Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rhymes with witch

A few months ago I was waiting for a bus with a friend. The bus stop was one of those where no buses arrive for 15 minutes, then seven of them show up all at once. Our bus was stuck two bus-lengths behind the bus bay, so we had to shuffle between other buses in front and the grass verge on the pavement to get to the bus, as did a small queue of other passengers in front of us. While performing said shuffle, we were made aware of the presence of a man behind us by his snapping at us: 'Are you getting on the bus or not? If you aren't, get out of the way.'

Now, this Cow is not one much for bucolic meandering. This Cow gets het up into a state of Complaint frequently due to an impatient nature, and the only thing that stopped me from joining the 'I Secretly Want to Punch Slow-Walking People in the Back of The Head' Facebook group was the fact that I don't want to punch people; I just want to tell them very loudly and imperiously, EXCUSE ME. Seeing as humans and cows have one anatomical feature in common—namely: the absence of eyes on the back of the head, I think it's only fair to give warning to slow-walkers in front of you that something impatient (and/or late to an appointment) their way comes. There's no need to be snippy about it too. Imaginary imperial pretensions notwithstanding, I always manage to be quite polite and meek with my 'Excuse me's. It's like directional signals on cars; you don't get pissed off with other cars just because they're there in front of you on the road, right?

So I was not liking it one bit, the tone with which this interloper was telling me to 'get out of the way'. We have an expression 'round these parts: Your grandfather owns the road issit? ('Issit' = 'is it', but said in demanding tone which promises a world of pain to whoever responds in the affirmative.) This sentiment was strong in my mind, but being the younger, smaller-sized and less drunk party in this public confrontation, I thought it wise to restrict my reply to the un-sarcastic and purely factual, so I told him that we were indeed trying our best to get on the bus, and if he'd just let us get on with it, he could also achieve the same.

So we all Got On The Fucking Bus. See, it wasn't that hard, was it? Except that Angry Man felt the need to extend our inadvertent interaction by saying, quite loud enough for the entire bus to hear: 'Bitches!'

Gentle readers, I saw red. My companion, with much quicker reflexes, responded with 'Bastard!' as Angry Man disappeared up the stairs to the upper deck. The bus trundled on in stony silence. The entire encounter had taken less than a minute in real time, but my heart pounded as if I'd just done the 100m sprint. I was angry and shaken.

And this, my dear friends, is why 'bitch' cannot be reappropriated to empower women.

'Bitch' was, is and always will be a gendered insult. It will always be used to shame, degrade and encourage violence against women for the sole reason that they are women. There is no equivalent insult whose power to degrade springs from being a slur against intrinsic maleness. ('Bastard': illegitimate children are not confined to the male sex. 'Asshole': everyone has one. 'Idiot', 'moron', 'retard': Slurs against mental disabilities, not maleness.)

I am well aware that many people (and many of them women) think that 'bitch' is a relatively mild term, that their lives would be that much poorer if they didn't use this epithet, and that if I can't handle it, then it's because my skin is too thin—that if I just don't let it hurt me, then the insult loses its power. I could do all that, but that would be a purely selfish way to live, because I live in privileged circumstances that allow me to treat 'bitch' as merely a word, and not have to suffer the most extreme physical consequences of woman-hating. And you know what: I wasn't hurt by being called a bitch. I was insulted. My emotional state of hurtness or lack thereof had no bearing on the degree of insult that was offered to me.

'Bitch' is reserved with special vehemence for women who are 'difficult', who are angry, who exact the same standards as the toughest male managers at the workplace, who make our own sexual and reproductive choices without shame, who refuse to quietly and gladly submit to what men want us to do that is in contradiction with our own needs, wishes and choices.

But we cannot reclaim 'bitch' to celebrate women's independence and women's anger, because 'bitch' can also be used on any woman. In the incident related above, all I did to get called 'bitch' was get on the bus. If I had been a man, Angry Man would have insulted me for being slow, not for being a man. To the person who uses 'bitch' as an insult, it's just another word for 'woman that I hate', and as we have seen, women can be hated for doing almost anything. And that is why we can never use the word 'bitch' without even inadvertently tapping on and feeding into this deep well of hatred.

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After posting the above, I was reminded by my companion on that night of some details I had elided. Apparently my memory was too forgiving to Angry Man. What actually happened was, after he'd asked (in rather bad faith, in light of what followed) whether we were getting on the bus, we said yes, and he replied, 'Then why are you walking like you're at a funeral?' My companion (again, with the lightning take-no-shit reflexes) shot back, 'None of your bloody business,' which is the comment that preceded his calling us bitches.

In addition to the name-calling, another feature of Angry Man's behaviour which I have noticed in other unpleasant public encounters with aggressive men, is the entitlement they feel to encroach on that radius of personal space that everyone is entitled to in a public place, if that space happens to surround a woman. In this case, Angry Man chivvied us on our way because he clearly felt that our claim on the space that we occupied was trumped by his desire to board the bus at record-breaking pace. I'm sure he'll do well in the Night Bus Olympics, douchebags' division.

8 comments:

  1. Here is a nice big Chicken fart for Angry Man: Pfffft

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  2. Angry person is no man. Doesn't even have BALLS to face a woman and say that to her face, instead running off. Please do not associate angry person with real men. Thank you.

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  3. Way to derail and miss the point, Anonymous. You suggest that using a misogynist slur is acceptable so long as one doesn't turn tail afterward. You suggest that the desirable quality of sticking by one's words is a function of maleness. And you are more interested in defending some monolithic notion of 'manhood' than in addressing the issue of slurs against women. At the Barn we call this Fail.

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  4. First Bitches! Oh OK. Fourth. :(

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  5. The Aforementioned FriendJune 11, 2010 at 5:27 AM

    You've totally proven the point of this article, Anonymous #2. Congratulations on your membership in the Angry Douchebags club.

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  6. I totally didn't understand Anonymous #2's comment until now. Anonymous #2: First, learn to punctuate. Second, don't call us bitches. Now fuck off.

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  7. eh, but i call men bitches too. in fact, i probably use the word for men way more often than women. it's a sex-less word for me. (yes, i know.. it's only me or a tiny minority of people) especially favoured category is Drivers Who Drive At Night In Dark Coloured Cars With No Lights On. occasionally i knock on their windows and politely ask them to turn the lights on (i'm usually on two wheels). but i think they're bitches anyway.

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  8. Murli, even if you as an individual intend the use of the word 'bitch' to be non-gendered, the general usage of the insult is still gendered, and will *always* be tied to negative connotations of female-ness. As long as it's a gendered insult in a world where woman-hating is still prevalent, none of us can check out of the misogyny it perpetuates if we keep using this word. I'm sorry if it means we have to change our vocabulary (which, incidentally, I think is a really small price to pay), but that's how language, society, culture and the patriarchy work.

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