The word "bitch" came up again for me in February when my friend, the wonderful actor, James Kyson, invited me to his home to engage in a poetry group made up of a small group of about 5 artists (actors, writers, musicians, comics, etc.) and led by an incredibly talented poet. I was a little nervous and intimidated by the greatness of this group but I love poetry and I was eager to share and collaborate with fellow artists. The event was amazing and one event in particular stood out to me so much that, 4 weeks later, I was still ruminating on it.
At one point, the woman moderating the group told us to take out notebooks and write down a single word we associated with a long list of words she read out to us. One word she said was “bitch.” Immediately, I wrote down, “Strength.”
After we’d finished writing down our first word associations with each of the words on the moderator’s list, she asked us to choose one association we’d written that surprised or interested us and to do a “free write” about that for a few minutes. I thought it was funny the first word I thought of in conjunction with “bitch” – a negative word – was “strength” – a positive word and began to free write about that. Afterwards, the moderator asked us to share with the group what we chose and what we wrote. One of the other women there, a neuroscientist and musician (read: super smart!) had also chosen “bitch.” She associated it with the color red. She wrote a gorgeous story of being labeled by others and being able to disregard and discard those labels. Her story inspired me to share what I had written with the group as well. Here is a part of what I wrote:
She is a bitch. Bold and ferocious; angry and true. She is honor and integrity and she speaks aloud. Never humbled but often shamed. She is hit and tormented, hated and mocked. Blood runs down her face and into her eyes. But she is defiant and stone and truth. She is love and elegance in a warrior’s mold. You can bend her and cut her but she will not break. You can frighten her and lock her up and rip out her tongue but her eyes will still speak and she will never give up. She’s soft on the outside; iron within. Refusing to yield, she can be stubborn and dark, cruel and cold. Most of all, she is strong. Strong within and strong without. If she takes your hand, she won’t let go. If you fall, she will catch you, no matter your weight. She is shy. She is innocent. She is a bitch. She is alone, filled with power that she wants to share. She is fire and light, darkness and liquid. She will attempt flight without wings and welcome the fall. She sees risks and takes them, refusing to be bound by social constructions and social constraints. She is a bitch. She’ll fall down the stairs and tell stupid jokes. She’ll be the toast of the town and then let everyone down. She is an explorer, a wanderer, a teacher, a judge. She fights for peace but belongs to war. She is a bitch.
A few days after that, I was part of a panel of three women interviewed on women taking on power roles – writer, director, producer – in the entertainment business. One topic that came up was women being our own worst enemy by competing too hard with one another and back stabbing one another. I really took issue with that, perhaps because my “bitch” essay was still on my mind. I asked why blame other women for not holding our hands as we try so hard to smash the plexiglass ceiling when we don’t blame men for doing the same thing? Why view other women as our competition always for every resource, but not men? Why see other women as a roadblock, and not men? Why bother with in-fighting and blaming our gender when we could be focused on rising and moving ahead?
Malcolm X once said something to the effect of, “we don’t need to change the white man’s mind, we need to change our own minds” and I think that is very apt for us as women. We are raised from an early age with different sets of values and judgments – social constructions, if you will – that we consciously and unconsciously apply to men and women throughout our lives.
Women are held to far higher standards and far harsher judgments. Don’t believe me? Look at the stats and studies showing that both men and women are far more critical of women bosses than men bosses (a 2013 Gallup poll found that Americans of all education levels and of both sexes prefer a male boss by an average of 33%); that assertive women are consistently described with negative words like “bitch,” “sharp-tongued” and “crazy.” Their male counterparts, on the other hand, are described as “commanding,” “determined,” and “confident.” See, e.g., LeanIn.org, Duke University Women’s Initiative of 2002, Catfight by Laura Tanenbaum, Why Are We So Hard on Women Bosses, Cosmopolitan Magazine April 2014 (http://www.cosmopolitan.com/advice/work-money/women-bosses); https://shine.yahoo.com/healthy-living/female-ceo-gets-hit-on-in-email-from-potential-employee-153536376.html (noting that sixty percent of women aged 18-34 say that they believe men are paid more than women for doing the same amount of work, and 51 percent say that society as a whole favors men over women).
So, going back to Malcolm X, maybe we need to work on putting aside the (often ridiculous) standards our society places upon our backs and put aside perceptions of how men and other women view us and try to focus more on making ourselves better and happier and stronger people – whatever that means to each one of us as an individual – in moving forward in our lives and doing what we think we should with dignity and honor and, of course, strength.