Recently, CollegeHumor released a video clip illustrating the symptoms of being a basic bitch, which they define as “an extra regular female.” Other references to this term within popular culture are plenty: many cite loanthony’s youtube video for popularizing the whispered insult “you’re basic,” and additional uses throughout the past several years. How can we sociologically understand this phenomenon? Is it okay for the term bitches to be used casually within popular culture? What’s the harm?
A term derogatory to all women can be difficult to “reclaim” or use ironically. Instead, when women use “bitch” to refer to themselves or their friends (as in, “what’s up my bitches”) they are experiencing false power. They may feel included by using popular terminology, but they’re actually reinforcing gender essentialism and inequality by doing so.
- Sherryl Kleinman, Matthew B. Ezzell and A. Corey Frost. 2009. “Reclaiming Critical Analysis: The Social Harms of “Bitch.” Sociological Analysis 3(1): 47-68.
Categorizing women as different forms of bitches—the bad bitch, dope bitch or boss bitch—creates a typography of all women as bitches, just different kinds. Symbolic interactionists note that the language and phrasing that we use to describe things can dramatically change our ways interacting with them.
For example, scientists working on nuclear weapons use benign terminology—the “exchange” of warheads with enemy countries or the “footprint” for an area of the “delivered” explosion—which allows them to distance themselves from the reality of their work. Using terms like basic bitch to describe a regular woman may allow us to do the same.
However, not all sociological analyses of language find that contemporary use of terminology previously viewed as derogatory is problematic.
Within social movements, collective identities such as “queer” can be seen as functional in drawing a variety of communities together and uniting around a cause.
- Joshua Gamson. 1995. “Must Identity Movement Self-Destruct? A Queer Dilemma.” Social Problems 42(3): 390-407.
Emily M. Boyd is an Associate Professor in the Sociology and Corrections department at Minnesota State University-Mankato. She studies gender, social interaction and popular culture.