(Beecher and Schillinger cracking up over the latest episode of “The O.C.”)
It was Eazy-E (and I don’t mean Eric Bischoff) who opined “a bitch is a bitch”, but things aren’t so simple these days writes the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan.
Television’s word of the day is bitch, but this is not your mother’s bitch. That classic version designates a dog, a hardship, a way of complaining or a spiteful woman, the one whose sharp edge, according to the fearsome sexist double standard, would surely make her a respected surgeon or astronaut if only she were a man.
But the new “bitch,” in a usage that has become popular on network television, refers not to dogs or women, but to men. And while parody and overuse are taking the misogynistic sting out of the old one, this new bitch is just getting its claws.
“Bitch” used for men appears to have come into currency on cable, chiefly on HBO’s “Oz,” which ran from 1997 to 2003. “Oz” was the first show to follow the relentless hints of prosecutors on network cop shows that the pain of prison was not in the work detail or in the bread crusts but in the de facto sexual torture practiced by the inmates. Suspects on those shows understood the intimations, though the word “bitch” was rarely used, and they knew, as viewers increasingly did too, that a bitch was what a vulnerable prisoner would surely become, the weaker partner in a prison-sex arrangement, a kind of sex slave.
Incarceration “didn’t make you a bitch,” one character told another on “Oz.” “You were born one.”
The cartoon version of prison politics – in which black inmates are said to dominate white ones – is also invoked by this use of “bitch.” As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about “Oz” in Slate in 1997, when the show first appeared: “In the Jim Crow era, white men oppressed black men partially out of fear that the blacks would ravish virginal white women. Today, white men fear ravishment themselves.”
On America’s extensive roster of tough-on-crime cop shows, therefore, “bitch” has become a one-word reason to cooperate with the authorities.
But somehow “bitch” (masculine) – as a word that is violent, sexual, demeaning and arguably racist – has also migrated from the far reaches of the salty comedy playbook to a convenient option for mainstream shows trying to look tough. Because we know the word in cute contexts like “Stitch ‘n Bitch,” the influential knitting book, “bitch” is still seen by network censors as safe; its darker meanings seem to escape them.
On Fox, “The O.C.” exploited the new use of the word on its premiere episode in 2003. First, Ryan, the sensitive juvenile delinquent, was warned against being “a little bitch” by his criminal brother. Then, as Ryan lay battered and bleeding after being beat up by a rich Orange County boy, his assailant greeted him: “Welcome to the O.C., bitch.”
This line was widely quoted but rarely criticized in the United States; in Britain, by contrast, media regulators reprimanded Channel 4 last month for using the line in a promotion for the show. Channel 4 argued that the word was intended “as irreverent mockery rather than in an abusive or aggressive manner,” in spite of its being the final blow in Ryan’s beating.
The word is not uncommon as a component of abuse, even torture. On ABC’s “Alias,” one of the heroes turned the tables on an interrogator in the first season, stabbing him in the neck with a needle full of truth serum while calling him “you little bitch.”
But one of the most incongruous places for it to turn up was on ABC Family, in an inspirational February movie called “School of Life.” A luckless middle-aged schoolteacher finds his car vandalized by thugs from a bad neighborhood, who spray-painted “Bitch Boy” on it. This language seemed extraordinarily rough for a children’s movie otherwise characterized by smarminess.