Naomi Campbell had it figured out in 2000.
Bitch. A word that has been used as a discriminating label against those who seem disagreeable or inferior but has now entered a grey space. I think people are pretty comfortable with using the word bitch these days. People have embraced the word bitch, reclaiming the word as an empowering label. Being called a boss bitch or bad bitch is the epitome of a compliment.
The context in which someone is called a bitch is the biggest indicator of how that label is received. Bitch (derived from the old-English word, Bicche) was first used to describe female dogs until the 1400’s, where it then was used in a patriarchal context to describe an inferior or unpleasant woman. The patriarchal context infers that a “bad bitch” is a woman who is sexually and physically pleasing. When a heterosexual man says “That’s my bitch”, he equates a woman to an object––something to be owned.
I decided to revisit this 20/20 interview between Naomi Campbell and Barbara Walters from 2000, in which the subject of Naomi Campbell’s reputation of being a “bitch” is examined. This interview is the quintessential explanation of what it means to not only acknowledge the identity of a bitch, but reclaim and embrace it whole-heartedly. When asked by Barbara if she minds being called a bitch, Naomi responds as the confident icon she is:
“I do mind, I think that for me a woman that is in control of her work or makes decisions or is very opinionated, it’s called a bitch and I think that a man when he’s like that is called nothing, it’s fine. But I mean being a bitch for me, if that’s what people want to think of me as, has protected me in so many ways.”
This isn’t a revolutionary thought as more and more women are speaking about this hypocrisy daily––especially in media and politics as the #MeToo movement marches on.
However, Naomi brings up a quintessential point: being a bitch is a form of self-care and self-love. Powerful women, particularly powerful black women, have always harboured the given title of the the aggressive and angry bitch. This identity stems from the uneasiness others feel when black women and other WOC refuse the inequality and disrespect handed to us silently and repeatedly on a daily basis. This label is freely given to us black women when we are not docile and agreeable.
Deciding to stand up for yourself and to say no to things, people, and opinions that are of disservice to you is an easy for someone to label you as a bitch. Setting clear boundaries for yourself is an easy way for some to label you as a bitch. But being labeled a bitch is necessary because it stops the expectation that WOC must always take whatever is given, even if it is inconvenient.
Barbara then asks Naomi to explain how her image as a bitch has protected her.
Naomi: “But being a bitch for me––if that’s what people want to think of me as––has protected me in so many ways… I’ve never had any of that stuff where you hear of young girls and guys come up to them, give them drugs. You know, I’ve never had the sleazy side of what people think there is in modeling. I’ve never had that because I guess I’d put on a look like, don’t come near me.”
When asked if she is trying to be controversial by having this persona of a bitch and if that counteracts her other image as a nice girl:
Naomi: “No, but I go with my instinct… I don’t want to be known as the sweet nice girl. I find sweet and nice a little boring.”
Naomi has a point. The girl who is always nice and sweet is the same girl people will exploit. There needs to be a line, and when it is not established or when it is abused, the damage accumulates.
Naomi is known for her hard exterior. After she pled guilty to the assault of her assistant in 1998, her identity as an angry black woman was amplified. Naomi, instead of dismissing the identity of an angry woman, explains how normal it is to be angry, to show emotion, without the need to stereotype:
“And I mean I think I’ve not always displayed my anger in the appropriate of times… Always been in an un-appropriate time, but it’s a manifestation of a deeper issue I think. And that for me I think is based on insecurity, self-esteem, and loneliness…. And being abandoned. That’s what my core issues are, abandonment, rejection… and that puts me in a real vulnerable space.” Later, noting: “I’m progressing with my anger as I know that it now comes from a deeper issue and I know where it comes from.”
Most black women aren’t asked where their anger stems from before being put in the “angry black woman” category. They aren’t given the chance to control how they’re perceived, especially in spaces where they are the “other”.
Naomi’s anger is vulnerable. Her anger, while maybe displayed at the wrong time is honest, and her anger is an authentic human emotion we all have; it is not to be turned into a caricature.
To be a bitch is to be someone who knows they are still a work in progress but refuses to be treated in a way that diminishes their power, their importance, and their voice.When a woman defines herself as a bad bitch she is strong, independent, and in charge. The phrase “That’s my bitch” is used between women to highlight a close bond with a friend. The word bitch is fluid depending on the intentions of its user. And that will forever be its problem. Bitch will forever be stuck between the definition it was given in the 15th century to define a malicious, overbearing, woman, versus its post-modern use as a flexible noun. Questions like: “Who should say it?”, “Is it ok to identify as a bitch?”, “When is it ok to call other bitches?”, will always be asked because of its past connotation.
But Naomi has completely changed the 15th century definition. Naomi is not perfect; she will tell you that herself, but she is trying to stay authentic, in her feelings, in her actions, and in her words. There is beauty in being your authentic self, there is beauty in the boundaries. To be a bitch is to change the narrative given to you. And while that might not always be understood, the ability to be in charge of how people treat you is necessary when loving yourself.
So, if that’s the definition of a BITCH, you can gladly call me one too.
Written by Lorelle Lynch