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The B word: Free speech or offensive?

The word bitch is showing up everywhere, including in the title of a new sitcom on the ABC network. The term has long been used in music, particularly hip hop. Chicago rapper and song writer, Rhymefest—who’s used the word in his own music, says he doesn’t see anything wrong with entertainers using the term.  

“All words should be at the disposal of an artist. I don’t think that we can start looking at an artist and picking the words that artists say and artists don’t say,” he tells WBEZ.

Although Rhymefest hadn’t heard of ABC’s new show, he wasn’t surprised about the term being in the title. He says TV has been blurring the line of what’s permissible since he was a kid.  

Still, the word bitch is not something that the FCC--the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates decency for public broadcast, views as indecent. So there’s no official consequence for networks that write it in their scripts or play music with the term.

Some scholars and feminists say they’re not lobbying for limits on free speech, but they are concerned about the B word’s growing prominence in pop culture. They argue that it’s not only offensive but harmful to our society as whole.

“Anything that reinforces the idea that girls and women are lesser than boys and men makes it easier to oppress women,” says Sherryl Kleinman a sociology professor at North Carolina  University at Chapel Hill who co-authored an analysis on the social harms of bitch.

She says women should not attempt to reclaim the term because it gives men the permission to use it in a denigrating way.


“I saw a T-shirt online recently that said, ‘Feminist bitches love me,’ modeled by a man. That's the kind of consequence we get when women, as well as men, treat the word bitch as a regular term that they see as harmless or even empowering,” said Kleinman. To read Kleinman’s article, Reclaiming Critcial Analysis: The Social Harms of Bitch click here.

I spoke with women in Chicago who work closely with young girls, and who share Kleinman’s perspective.

Demoiselle 2 Femme is a nonprofit organization that focuses on self-esteem and empowerment. The group hosts several afterschool and summer programs in Chicago and surrounding suburbs for teen girls.

WBEZ observed one of the organization’s media workshops at Julian High School on Chicago’s Southside.  

Instructors presented music videos on mute and read lyrics to two songs that featured young singer and rapper Chris brown.

One song, called “Another round” used the B word a lot and the program facilitators made sure to point that out to students.  

“Chris Brown-- yeah he’s cute…but the reality is you spend a lot of time uplifting him and other singers [but] he’s not uplifting you. Not with saying stuff like this,” instructor Monica Plaid tells students.

Teenagers from a variety of high schools said they use the term themselves mostly in a joking or in a playful manner, but they also said the word could stir violent reactions when used the wrong way.  

Marquita, a student at Gage Park says her peers don’t play nice when they hear the term.

“The B word will make a person hit you dead in the mouth,” she says. "You’re not [going] to keep arguing with another person…As soon as she says ‘b—‘ you’re [going to] punch her.”

During a discussion in his class, teacher Victor Harbison of Gage Park High School said that’s because of the subtle underlying message in the word.

“Nobody uses that word today, in this school, or on these streets, or in this neighborhood and in the back of their mind they’re calling them a female dog! They’re saying you are subservient to me. I am the authority and the power figure between the two of us 'cause I’m calling you this name. That makes me powerful and you weak, when I call you that name.”

At Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, where a student was recently suspended for allegedly using the word in class, Principal Deniece Fields said adults need to stop students from using the negative term.

“We have teachers in urban schools who are afraid to correct students who use profane language--who call each other a B. They’ll hear it and just shake their heads and [say] ‘Oh wow. I wonder when they’ll ever grow up?’  No! When are you going to tell them that that’s not acceptable?” exclaimed Fields.

Jim DeRogatis is a host of the national music talk show Sound Opinions, and he also blogs about music and pop culture for WBEZ.

DeRogatis has some thoughts on Madonna’s latest album, which includes a song titled "Gang Bang," which uses the B word throughout. He said the overuse of the term is unnecessary and added that he thinks entertainers need to think about context when they use words such as the B word.

“I think its sends a negative message to people, younger people that it’s okay to use that word and it’s not. Madonna may have done it with some thought, other people won’t necessarily,” said DeRogatis. “Which is not to say pop music should never have fun, it should. But I don’t think the B word qualifies as fun”

Fun or not, the word is a centerpiece in the title of ABC’s new sitcom.

Don’t trust the B in apt. 23 premiers this week. 


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