“Crazy Bitches”: Language and the Ongoing Shaming of Femininity

I know it’s been a while since I updated this blog-~-early and mid-November are a nightmare for deadlines at my university, and I’ve started but failed to finish multiple posts.  But I think I’m ready to start blogging again, because I want to talk about the construction of women today and the way that we check femininity in our society, because it’s a real problem.

We use the word “bitch” casually to describe “difficult” women, women who are “disagreeable”.  In reality, we use it to describe women who don’t conform to some of the standards of femininity that are most tied into subjugation: “bitches” aren’t sweet, aren’t docile, aren’t cooperative, aren’t gentle, aren’t “nice”.  And since femininity is constructed to insist that women should be those things, when they aren’t, they come to practice a deviant form of femininity, and as such, they wind up in this “bitch” category.

The use of the word is perhaps one of the most clearly satirical parts of Lily Allen’s song “Hard Out Here”.  I’m not ready to endorse the song altogether-~-I think there’s a real debate as to whether or not she was truly being satirical in her use of Black backup dancers twerking or was simply utilizing Black women’s bodies in a way that needs to be examined, questioned and likely condemned-~-but that’s a post for another day.  What I am ready to say is this: her use of the word “bitch” to satirize the construction and classification of independent women who defy norms of subjugation and objectification, she hits the nail on the head.  I actually don’t have a problem with her lyrics, and I think she has a valid point: society shoves gendered concepts of what it means to be strong down individuals’ throats to the exclusion of a concept of strong femininity.

Is it hard out here for a “bitch”?  There’s a real argument that it is.  Allen alludes to another double standard pertaining to female sexuality when she refers to slut-shaming early in the song, and it’s an equally valid issue.  Sluts and bitches defy different aspects of femininity, though, and the “bitch” side of the argument tends to go under-explored.  But being a strong, independent woman comes with its own backlash in our society: women who break with the traditional model of femininity are often vilified in popular media, such that young women are still taught that they are wrong when they prioritize themselves or their work over relationships, a desire for children, etc.   You can look to Jessica Valenti’s sarcastic photo collection “Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies” for an example of how working women are portrayed as “bad mothers”.  Women who don’t want children are “cold”, because women are “supposed to be” warm and nurturing, and they are treated as though they are defective, because we’re told that we SHOULD want this role, despite the trade-offs that come with it.  It’s a minefield of double-binds that women are hard-pressed to navigate today, and in which women lack role models.

Women are shown that this prioritization is bad on all sides.  They see fewer female managers and fewer female board members.  In popular media, they see successful women vilified for being “bitches”.  In The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda (Meryl Streep) is actually called the “dragon lady” for being demanding and pushy, and is publicly eviscerated when her husband leaves her because she is focused on work.  This same trope appears in numerous films targeting young women (Liv in Bride Wars, Lindsey in Fever Pitch, etc.).  This helps to reinforce a real cultural problem: young women are taught that they are in competition with other women, and that they need to tear other women down in order to succeed.  “Bitch” is one way that men and women alike reinforce the idea that women are supposedly not meant to be successful, not meant to be competitive, not meant to be pushy.

Sheryl Sandberg starts to explore the economic issues inherent in this construction of “bitchiness” in her book Lean In.  Women in America today are disincentivized to negotiate for higher salaries, because when they do so, they are seen as uncooperative, competitive, pushy and, well, bitchy.  As a result, they have to trade off between higher salaries and social capital in the workplace, and tend to settle for lower salaries.  It’s a part of the ongoing pay gap between men and women, and it alters women’s bargaining positions both at work and at home.

But on the flip side of this is “crazy”.  I’ve talked about gaslighting and the portrayal of women’s emotions as irrational and excessive on this blog before, but it’s worth mentioning this again.  When women conform to the idea that women are emotional, they are vilified for this as well.  The construction of women who display emotions as “crazy” is meant to discredit their feelings and make them question whether or not their interpretations of their reality are valid.  Ladies, I want you to know, your understandings of your life are valid.  When men and women alike tell women that they are “overreacting”, that they are emotionally mishandling their experiences, we are devaluing women’s experiences and attempting to invalidate their perspectives.  This is another way in which femininity is vilified and undermined through our language and our attitudes, and that needs to change.

When you combine these premises, though, you get a double-edged sword.  “Crazy bitches” are the best or worst of both worlds.  They are too aggressive and too invested, representing the alleged worst of both sides of femininity today.  There’s no real reason why women shouldn’t be aggressive, or shouldn’t be invested, but in order to keep women in check, as a society we have constructed the idea of a crazy bitch.  She feels to strongly about things, has too many opinions, and worst of all, is likely too passionate.  She has strayed too far from the bounds of conventional femininity as defined not by looks or interests but by docility and submissiveness.  “Crazy bitch” is the word we use for women who dare to challenge our conceptions of what is normal, what is good, and what is acceptable for women.  And men and women alike are responsible for throwing this term around, for reflecting those societal norms and lashing out against perceived deviance from them.

It’s obvious that we have a problem, not just linguistically, but in terms of how we view women and the range of acceptable behavior  determined along gendered lines.  I’ve written about these issues before, so if you’re interested in more, checkout these posts.  If not, I’ll just leave you with this-~-for all my readers who have been called a “bitch” for putting their feet down and insisting on more, remember:

Bitches get stuff done

~ by Randi Saunders on November 14, 2013.

3 Responses to ““Crazy Bitches”: Language and the Ongoing Shaming of Femininity”

  1. There is just one problem with this. Women are not the only people that face gender stereo types. Women by and large are not very good at being males stereo types, and are shamed for that when trying to do “a man’s job”. Men by and large are not very good at being female stereo types. Men are shamed for this when trying to do “women’s work”.

    The problem is not that we are overly critical of women, but that we are still holding men to outdated dogmatic oppressive and harmful stereotypes. Stereotypes that women really are ill equipped to fill. The solution is not more benifits for women, but breaking the gender stereo types for males.

    • …why are those things mutually exclusive?

      Feminism contends that there’s a problem with the construction of our gender binary such that women who attempt things considered masculine are shamed and men who attempt things considered feminine are shamed. I’ve written more than once about how the construction of hypermasculinity is harmful to both men and women.

      I’ve asked you before and it’s the last time I’m asking: stop throwing a hissy fit in my comments because I wrote about what I wanted to write instead of what you wish I had written. You have a blog. Go write that post yourself.

  2. You have wonderful insights. I wish I had taken courses in women’s studies, it would have helped me navigate my life in a male dominated profession with greater ease.

    I believe the feminine is strong, I believe in being passionate. I think the times when I’ve had trouble is when I’ve been self conscious or apologetic about it. I see it play out when I am in court in trial – if I worry about seeming bitchy every time I object, I really lose my power in the courtroom. If I forget about the issues attached to being a female trial attorney, it seems like the jury does too.

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