Warning: The following material is NOT SAFE FOR WORK or children. This post contains a lot of “dirty words.” I will not soften or remove them because they are the whole point of this post. So, if you are sensitive to certain terms that some people would call “bad language,” stop reading now. Also, it’s very long.
“I don’t see the problem.”…
A week or so ago, I was looking over my current work-in-progress—which is Science Fiction set in a space-faring future—with an eye to improving the male/female character balance. My agent had pointed out that all the main characters and major support characters were male except one—and she appears about half-way though the story. It’s not possible to change the genders of the two protagonists since that would fundamentally change their relationship and their connection to the rest of the plot. They have to remain male. I had initially rejected changing another character’s gender, but the more I looked at it the more I thought the problems with that change could be overcome and that it added something really interesting to the underlying plot structure. So I started adjusting the language around that character: “he” changed to “she” and so on. I didn’t think there would be a problem.
Then I got to a specific early reference intended to give some insight into the characters, and that’s when things began to go strange.
The narrator refers to the character in question—who is his professional superior, but his social peer—as “a bastard” in his internal dialog. He uses the word, not because he knows the other character was born on the wrong side of the blanket, but because he’s a privileged, manipulative jerk. My first thought when switching the character’s gender was to change that to “bitch.” Suddenly, the sentence meant something totally different than I’d intended. “I wouldn’t give that bastard an opportunity to manipulate me” really doesn’t read the same as “I wouldn’t give that bitch an opportunity to manipulate me.” Bitch has cultural baggage that bastard doesn’t. Because it’s inherently feminine. But the thought in the character’s head is not about the sexuality or gender of the other character—it’s about the unthinking manipulation of others, the thoughtless abuse of power, and habitual mean-mindedness. I was kind of shocked at how I felt about the narrator—who’s supposed to be a fairly nice guy and decidedly not a misogynist—when he called this other character a bitch. It suddenly made him unsympathetic to me—and by extension I supposed to most female readers at the very least.
When I mentioned it to my husband, he said “I don’t see the problem.”
“But…” I said, verbally stumbling around, “he’s supposed to dislike the guy, but still have some respect for his professional ability…. He’s a jerk, but you have to give credit to the skill. But, when the narrator suddenly calls the character a bitch, all respect just goes away!”
My husband frowned at me like I’d lost my mind. “I don’t see it that way. I mean I just don’t see a difference in the terms.”
I think I gaped at him, but it’s hard to be sure.
He shrugged. “Maybe you’re overly sensitive about it.” Because, he implied, I’m female.
And I had no reply to that. I do now, but at the time, I was floored. My husband is not a misogynistic asshole, but he was completely oblivious to the inequity of the terms. Who doesn’t see the difference—beyond technical semantics—between bitch and bastard? Bitch is fundamentally an insult, specifically degrading to women, as it equates them with female dogs during estrus—when they tend to be unpredictable and mean-tempered. Bastard isn’t the same, since it reflects illegitimacy, which hasn’t much social stigma these days–it doesn’t have the stinging cut of “bitch.” Especially in a situation where the genders are reversed: if a man is called a “bitch” by another man, it’s a dire, belittling insult that calls the other man’s virility and very maniless into question. But call a woman a bitch and it’s just a generic insult? I don’t think so. “Bastard” is so much less sensitive a word that it doesn’t even get the same treatment in the media as the word “bitch” does. It’s not cause for censorship or caution to call someone a bastard. But start flinging the word “bitch” or “son of a bitch” around and you fall under much greater scrutiny and censorship. You won’t get a PG-13 or R rating for a movie that uses “bastard” a few times, but the same number of “bitches” in the script will send your film back to the review board for a stiffer rating. Plainly we do treat the terms differently.
So with all this in mind, I asked my colleagues for help. I made a restricted post on FaceBook asking for a substitute or a way around the problem I perceived. Some of the replies were very helpful, thoughtful, and interesting. But some weren’t. “Slattern,” “harridan,” and “shrew,” were just a few of the proposed substitutions that stood out in the crowd (also “wench” but that’s a special case, I’ll note at the end*.) None of them had the odor of grudging respect that I’d mentioned specifically (and yes, I know what “bastard” means, so let’s just not go into that angle on “respectable” because you know what I intend, here.) I wasn’t looking for a synonym for “bitch”—I have a thesaurus if that was all I was after—what I’d wanted was a feminine equivalent of the current cultural association for “bastard”—an unpleasant or despicable person. These surprising terms were all specifically feminine, it’s true, but every one of them made a point of gender and were defined with terms like “aggressive,” “hectoring,” “assertive,” “pushy,” or alluded to sexuality and filth, distinctions you rarely see in masculine terms outside of very specific community contexts.
Several people pointed out that bastard is non-gender-specific. Anyone can be a bastard, although we do tend to assign the word to males when we mean it as an insult rather than an adjective. I was still on the fence about the confusion that using the term across gender lines could cause. Would people really understand that the term was deliberately shifted, and not assume I was just stupid? Not because I’m worried about seeming a fool—I’m a writer, after all and I will always be a fool in someone’s eyes—but because that sort of incident breaks the reader’s engagement and belief in the story. I don’t want that. I want to keep the reader in my story, going along, “getting” the bigger issues of the plot and theme rather than being distracted by a clumsy word choice on my part. And, beyond that, I don’t want to perpetuate subtle linguistic backhanding and belittling of my own sex.
The bitch/bastard problem aside, I found myself suddenly noticing more than usual that some words have gender baggage and it’s amazing how many are “female = bad.” I remembered a conversation online from many years ago in which an English man I knew a little was urging “Women need to reclaim ‘cunt’” the same way homosexuals had taken possession of and repurposed the word “faggot” or that some American blacks had taken the word “nigger” in a different cultural direction. Now, not being English, I hadn’t encountered the word “cunt” applied to men so much—that wasn’t a terribly common usage in the US at the time—though I’d seen the other two and I’d noticed that the words weren’t quite as “repurposed” as they might have seemed. For someone outside the group to use them was still insulting. I didn’t see how women were going to be able to take an intended insult that whittles them down to nothing more than a sexual orifice—something to be used to satisfaction and then thought no more about—and make it a positive term. Neutral at best, but in my mind, still kind of insulting—I’m not a collection of parts, no matter how positive I may feel about those parts. The term simply doesn’t have the flexibility that faggot had. And while it’s true that cunt has also been used –even into the nineteenth century in isolated parts of Britain—to refer to a small leather bag for carrying a whetstone, I don’t think that’s going to help, here because… well… why do you think they called that pouch a “cunt” in the first place…?
I also noticed something else: lately when my husband is really upset with other tech people for doing boneheaded things, he calls them “cocks.” I don’t think he means roosters. Somehow it seems more insulting that “dick” or “ass”—his inflection tells me all I need to know about how insulting he means to be. I notice the term is specifically masculine and aside from “dick” it’s one of the few insults I’ve heard lately that is. And yet, to me, it doesn’t seem as dire and hurtful as “bitch.” Maybe it’s because I’m “a girl…”
So what’s my point? Simply that—especially as writers—though we may claim that a word means what we say it means, we still have to deal with the baggage that any word we choose to use brings with it. One of my respondents to the bastard query suggested that I could always just make up a word—the piece is Science Fiction after all and I could presume a word to mean whatever I liked so long as I gave it context. The specific example he gave was the original coining of the word “frak” in the original run of Battlestar Galactica in the 1970s, and “nerfherder” in The Empire Strikes Back. But even when you coin a word or repurpose it—and I’ve done both—you have to be aware of the weight that will come with it and whether that weight, potentially, helps or derails your work.
For instance, I coined the term “temporacline” for the layers of unchangeable time that lie like ice floes in the Grey—because it sounds like thermacline, meaning a layer of fluid that has a distinctly different temperature than the surrounding fluid—and I like to draw the word “queer” out of its closet and give it an airing in its original meaning—unsettlingly strange—because it gives people pause and does, indeed, unsettle them. But I don’t believe my wordsmithing power is such that I can totally ignore the usage of a term in my own culture and play Humpty Dumpty with it. Especially when that term may resonate in a very negative way with fifty percent or more of my readers.
This weight bears for every word we chose to use in speech or text. Most carry almost no impact—they aren’t contested nor do they have a lot of cultural or social baggage—but others do and when I chose to use a word, I must be aware of what it will do for—and in some cases to—me. I can’t allow a character who isn’t a misogynist to default to calling an unpleasant female colleague a “bitch” unless he truly means to insult her—or she happens to be a female dog. I particularly dislike words that separate women from men in the same pursuit—such as “actress” or “stewardess.” And although I have an affection for odd formations like “aviatrix” I also don’t use them much in public because they do draw a distinction that, in my mind, screams “Oh, My God, a woman is doing a man’s job!” We don’t need this distinction. It’s not unusual for a woman to act or fly a plane or edit a newspaper, nor should it be. No more should we use the term “lady-[something]” or “girl-[something]” or “male-[something] (hello “male nurse,” and good-bye again.) This line-drawing is, at its root, insulting and hurtful because it is divisive, because it continues to imply that the one gender or the other is violating a rule, crossing a line, is lesser than the other gender, or being a threat to The Way Things Ought To Be.
And that is why I struggled with the problem of bastard/bitch. By its cultural baggage, it creates an image in the reader’s mind that colors their perception of the character, and as the narrator, his inflection will color the entire story. If I want that, then fine, but if not, I need a better, more precise word that doesn’t have that baggage, or has different baggage that suits my purpose.
In spite of several urgings that I go ahead and keep bastard on the assumption that the term is gender-neutral and that in my particular literary future it would be totally so, I chose not to, in the end. Because for most readers, “bastard” is not any more gender-neutral than “bitch,” it just has different baggage and I don’t want that luggage cluttering up my story, nor do I want to play porter and have to carry if off stage by exposition. In the end, I rewrote the term to “manipulative snob,” which is more to the point and entirely gender-neutral. But was it a good call? Did I second-guess too much? I don’t yet know, but I know I will continue to weigh words with care. Because they matter. They matter very much.
*A note on Wench: As a Shakespeare reader, I’ve long been annoyed at people—often women—using “wench” as a euphemism for “bitch.” It’s ill-informed and insulting to pretend that you don’t mean “bitch,” when it’s obvious you do. Especially in light of the fact that “wench” meant “a young woman or girl.” At one time it also meant “prostitute” at the same time it meant “girl.” So no matter what you do with it, you’re probably using it wrong. If you’re not talking about the misadventures of Sir John Falstaff, just don’t. Please.