Friday, November 16, 2007

Village Focus: Is the "B-Word" Ever Okay?

A special feature added this weekend at the Professional Women's Village:

In a provocative and multilayered feature for the Associated Press, writer MEGAN K. SCOTT asks:

Is it ever OK to call a woman the "b-word"? Once not too long ago, the answer would be, obviously, no. But, now the term has such currency in our hip-hop saturated popular culture, she suggests, it may well be that context is everything. "Or," she muses, "does it depend who's using that little word that rhymes with witch?"

Sure, the word is fraught -- it shifts under the weight of class, race, the speaker and the spoken to -- and there are an increasing number of views of and uses for it. One that has been discussed a great deal in our publications, at least, is that it is a scourge of Black women spread through popular culture. It is also increasingly a wedge between Black men and women that some activists, from MLK's daughter Bernice King to student groups, are combating through media protests, lectures, and on campuses. (Also see Kam Williams' review, Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women.)

But, as Scott observes, it can also be -- presumably ironically -- a term of endearment, even pride. It's commonly used by entertainment celebrities, including African American women such as Mo'Nique who used it ostensibly as a "term of endearment" while performing a comedy show at a women's prison. And then there's the Bitch Magazine -- a proud, loud, ironic, new-school "feminist response to popular culture" -- which revels in the co-optation of a term that was once generally hurtful, but now is worn seemingly as a badge of defiance, a sign of grrrrrlll-power attitude.

In these uses though, it seems to me, the intent seems to be to show a kind of power, a thickness of skin. It conveys a sign of toughness, a sticks-and-stones-ness, an I'll-kick-your-assness -- perhaps a maleness -- that puts me in mind of some women executives I've known and worked under in my time. I recall that, well before the total dominance of hip hop over popular culture, working at not one but two women-owned advertising agencies back in my college days where, interestingly, both presidents were wont to refer to themselves, rather than other women who offended them, as "bitches". I recall one boss telling me she decided to start her own firm because she was "too big a bitch" to work for someone else. "You know why I had the highest-grossing sales at my last job?" she said another time. "Because I'm a real bitch." The implication being: I'm tough and dogged. I'm the alpha dog.

Most recently, I've come to notice that more than a few of my gay male friends have taken to referring to each other as bitches -- or sometimes, more animatedly, as "biyatches" -- quite freely. And, I guess I'm dating myself, but I have to say it still strikes my ear as sounding very odd -- similar to the now-common phenomenon of young white men in baggy jeans referring to each other unselfconsciously as "niggas".

Now, as a man, a straight man, who sees such permissive use of the word in the culture around me, I'm left to wonder what would happen if I were to go to my old boss and greet her with the "B-word" now. Can it be that it's so ubiquitous that it has really lost its meaning, its power to sting?

If I were to use it, would it be safe?

I think the jury's still out. But take a look at Scott's article, and see what you think.