My son, 4 1/2 year old J, used that word for the first time today. He didn’t know what it was, so he used it while laughing with a friend at school. My eyes went wide and I said, no let’s be honest, nearly yelled, “WHAT did you just say?!?” And then I hoped the earth beneath my feet would kindly open up and swallow me, thank you. Oh, where do I start? Being so angry I simply told him that is not a word he is ever to use. I wanted to explain why, but at 4 1/2 wasn’t sure where to begin. How do I tell him that, on so many levels, it’s a word I get to use, but he doesn’t…and not just because I’m an adult.
Would I be telling him differently if he was a girl? Would I be saying, “It’ll be an ok word for you to use, but not now…wait fifteen years”? Can you explain power dynamics to a kid? He’s a smart kid and very sensitive. If I explain that when used by men it’s a word meant to demoralize and humiliate women, but when used by women it can be a sign of respect, will he get it?
Tina Fey’s now famous “bitch is the new black” shtick puts a new spin on the word, but it doesn’t make it any easier to explain to a child. It doesn’t make it any easier to think about, as a parent or as a woman who uses the word, sometimes out of anger, sometimes out of respect. As a sign of respect it is crystal clear: you have an image of what it denotes. As a person I strongly dislike Hillary Clinton. As my Secretary of State, well, she’s a bitch, which means that, much like Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice before her she does her job as well or better than a man in the same position. Unfortunately she has to be perceived as a bitch for that to happen. (Although, I don’t recall ever having heard Madeleine Albright refered to as a bitch, but then, she never ran for president.) As an insult, especially with the prefix “fucking” or “stupid”, the venom is obvious. I’ve used this particular appellation for a certain vice-presidential nominee and a certain blond author with racist and homophobic leanings. I do not use this as a sign of respect. I use it, in fact and much to my chagrin as I really think about it, exactly the way a man would. It is said with derision. I’ve referred to myself as a bitch. Frequently, in fact. Sometimes with a pat on my back for having done a tough job. Sometimes, and this is sad, not in a respectful way, with, again, the prefix “stupid”. Which makes me think: did he really hear it from a friend, or did he hear it from me? We have a swear jar at the house, so I’m careful with my language for the most part. “Fucking” is my favorite verb, adverb, noun, conjunction and interjection so that’s the one I pay the most attention to NOT say.
I’m not sure if I ever really paid that much attention to “bitch”. In much the same way that I frequently tell people that I’m “the worst mother ever” (which I know I’m not), what am I telling him every time I use the word “bitch”? When I first got pregnant I was so excited at the thought of having a girl. I had a name all picked out, the design of nursery (previously known as “husband J’s office”) and had even ordered some first edition Monica Furlong books. And then we had the ultra-sound. When I was first informed, “Oh yeah, that’s a boy” I asked, “Are you sure?” I spent approximately five minutes being sad and then remembered the quote from Murphy Brown, “”Well, I always wanted to teach my kid to throw a knuckleball, to play seven card stud, and to fix the carburetor on an MG. I guess I’ll just have to do that with a boy.”
Boys are easier than girls, that’s what everyone at work told me. You don’t have to worry as much, they’re less high maintenance. But, as to quote Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, with great power comes great responsibility. Yeah, those of you with girls, I hold their future in my hands. Because how I raise my son, how he sees women and more importantly, how he treats them, depends upon my actions, and my words.
Don’t worry, I won’t let you down.