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In pop culture, the B-word makes the A-list

Saturday night. The kids were asleep. I kicked back with the remote.

Saturday Night Live regular Kenan Thompson was playing game show host, quizzing contestants. The name of the fake show, displayed in a huge backdrop with bold letters, made me blink.

What's That Bitch Talking About?

What the? Have I ever seen that word that big on network TV?

Later, host Tina Fey made the case for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign by saying "bitches get stuff done," telling potential supporters "bitch is the new black."

Really?

I felt a bit out of the loop. After all, this newspaper's policy is to dash out the word in almost all instances because readers may find it offensive, though we did decide to print it online. But there's ample evidence that Fey's observation is not only true, it's late in coming.

Look around the pop culture landscape. The b-word is everywhere.

Jeremy Piven won two Emmys playing a Hollywood agent whose signature saying, "hug it out, bitch," became a catchphrase for HBO's Entourage. When Britney Spears released the first single from her "comeback" album last year, the very first line proclaimed "It's Britney, bitch."

There's the in-your-face book series about knitting, Stitch-N-Bitch. There's Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel's 1998 tribute to difficult women, Bitch. And there's the 2005 profanity-laced diet book championed by Posh Spice, Skinny Bitch.

Saturday Night Live has been slinging the b-word since Gilda Radner's Emily Litella used it on Jane Curtin's officious newscaster in the '70s. Back then, it felt like a naughty exception; a blast of rebellion in keeping with all the drug references and New York attitude on TV's new counterculture comedy showcase.

So how did this word, which can feel like a female-focused version of the n-word, permeate our pop culture? And what does it say about our view of women that we barely notice it anymore?

"It's kinda become a punch line — so in a pop cultural sense, it's less gendered," said Andi Zeisler, who caused a stir 12 years ago when she co-founded an edgy, woman-centered pop culture journal called — well, you know. "Now, it's kind of like seasoning — a way to sass up and make edgy something you're saying that might not otherwise be that edgy."

Zeisler and her colleagues chose their magazine's title because it embodied the uncomfortable truths about female exploitation they hoped to dissect within its pages. It also added an aura of rebel cool to a publication that hoped to "reclaim" the word the way gay culture took over the term "queer."

But she isn't sure what's happening now is quite what the magazine intended.

"The idea that bitch has become a synonym for lady or girl — that's disturbing," Zeisler said, noting basketball coach Isiah Thomas used that definition to try explaining away a sexual harassment claim. "But it has started a pretty far-reaching cultural dialogue on how words are used, who gets to use them and whether a word is an insult if you don't intend it that way."

Debate over the effect

Consider it a lower-key replay of the debate over the n-word. Does widespread use of an epithet "reclaim" the word for those it describes, or just echo the insult?

It does both, according to singer/songwriter Christine Lavin, whose 2000 album Getting in Touch With My Inner
Bitch has been an anthem for women struggling to assert themselves.

"I wrote the song around the time when all these books about people's inner child came out," Lavin said by phone from her New York home. "I thought, 'I envy all those people who have inner children. . . . I have an inner bitch'. "

Lavin, who once performed in a group called The Bitchin' Babes, enjoyed how the song resonated with women who felt pressured to be nice, even as she lamented having to wrap them in an awful term to do it.

"Because we're living in such turbulent times, everybody's walking around with all this angst and anger, and they like it when somebody expresses something they've been thinking and feeling, but haven't articulated," she said.

Slang expert Tom Dalzell chalks this up mostly to the coarsening of society, comparing the journey the b-word is taking with the mainstreaming of less vulgar slang such as "suck."

"We forget there are contexts where you're not wholesale downloading the misogyny which comes with the word . . . when you're talking about a tough job or calling somebody a son-of-a-bitch," said Dalzell, editor of the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang. "When kids use a term like suck, it seems they're not even trying to be naughty. To the generation which uses them regularly, they don't even hear the larger meanings anymore."

Usage spreading

San Diego State University professor Martha Lauzen, an expert on women in Hollywood, noted that claims of empowerment have been used to justify everything from pornography to reality TV.

"In Hollywood, they don't mind being called sexist," she said, "while they would take great offense at being called racist."

And the trend is spreading. According to the Parents Television Council, the b-word has appeared in prime time on one of the six broadcast networks at least 470 times so far this TV season.

The PTC, a watchdog group founded by conservative activist L. Brent Bozell, has documented uses of the b-word in prime time stretching back to 1998 on shows such as Law & Order, Chicago Hope, Friends and Frasier.

Because the Federal Communications Commission is focused on content involving sex and bodily functions, use of the b-word doesn't draw a fine. Viewers have become so used to it that the PTC doesn't bother petitioning sponsors over its use.

"I really think it does degrade women," said Melissa Henson, director of communication and public education for the group. "It's not merely suggesting that a woman is strong or self-reliant. It really does have a very negative connotation that she's not in her proper place."

Of course, hip-hop culture has made younger generations more willing to sling the b-word, just as the FCC's lax stance has allowed scriptwriters looking to add sizzle to do the same.

"What's changed (recently) is that the word is not confined to adult dramas — you see this word throughout the prime time schedule . . . even on programs that are masquerading as family shows, like Ugly Betty," said Henson. "I don't think it's right for our popular culture to communicate to our young girls that they are bitches and sluts."

In the political arena

In November, Bitch magazine's Zeisler wrote a column for the Washington Post noting that controversy over the word's ubiquity emerged again because some opponents are applying it to Hillary Clinton.

Republican candidate John McCain apologized when a supporter emphasized Barack Obama's middle name Hussein several times during an introduction last month, but offered no admonishment last year when a supporter asked at a rally, "How do we beat the bitch?"

"Bitch is a word we use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men," Zeisler wrote. "Is it a bad word? Of course it is. As a culture, we've done everything possible to make sure of that, starting with a constantly perpetuated mind-set that deems . . . uncompromising speech by women as anathema to a tidy, well-run world."

Months later, Zeisler is conflicted. The word she chose to exemplify the way modern culture marginalizes and demeans strong women has become ubiquitous without shedding much of its awful meaning.

"It literally never occurred to me that it would happen this way," she said. "We were going to call ourselves this before someone else got a chance to. We didn't think much about where it would go beyond that."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

In pop culture, the B-word makes the A-list 03/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008 1:23pm]
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