Bitchin’

Against a cultural background of morbid touchiness about references to gender, race, etc., the word bitch is a lens into what’s going on beneath the fig leaf of political correctness.

Calling a particular person a bitch in private is bad manners but if you disregard all the ostentatious political posturing, the visceral reaction most people have to bitch used in that way isn’t much different from their reaction to gender-neutral epithets such asshole, or to male-specific insults such as prick, or dick. Bitch, used in this way, is an insult to a particular person, and after all, offending is the goal. Bitch is not nearly as shocking to the ears as the c-word-that-dare-not-be-spoken (here in the US, anyway—in the UK cunt is practically a term of endearment when applied to a man.)

Gender-specific insults are tricky but you have to be willfully obtuse to deny that much obnoxious behavior has gender. I’m not talking about the gender of the obnoxious person, but the behavior itself. Being a prick is definitely a yang personality trait and being a bitch is yin, regardless of the sex of the insulted or insulting party. Asshole, on the other hand, is neuter, despite the fact that many more men than women are assholes. Assholes are like happy families but the epithet pig can connote at least three distinct kinds of obnoxiousness, one specific to each gender plus one neuter. I like the gender-specificity of all of these words and usages and doubly applaud their use when the target is not gender-consistent with the epithet. The comprehensibility of cross-gender insults is a sign of progress in the relationship of the sexes.

So why is cunt so appalling, while bitch is just another insult? There’s a good reason: bitch names a particular family of behaviors. Whether the insulted individual actually exhibits those behaviors is a judgment call, but the word clearly denotes a well-understood cluster of personality traits. In that way, bitch is similar to prick. We all know a prick when we meet one and the epithet matches the mental image of the aggressive, selfish little guy standing up straight and asserting himself. Bitch doesn’t call up a cartoon image like prick does, but it nevertheless names a tight grouping of traits.

Cunt, in contradistinction, suggests nothing in particular about an individual person or a type, but merely expresses contempt for the organ itself, and by synecdoche, contempt for its possessor. Unlike prick, we have no shared understanding of what it would mean for a woman to be like a cunt, so cunt is an insult to a particular woman only by way of being an insult to her gender.  Tellingly, pussy, which is nominally a synonym, is far less offensive when used as an insult. This makes sense because it’s almost always applied to a male, and while it likens his character to the female sex organs, it does not express contempt for femaleness itself any more than prick expresses contempt for men as a whole.

This, we instinctively react to cunt as unacceptable, just as it’s unacceptable to insult a person with a racial slur but fine to insult the same person by calling him or her a dick.

Cocksucker illustrates the same principle. It’s unacceptable because there’s no specific set of undesirable personality traits associated with being a literal cocksucker; as an epithet, cocksucker insults an individual only by way of expressing contempt for homosexuality in general. It’s more offensive still because the person being called a cocksucker typically isn’t gay, so the contempt for homosexuality is assumed. Contrast this with ass-licker, which is acceptable usage, even though the osculated part is only inches away. There’s all the difference in the world because ass-licking suggests a real, identifiable personality trait of a particular person, not a sexual identity. Simple as that.

Which brings us back to bitch. The bizarre thing about our collective cultural stance on the word is that counter-intuitively, its acceptability as an epithet for a particular woman seems to be declining, while its popularity and acceptability as a slur on the entire gender are perversely increasing. Yes, a person can refer to his or her significant other as “my bitch” but the usage remains solidly unacceptable if you don’t want to be taken for low class. In this context, used this way it’s like cunt—insulting to the individual only by way of expressing contempt for the entire gender. The twist is that more complex usages that boil down to the same thing, such as “basic bitch” or “I made him/her my bitch” are now flourishing in middle-class usage.

Basic bitch is interesting because while bitch, in this expression, is used in a way that is contemptuous of femaleness in general, the word basic is deployed as a class insult that is specific to the victim. The verbal magic that makes bitch an acceptable way to name someone’s gender in this context is its use in this way by flamboyantly gay men ironically imitating black slang. Women came to be able to say it by putting the invisible gay-quotes around the original invisible black-quotes until it finally became almost ordinary usage. The knife of class contempt slips in unnoticed in the amnesty for the gender insult.

Basic bitch is elegantly vicious, but the second usage is a slur masterpiece. Referring to one’s companion as “my bitch” is merely misogynistic, but to make someone your bitch layers on contempt for homosexuality—“I dominate him utterly by using him sexually as I’d use a woman.” Moreover, the expression does not refer to just any woman—the usage retains its original identification with black prison slang, so implicitly, the bitch in question is specifically black, making it a rare natural trifecta of offensive usage. It is a “natural” trifecta because there is no literal or implied list of insults—the dimensions of the insult are all implicit in a single statement.

Invective as an art is more than just piling on abuse–it requires playing creatively with the limits of what can be said in a specific time and place. Sadly, we’re probably not entering a new golden age of invective. Gems like this are essentially folk art and likely to remain so, at best a guilty pleasure for the cultural elite whose freedom to abuse is increasingly held in check by a dull-witted Grundy class enabled by Internet search-enabled corporate and government supervision.

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