, self-absorbed, mean-spirited women. I know that this isn’t what men are referring to when they use the word “bitch”. But because of my association for it, I find it impossible to proudly say, “I’m a bitch!” I’m not a bitch, I’m a very nice person. A very nice person who doesn’t take any bullshit or let people walk over her and demands respect, but still a very nice person.
    But like I said, these are my own hangups. If other people find something empowering in reclaiming “bitch” – I say, go for it.

  • feministavengers

    As someone who has also been called an angry bitch a time or two in her life for not acting like a proper doormat in order to appease others, I’ve gotta give you a HELL FUCKING YEAH to that post. Fuck falling in place to let the people with the power continue walking all over you and your identity.
    Bitch solidarity.

  • NamesnotAnnie

    Ditto on the awesomeness. Your attitude and resilience are so very inspiring.

  • SarahS

    Great post! So compelling. I also love reclaiming words. My latest one, which other people are reclaiming to from what I’ve read, is “chick.” I call myself a chick all the time. Chicks are great! They can fly (though not always very well), and sure they’re still babies who have to evolve before becoming hens, but as a young woman, I feel fine admitted (and even celebrating) that I have some learning and evolving left to do in my life. I’m a work in progress who isn’t afraid to spread my wings – just like a chick!

  • Kate

    I think you’re brilliant. I hate how people can invalidate the opinions of others by calling the messenger a bitch, or cunt, or (I guess!) shark, but if you call yourself one first, they might have to actually think about a response. That would entail actually thinking about why they’re so quick to name-call, and then there might actually be a discussion that can change some minds.

  • Jen

    SarahS – As someone who has pet hens, I can add: chicks are pretty much fearless. I don’t mind calling myself a chick! People are far too dismissive of chickens. :)

  • fish

    i’m all for embracing it and turning it around. As a kid, others teased me about my last name all the time (“we’re eating your legs” when fish sticks were for lunch)… i still go by my last name today.
    as for bitch, that’s another one i’m good with. a male reporter once came up to me in the basement of the Colorado capitol and in the course of conversation said, “you know, a lot of people think you’re a bitch.” i said, “yep, and so?” and i thought, “whoa, you’re saying this while you’ve applied for a job at my newspaper. hey, a lot of people may think you’re a moron!”
    Bitch solidarity indeed!

  • M0xieHart

    Shark-fu, you can certainly turn a phrase. I love “knavish trolls.” I was bullied too, but I didn’t really have the revelation that I didn’t need to take it until early high school.
    I love reclaiming the word bitch. Every time I’ve been called a bitch (Outside of my feminist friends) it’s been because I spoke my mind, wasn’t a doormat, was smart or intimidating. Those are good things! I won’t apologize for my bitchitude and those who don’t like it can suck my left one.

  • FrumiousB

    I, too, was bullied for looking different and gifted with an obnoxious nick-name designed to make me cry – only mine was Carrot. Not much you can do with that. Carrot-fu? Nope, not feeling it.

  • Roja

    I am so much more comfortable reclaiming a word that has power than one that doesn’t. I have no issue with reclaiming the word bitch, or for example cunt. But I do have a problem with reclaiming the word “Chick.” Or calling an adult woman a “girl” (as in calling a supreme court justice a “girl”).
    I have a serious question Shark-Fu: When a word is used an an insult, it’s easier to reclaim it. But when a word is used not to insult someone but to simply make her a little trivial, especially in a cute way (that’s how I feel the word “chick” is used) how can you reclaim that? When you reclaim “cunt” people realize you are reclaiming it, but reclaiming “chick” makes me feel like I just sound like everyone else. Like I’m actually embracing the slight put-down and trying to sound like one of the guys… Do you see a difference or do you think it’s all the same?
    ps. I’m not trying to bag on people who like the word chick. I have my own issue with this word.

  • Danyell

    I totally understand where you’re coming from. But as far as reclaiming certain words (and I’m obviously talking about more than just “bitch” here), I’m still on the fence. While I totally appreciate the sentiment, I still feel like it gives others permission moreso to use them negatively. (“You use it, why can’t I?”) Or for people to use it and not really understand why- without knowing any history of it and it’s real meaning and real damage. I don’t know how long it actually would take to change the accepted meaning of a word. I know it is possible. But since the people who gave us these painful names are still the ones in control, I don’t know that only reusing & reclaiming the terms is necessarily the way to go. The ones in power will always want to have control over language, as they are the ones who got to do the naming initially and they will not let you take away from them or take from yourself so easily. Not that trying is futile, but I think that if you erase or reclaim one, they’ll think of new ones to replace it.
    I’m not saying to *not* use the words either, because I don’t think censoring things actually helps or protects anybody. I just think it’s such a complicated idea: language, semantics, culture, slang, etc. It’s very inspiring to want to change it. And frankly, I invite anyone to call themselves whatever they want. Whatever you tell me to call you: will do.

  • Alara Rogers

    I totally wish I had thought of this. They called me Jaws in school because of the condition of my teeth (I ended up needing braces for EIGHT YEARS). If I had thought of reclaiming it, I could have declared, “Yeah, and you know what Jaws does to humans she doesn’t like? SHE BITES THEM IN HALF!” (brandishing teeth.)
    But no, I whined that I wasn’t Jaws.
    I find “bitch” an unpleasant and horrifying word because it is frequently used to make women’s anger seem unjust — if a man is furious because he is being mistreated, he’s not a bastard or an asshole, but a woman who is furious because she is being mistreated is a bitch. It’s a method of projection that people use to displace the discomfort they feel that they’re being called on their shit. Also, I have never understood why a “bitch” — female dogs are loyal to their friends, kind of dumb, and fierce to their enemies, and you’d think that, aside from the dumb part, a bitch would be a good thing to be. So I support your effort to reclaim the word, although I don’t think I’d be capable of doing so.
    However, I totally do wish I’d embraced my sharkiness when I had the chance. Now my teeth are perfect, so I am no longer the terror of the beach. :-)

  • Rachel_in_WY

    I understand Danyells point, but think that the fact that the powerful group generally controls language is even more of a reason to reclaim words. In Philosophy we often note that controlling the terms of the debate is half the battle. Words do come packaged with a lot of implicit content, and changing or jettisoning that content is extremely helpful. That’s why it’s so important to reclaim words, and to rename things that are incorrectly labeled. I for one refuse to refer to the pro-death penalty, pro-war, anti-abortion position as “pro-life”. They’re not pro life, just anti-choice.

  • khw

    Ever since I adopted two boxer bitches in all of their affectionate and adorable playfulness, I have had a problem with the over-use of the term “bitch.” I feel that dogs are generally much nicer than many humans!
    And I am all for re-taking the term “pro-life” back.

  • Destra

    I have used the word bitch many a time before, but only with my very closest friends. And I only call them bitches as a term of endearment when I’m teasing them. “Alright, bitch, let’s go! You’re taking too long.” I never, however, use the term with people I do not know, nor do I use it in a derogatory way. I tend to stick to more gender neutral insults like asshole or mother fucker. In that I suppose I’m reclaiming the word, although I never thought of it that way.
    So in that, I’m ok with you using bitch to define yourself, but not others.

  • khw

    Ever since I adopted two boxer bitches in all of their affectionate and adorable playfulness, I have had a problem with the over-use of the term “bitch.” I feel that dogs are generally much nicer than many humans!
    And I am all for re-taking the term “pro-life” back.

  • ShifterCat

    Actually, Shark-Fu, I have a question about another bit of language you use: I’ve noticed that in each of your posts, “Blink.” appears on one line, somewhere in the middle. What does that mean?
    @Alixana: my husband and I call one another “brat” in a playful tone as a way of indicating mild annoyance. It’s all in the tone and context.

  • Jennifer

    Damn straight! Thank you for posting this. Maybe the sheltered, unaware people who got so pissy at your first post will wake up upon reading this.

  • Destra

    I HAVE been trying to take “pro-life” back.

  • Judith Jewcakes

    Fuck yeah! I love reclaiming language.
    Reclaiming images and actions is where I start to roll my eyes…a friend of mine and I were talking about the Burlesque subculture that seemed to get so popular in the last six or seven years, and I find women “reclaiming” the ability to undress for an audience complete doublethink. Ties in with my thoughts on Suicide Girls as well.
    That’s a sidenote, though.

  • cestlavie

    It seems the argument in favor of reclaiming words boils down to: ‘They’re calling me names and I don’t know what to do about it, so I’m going to agree with what they’re saying so they don’t think they’ve hurt me.’
    If that’s the case, I acknowledge this coping mechanism can at times be effective, when someone is criticizing you for something factual. For example: “God, you’re so fat.” “Yes, I’m a big person. What of it?” In this case, you’re acknowledging the physical characteristic they want to shame you for, and saying: “You’re pointing out something obvious, and I do not feel shame for it.”
    When it comes to reclaiming words, you’re agreeing with a false derogatory characterization in an effort to stop the attack. But it doesn’t work. You may temporarily remove the other person’s desire to call you that name, but in no way have you demonstrated self respect, or communicated that you believe you (and other members of your group) deserve respect from the people around you.
    [Case in point: Has the "You might be a redneck...!" campaign caused you to feel any lingering respect for people who support it? Or alternatively, would you reply "You're right, I am!" to someone who called you an worthless piece of trash?]
    I remain baffled by the snarky condemnation of people who are not comfortable with or don’t agree with reclaiming. The tone of the comments on this post make it clear that people who support reclaiming want to say what they want, without consequence. Fine, that’s your choice. But by growing defensive of that decision, you have removed any potential to discuss the nuanced larger issues–whether reclaiming is at all effective, what message it sends to other women and men, and more importantly, what the broader consequences might be.

  • Desolation Ro

    Rock on, Shark-fu. ROCK ON. If more people were fearless and fierce about being themselves, we’d end up with a lot more interesting individuals out there. And whoever didn’t like it would be outnumbered and have to get the fuck used to it.

  • M0xieHart

    This is a sidenot but I really have to comment on this:
    Reclaiming images and actions is where I start to roll my eyes…a friend of mine and I were talking about the Burlesque subculture that seemed to get so popular in the last six or seven years, and I find women “reclaiming” the ability to undress for an audience complete doublethink. Ties in with my thoughts on Suicide Girls as well.
    PLEASE don’t conflate Suicide Girls with the burlesque revival. All the burlesque peaople I know work really hard at dancing and putting on compelling shows. I love them because they’re not sizeist and accept people of all body types. Why is it a problem if nudity is involved? Most forms of dancing have some element of nudity from ballet to turkish.

  • ZoBabe

    Just a quick note, that I find myself idolizing Shark-Fu a bit.
    Shiftercat: If I’m not mistaken, “blink” is when a point is made that is so ridiculous, you need to stop for a full blink just to digest the silliness of it.
    Correct me if I’m wrong!

  • Judith Jewcakes

    “PLEASE don’t conflate Suicide Girls with the burlesque revival.”
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m much more upset about Suicide Girls than I am about seemingly woman-friendly Burlesque, just for starters that SG is run by a man and the Burlesque groups I know are run by women. But I also see a connection between them. I live near Boston and I also have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are/were involved in the Burlesque revival. A lot of them, including the friend I was having this conversation with, have turned away from it for exactly the reasons I mean. As size-inclusive, body-loving and artistic as it may be, what separates it to me (and her and the others) from dancing is that the element of nudity is specifically sexual and meant for entertainment. And maybe it’s just me personally, but seems like “reclaiming” sexiness as entertainment–and as entertainment for anybody, not just a female or generally woman-friendly audience–does little in the end to help the feminist cause.

  • M0xieHart

    And maybe it’s just me personally, but seems like “reclaiming” sexiness as entertainment–and as entertainment for anybody, not just a female or generally woman-friendly audience–does little in the end to help the feminist cause.
    But why is sex as entertainment bad? Sex is hilarious. And why is sexual nudity bad?

  • ouyangdan

    Rock the fuck on, Shark-fu.

  • Judith Jewcakes

    It’s not bad in and of itself–it’s bad when it’s specifically women, entertaining specifically men. Which, unless Burlesque groups perform only for women, it invariably ends up being (even if there are also women in the audience).
    I also feel like, having spoken to women interested in the Burlesque movement, many of them (especially teenage girls) don’t quite grasp the fact that it is largely sexual entertainment. It’s fun, it’s liberating, it’s theatrical, these are all lovely things, but historically, women’s place in the burlesque show has been, well, soft-core sexual entertainment.
    Although maybe it’s possible to fully reclaim the style by appropriately de-emphasizing the “women’s body as entertainment” aspect, that’s not what I’ve seen of Burlesque revival in Boston. In fact, it doesn’t seem to address the larger social implications of objectifying women at all–just puts a “liberation” label on it. If a woman chooses to perform Burlesque, and feels liberated, I’m not going to give her shit (I mean, these are still current friends I’m talking about, and I can see how it would benefit someone on a personal level, especially those with poor body self-esteem), but I don’t think it helps us any as a gender. And I know for sure that there are younger women buying into Burlesque revival who simply don’t understand the implications.
    Apologies to Shark-Fu and others if you feel that this is really off-topic.

  • M0xieHart

    It’s not bad in and of itself–it’s bad when it’s specifically women, entertaining specifically men. Which, unless Burlesque groups perform only for women, it invariably ends up being (even if there are also women in the audience).
    So women entertaining men, or men entertaining women is bad? Are we to attend performances in segregated gender groups now?
    I’ve never seen a burlesque performance in Boston, but the ones I’ve seen in NYC have had female and male performers, for largely mixed-gender audiences. Maybe some of the men were just there to get boners and some were there as liberated feminists, but why should their pleasure inhibit our sexual (And nonsexual) expression?
    It’s fun, it’s liberating, it’s theatrical, these are all lovely things, but historically, women’s place in the burlesque show has been, well, soft-core sexual entertainment.
    Why is soft-core sexual entertainment, or hard-core sexual entertainment bad?
    I feel like we’re talking in circles, so this is going to be my last post on the matter (Sorry for derailing the thread, folks!), but it’s an issue that’s been bothering me for a long time on this blog in particular. As a writer, artist, and performer, I always feel like I’m being forced to choose between my art and feminism. “Don’t use naked women’s bodies, that’s objectifying.” “Don’t use the word ‘shrill’ to characterize a person.” “Sexual performance is bad because some unliberated dudes might pop a boner, despite how liberated *you* feel during the show.” And in the end, I’m always going to choose art over ideology. Always. This is very alienating for me, and I can’t be the only one who feels this way. I love feminism, and I don’t think I’ll be stumping for Palin any day soon, but it makes me want to reject the title.

  • Judith Jewcakes

    Aw, c’mon, don’t threaten to reject the title of “feminist” because you’ve realized that not all feminists hold the same beliefs. I’m not even a Radical Feminist! There’s huge variation; we don’t have to agree all the time.
    I can see I’m not gonna convince you how characterizing women as sexual entertainment is sexist, and as long as Burlesque revival actors feel comfortable with what they’re doing, I’m not going to run after them demanding they stop–but please understand why it makes me feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to say something.

  • PeggyLuWho

    I’ve been known to say that I would prefer to be called a bitch, even in an un-reclaimed sense, then: Sweetie, sweetpea, honey, baby, babe, etc.
    People always think I’m kidding, so they call me a bitch, trying to taunt me, and I shrug and go on with life.
    My goal in life is to be a badass bitch!
    Also love being called a Feminazi. Yeah! So!

  • Roja

    I’d also like to add to the unrelated thread: I have to say I never see men being sexy to entertain women in popular culture in LA. When it happens it’s a rare novelty,… it also seems that women’s sexuality is equated with women being sexy for someone else. and I have no idea how or when it will change.

  • Roja

    also, If anyone has a response to what cestlavie posted I’d like to read it. I think her argument was intersting.

  • Roja

    I meant interEsting

  • jnmiller

    Why I’ll Never Be a Bookslut is a wonderful article by Stephanie Cleveland that deals with reclaiming words. She doesn’t appreciate the postfeminist usage of words like ‘bitch’ or especially ‘slut': for her there is an eternal bond between those words and their traditional degrading, defining senses. There’s no joke to be made, no power to be garnered. Try out the word ‘slave’ – for many even now it’s difficult to enjoy some otherwise innocent humor when it’s associated with that word. Cleveland would rather we left these words behind.
    I think she’s right. I mean, we’ve got a fancy new sense of ‘bitch’ here that doesn’t have the insulting, hurtful subtext.. but I don’t see how that precludes the next man you meet from using that very same word in the regular old stereotypical way. It seems to be that the sticking point is more what he means than what he says.
    So.. some people are triggered by sexist language, and – assuming “reclaiming” is even possible – men are likely to find a way around these fenced-off words anyway. Skip it, I say.
    Ironically, Cleveland also deals with sexism in art in that article. Maybe strip shows and reclaiming words aren’t so orthogonal after all!

  • M0xieHart

    Aw, c’mon, don’t threaten to reject the title of “feminist” because you’ve realized that not all feminists hold the same beliefs.
    This isn’t a threat, it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. I can understand why artists like PJ Harvey, Bjork, and Tori Amos currently or have in the past rejected the title feminist, as I delve deeper into my artistic career. Put yourself in my position, if you’re trying to write a story or paint a picture, but you can’t use certain words, or you can’t use certain images. If you use the word “bitch” you’re automatically triggering, so go after the people trying to reclaim it instead of the people using it as a negative word.
    Also, your post was pretty patronizing. I’ve been calling myself a feminist and reading about it since I was 12 (I’m now 25) and I consider myself a radical feminist. So, yeah, I’m pretty certain that feminists disagree on some things. Maybe if we stopped picking each other apart and started picking the conservatives apart, then the right wing wouldn’t be kicking our ass.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    cestlavie, I don’t think that you have to agree with the false derogatory characterization that’s intended by your opponent when reclaiming a word. When women first started reclaiming “bitch,” for example, there was a lot of dialogue about what kinds of behavior would earn you that label. The point was that all of the behaviors that are positive in men (being assertive, tenacious, unafraid of the disapproval of others, willing to buck the status quo, etc) earn you a negative title like “bitch” if you’re a woman. So I don’t think that reclaiming is about agreeing that these characteristics are negative and then just being defiant and stubborn about it. I think this instance goes beyond the grade-school response of “I know I am but what are you?” In this case you’re saying, yes, I am assertive and I can be dominant when necessary and I will speak my mind and try to change the world, and I reject your bullshit claim that these actions are inappropriate for a woman.
    And I think your question about the effectiveness of reclaiming is a good one. We need to be reflective about what we’re doing and how it’s working. Maybe we should continue to be explicit about what it means to be a bitch and continue to point out the double standard. Several times in the past I’ve commented that if a woman acted the way a man is acting she’d be labeled a bitch, and it always generates these interesting discussions. So maybe we should just start referring to assertive, confident men as bitches. That’ll get some attention.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    And while we’re at it, let’s reclaim “uppity.” I love to watch the expressions that cross people’s faces when you use that term in a sarcastic way. That term implies so much about the assumed role of women, and how the woman in question is violating this role. Using it ironically, or in a positive way, or applying it to men, really makes people stop and think for a minute, and then they usually laugh (and hopefully reject the use of the word altogether).
    I used it when I was consulting with an impatient, uncooperative doctor before the birth of my daughter: “I know I’m just an uppity pregnant woman who’s wasting your time, but I’m not going to sign off on the pre-registration papers until we all agree that she’s not going to have the antibiotic eye drops immediately after birth, since they’re unecessary and uncomfortable.” He did stop and give me the strangest look, and then smiled, shook his head, and told me I was “something else.” I’ll take that as a compliment.
    *note* If you’re having a baby and you’ve tested negative for gonorrhea and chlamydia (and they routinely test pregnant women), then your baby does not need the eye drops, which are the real cause of blurred vision in the first day or two after birth. Hospitals still routinely give the eye drops even when they know the mom has tested negative. I assume it’s because they charge your insurance company another $50 for them. Be uppity and challenge the medical establishment on bullshit like this!