The B-Word: A Breakdown of a Word That Breaks Down
By David J. Leonard
Eye on Culture
“Ain’t that a “b****” “Stop “b****ing” “Stop acting like a “b****” “You go to the basket like a “b****” “You throw like a “b****” “You hit like a “b****” “I ain’t your “b****”
The “B word” is ubiquitous within our contemporary culture. It can be heard on television, at the student recreation center, on college campuses, on the street, at schools, in songs, and in countless other spaces. Notwithstanding this over saturation, the word remains entrenched within a history of violence and patriarchy. No amount of mental gymnastics and argumentation can take away from its history, and ideological baggage. It is a slur; it is demeaning, disrespectful, and hurtful.
“‘B*tch’ is a slur; and there’s no doubt that the word has a female referent, and a nonhuman one at that,” writes Sherryl Kleinman, Matthew B. Ezzell, and A. Corey Frost. As a dehumanizing slur, this word is wrapped up within a larger history of violence against women, rape, domestic abuse, and state-sanctioned and state practiced violence against women. Its meaning and origins cannot be understood apart from slavery, lynchings, war, forced sterilization, vaginal ultrasounds, labor exploitation and abuse, and so much more. Just go to Google, type the word in the search box and you will see how many different images that normalize and justify violence against women through the dehumanizing deployment of this slur.
In researching for this piece, I came across a site that shocked and sickened me. I found myself asking how, why, and what we can do to stem the tide of dehumanizing language, normalized violence, and the brutality of sexism and misogyny. In “How to Smack a B*tch,” Matt Stone provides readers with a “how to” list, disgustingly describing each type of slap with a casualness. As part of a website called the “guy code,” this sort of “logic” imagines violence against women, and seeing women as less than human as both normal and required to be a real man. While easy to dismiss this outrageous and reprehensible post and page as the extreme (or try to describe it as “satire” as a way to insulate from rightful indignation and condemnation), it speaks to the ways that the language of sexism normalizes violence, discrimination, inequality, and injustice.
Irrespective of this history and the connections seen above, the defenders of the word often notes that the “B word,” as it is used to describe men and women, is not sexist because (1) it is just a word (2) the meaning has changed and (3) men use it to describe other men and therefore it's not offensive to women. Let me respond to each. (1) it’s not just a word; words matter.
"Words can elevate or deflate us. Words often precede action. Harsh words are exchanged and a fight breaks out. Words tell us, empirically, about increases or decreases in inequality; old inequalities in new guises; false power among members of an oppressed group (more on that, later); unconscious sexism, racism, or other forms of inequality; subordinates’ resistance to injustice" (from Reclaiming Critical Analysis: The Social Harms of ‘B*tch’).
(2) Its meaning remains entrenched in misogyny and patriarchy and (3) it doesn’t matter. The claims that the word has been recuperated, that its meaning has changed over time, and that because men now use it in relationship to other men it precludes a gendered meaning is simplistic and fails to account for the broader implications of the word. It fails to account for what men are saying when they use it to describe another male. Take the examples from above: “stop whining” – “stop “b****ing”; “don’t bring that weak sh*t to basket” – “stop playin like a “b****” or “I don’t want to get you something to drink; I ain’t your “b****.”In each case, the B-word is used to convey weakness, subservience, and undesirability through a constructed idea of femininity. Whether talking about physical power, intellectual strength or control, the b-word serves as a stand-in for female. “Stop acting like a girl;” “You throw or ball like a girl [or woman];” “I ain’t a woman.” All of these phrases, and the dehumanizing deployment in regards to men demonstrate how the “B word” is wrapped in the logic of sexism; the worst thing one can be is a female within the misogynist imagination.
The effort to imagine and describe those abnormal, undesirable, weak, and otherwise unacceptable identities is conveyed through words like “b****.” The process of imagining masculine as powerful, as naturally in charge, as desirable in opposition to constructed ideas of femininity is on display every time this word is circulated within society. It will never be just a word; it is a word that holds within each utterance a history, an ideology, a worldview, and a system of misogynistic violence. It is time to rewrite this history, and imagine a new world, a process that begins with our language.As H. Samy Alim reminded readers last year, “Words can move entire nations of people — even the world — to action.” How about we start with changing our own vocabulary. David J. Leonard is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and co-editor of Criminalized and Commodified: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports (Rowman and Littlefield). He is the author of the just released After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness as we as several other works. Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan, layupline, Feminist Wire, and Urban Cusp. He is frequent contributor to Ebony, Slam, and racialicious as well as a past contributor to Loop21, The Nation and The Starting Five. He blogs at No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @drdavidjleonard.
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