I overheard a group of women in a restaurant this past week verbally tear each other apart, and was taken back by the bitterness. An overly-critical thought crossed my mind, as I reflected on how women talk about other women. I thought about what I heard so many women say over the years: “Women are so much meaner to each other than men.” Bitchiness is in the air. Sad to say, there is nothing new about this. Nor is there anything new about the claim that bitchiness has always been with us, and always will be. It is the old arms-crossed, eyelids-lowered, flip-your-hair-and-walk-away manifestation of hostility that women display when we’re sizing each other up.
Of course, a healthy amount of competition helps to identify with the challenging nature of success, and can help everyone strive and push to be the best version of themselves. However, there is a fine line that is crossed very often in our society by women’s obsession with “wealth, looks, prestige, body image or personality.” And women’s aggression may not take the same form as men’s, as women often show aggression indirectly and mainly toward one another. Sometimes we judge harshly, hold grudges, exclude, and disconnect from other women.
Take the word “bitchy” for example. It is used just about everywhere: in casual conversation and/ or heated arguments, and in a myriad of other instances. It tends to just make people chuckle for loads of different reasons. What has always been the connotative definition of bitch for me is that of a rude woman, a manipulative woman, an overly loud, selfish and reckless, domineering, hostile woman. These traits are not admired in men either, but to other women, the word “bitch” can be taken as even more invasive. It can reinforce some potential connotations, perpetuate humiliation and harmful gender stereotypes.
So let’s not be disingenuous. Is “Bitch,” as denoting other women, a bad word? Of course it is! It instigates internalized messages of sexism. When I began to deconstruct “bitch” as a cultural and linguistic phenomenon, it became apparent that many aspects hinge on female competition. As a society, we have done everything possible to make sure of that, starting with a constantly-perpetuated mindset that deems powerful women as scary, angry and unfeminine. Relatedly, the attempt to pull misogynist slurs from their roots to try to redefine doesn’t sail.
However, for most of us there is still a pressure to be desired by a man, get married and live a happy life with 2.5 kids all before we reach the age of 35. Many people – especially women – believe it is an obligation to swim upstream and spawn. As women, we have multiple roles, and at any given time we can be students, decision makers, leaders, workers, nurturers, caregivers, mothers and so much more. And in each of these roles, the ability to be educated, to voice and influence, and to enjoy choices and opportunities are critical to attainments.
I’m reminded of an exchange I had with my mother soon after I graduated from high school. I toasted to my mother, “I am my mother’s daughter.” To which she stood up and responded, as she toasted back, “I am sure you are not a clone of me, you are your own woman.”
Moral of the story: women who admire the strength of other women can only do so because they know what is required to develop that strength. I wanted to end the conversation on an upbeat note, so I said, “Mum, the bottom line, and most important outcome of these battles, is the fact that women don’t win them – not one specific woman, not a demographic, race, or class of women, but certainly the everyday woman struggling for triumph in daily life.”
Plenty of us have managed to figure out that refusing to use language which perpetuates oppression is not enslaving oneself to the language police. Luckily, there are about five billion other words we can use to criticize without sounding like a misogynist.