Call me old-fashioned, but “bitch” is not a word I ever liked. As a Jewish woman, I’m sensitive to the power of words to denigrate and oppress. When I was growing up, “bitch” was a misogynist epithet referring to a woman considered difficult, controlling, and unreasonable (“The boss is such a bitch, she’s making everyone work on Saturday night”), or powerless and sexualized (“She gives him whatever he wants, whenever he wants it — she’s his bitch”). I never used it and bristled whenever I heard it.
That is, until early 2018, when I discovered, and promptly devoured, four seasons of Broad City. The show has given me a taste of what it’s like on the other side of the bitch gap, and I have to say, it’s actually not so bad.
It was partly a process of exposure therapy.
Eighteen seconds into the first episode, Ilana drops the b-bomb on video chat: “Today is the day,” she says, “we become Abbi and Ilana, the boss bitches we are in our minds.” Twenty-seven seconds later, Ilana says, “I can spot you, bitch!” when Abbi argues that she doesn’t have money to go out. The first usage is an empowering one, and the second is neutral, replaceable by “girl” or even “dude,” which they also frequently call one another.
While watching the first season, I still didn’t love the word, but the characters and the premise of the show were compelling and funny enough not to lose me. I loved that they were two Jewish women stumbling through their 20s in New York City while getting away with tons of things that guys have long gotten away with on TV (and in real life): actively seeking sex, occasionally making asses of themselves, pulling off fart jokes, etc. It felt feminist in its own, silly way. And refreshing. And freaking funny. So, I kept watching and more or less tuned out the word bitch.
The turning point for me was the season two episode “Knockoffs.” We learn that Ilana’s grandmother has died and we meet her mom for the first time, played by Susie Essman. (To jog your memory, it’s also the episode in which Abbi pegs Jeremy.) In the opening, Ilana tells Abbi, “This bitch is always late,” while waiting for her mother at the nail salon — though we don’t yet know she’s referring to her mother. A second later, Essman shows up and announces, “I can’t believe you beat me here!” Turning to Abbi, she says, “This bitch is always late.” Then Ilana and her mom hug and walk into the nail salon together. The scene is shocking, but also — in its own weird way — wonderfully touching.
It’s soon clear that Ilana and her mom have a close and honest relationship and share a number of similarities. At the shiva later in the episode, Ilana calls her own dead grandmother (who had sex with Little Richard) a “bad-ass bitch.” Like in a good way. Like in a she-did-whatever-she-wanted-and-was-a-boss kind of way.
I was a bitch convert.
Of course, any attempt at reclaiming the word is complicated by pop culture and the world at large. In the last decades, “bitch” has been thrown around in so many different ways it’s dizzying to try to keep up. Even in a single hip hop song, it can be used to compliment or put down a woman.
This is in keeping with its history: In 15th century English, “bitch” was first used as an insult against a flagrantly promiscuous woman, like a female dog in heat. In the 1920s, bitch took on more of its contemporary flavor, as a woman who steps up too much and demands more than she is due. A coincidence that women won the right to vote in 1920? I think not.
Bitch was first used in 1980s hip hop by male rappers to connote a woman of low sexual regard (a “slut”), or a manipulative and conniving one. In hip hop, and in pop culture at large, it’s also an insult that men use on other men: He’s being a bitch if he’s weak, inferior, or effeminate. (Think “pussy,” another highly feminized insult.)
But, just like other groups have, at least in part, reclaimed a host of oppressive words (think queer, slut, and the “n” word), women have been working to reframe the word bitch for a while now. In the Bitch Manifesto of 1968, feminist Jo Freeman wrote that brash, bossy, and bold behavior — i.e. bitchiness — from women would be considered naturally assertive behavior by men. She encouraged women to stop asking permission, to just be bitches. Female hip hop and pop artists such as Trina, Nikki Minaj, Beyoncé, and Rihanna have all used the word to connote success, power, and hotness. And then there’s Bitch Magazine, “a feminist response to pop culture,” which was first published in 1996 and continues to thrive.
Like a lot of words, bitch’s acceptability depends on who says it about whom, and why. Is it said to hurt and keep down, or to respect and empower? I wish women wouldn’t hurl the word at one another to denigrate, ever. But I’d be cool if a female friend who shared my awareness and sensibilities called me a bitch, particularly if she inserted the adjective “boss” or “bad” in front of it.
Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana are entrepreneurs and artists wielding their power in whatever ways are available to them. They say what they mean, and they have each other’s backs. If that makes them bad bitches, I’m down with it. I, and a lot of women I know, could channel that vibe to good end. L’chaim to bad bitches everywhere!