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I can understand how you’d be so confused. I don’t envy you.

March 23, 2012

CONFESSIONS OF A ‘90s SURVIVOR

Meredith Brooks – Bitch
From: Blurring the Edges

In the spring of 1997, I was in 8th grade at Jackson Middle School. I was in Spanish class. I sat next to a good friend, which was a problem because we constantly made snarky comments about things the teacher said, even though we sat in the front row and she overheard many of them. Subtlety would be a trick we picked up later in life.

The Spanish teacher didn’t have a reputation as a particularly nice teacher, either. If you struggled to correctly tell her—in Spanish—the going rate for green beans at a nonexistent mercado and how much of a price difference there was compared to the apples, you ended up on her list.

I could be a smartass, but I had most vocabulary and basic verb forms down. So for that reason, the teacher only had a certain degree of impatience with me. Others in the class weren’t so lucky.

We had a jock in class who sat near the back of the room and was always talking to girls around him instead of paying attention to the lesson. He seldom did his homework, performed pretty horribly on tests and generally didn’t care about the class, much less the teacher.

One day as the teacher was trying to get us to memorize a new round of vocabulary, she caught this kid carrying on a conversation with a girl at the back of the class.

“ANDRES!” (we were all given Spanish monikers for those 45 minutes each day) she called out. “Would you like to tell us how to tell the doctor that you have a stomach ache?”

Clearly caught off guard, the kid stumbled through a poor reading of Spanish. “Uh. Uh, yo, uh, estás, ummm? Tienen dollar in me, uh …”

The rest of us kept our laughter hushed because he could spot people laughing at him, find them in the hallway after class and kick the sh*t out of them. 

“Yeah, OK, niño. Maybe you want to pay a little more attention?”

The kid looked down at his book and muttered, “stupidf*ckingbitch” quiet enough for no one but those sitting next to him to hear. They all giggled.

I wasn’t close enough to hear him say it. I had the story told to me a couple years later by the girl who sat next to him in class. She thought the story was pretty funny, and I don’t know if it’s because she did a good impression of him saying “stupidf*ckingbitch” or if she liked the fact that he called our teacher a bitch.

Girls derive a surprising amount of pleasure in referring to other girls as “bitch” behind their backs. It’s typically said either in the midst of a contemptuous rundown of girl-in-question’s character or with a villainous smirk.

Guys also like to say it behind girls’ backs. Although guys rarely say it as venomously as girls. Guys use it much more haphazardly (e.g. “Aw, bro, so this girl was working behind the bar and I asked her if she could change the TV, y’know, cos I wanted to see the game and not some stupid sitcom with the sound off. She wouldn’t change it! Bitch!”) and usually say it with a look of bewilderment on their face, shoulders hunched and arms to the side as if waiting for a hug and/or agreement from his fellow dudes.

But saying it to a girl’s face? That’s where sexes differ. Guys who are brazen enough to do it know they face retribution. You get either tears AND the embarrassment of knowing that everyone around you thinks you’re an awful human being or you get murderous rage and the reason why that saying “Hell hath no fury …” has lingered in our vernacular for so long.

Girls who say it to another girl’s face—they’re typically spoiling for the fight.

These are generalizations, of course, but as usual, I believe I’m right. Still, in figuring that my female audience could quickly rebuke or dismiss my line of reasoning, I asked my sister (because she’s a girl—not because of any implied topical connotation) if it’s worse for a girl to be called “bitch” in anger by a girl or guy. She confirmed my hypothesis:

“If we are talking about fighting, it is way worse to be called a bitch by a girl because it is a ‘go-to’ mean word for guys to use against girls. For girls, we have so many choices: bitch, slut, whore. But, the girl chose the one that has nothing to do with sex—now she is implying that I am mean AND ugly.”

And all female dogs cringe.

It’s a strange word, and attributing it to anybody is making a contentious move. But when Meredith Brooks released that word as a single just a few months after the jock muttered it about my former Spanish teacher, she gave women everywhere a reason to throw their hands up, hoot, holler and celebrate the fact that they are multi-faceted personalities with that “bitch” facet perched firmly at the top of the list.

In a way, the popularity of “Bitch” was not surprising. Angry women had already staked their claim in the pop culture landscape of the 1990s (either hilariously or sadly, there are people who still believe “Bitch” is an Alanis Morissette song), so it’s not as if Meredith came out of nowhere with her pointed self-assessment. Moreover, even while some radio stations put an alternate title of “Nothing in Between” on the single, “Bitch” didn’t really send censors into panic mode. Sure, getting the man to try to warn people about what you have to say would always help shift some units (there was a little thrill when you got that first CD or cassette with the parental advisory sticker, no?), but Meredith (unlike Trina) wasn’t proclaiming herself as a bitch who would list the perverse things she would do to you and then the horrific things she would do to your property if/when you broke up. She was simply saying, “Yes I am this. And I’m also a child. And I’m also a mother. And I’m also this and this and that and this and that and that and this.” Someone who can, for instance, oscillate freely between Gretsch and Fender guitars. I don’t seem to remember many people being offended by it. Maybe they were focusing all their efforts on Marilyn Manson? But as far as censors went, if VH1 was OK showing the title, they must have figured: “Why should we worry?” Such was life in the progressive late 1990s.

In another way, the popularity of “Bitch” was surprising, at least from a societal standpoint. You can argue that in a day and age when kids’ favorite artists were blowing their own heads off if not going down in a hail of gunfire, it might have been a little harder to shock teenagers of the 1990s than, maybe, teenagers of the 1970s. But even though “Bitch” didn’t terrify VH1 enough to let MTV take sole care of the video’s rotation, you have to admit that having a top 5 single with THAT title was edgy. Maybe even a little exciting.

When it comes to inappropriate language, “Bitch” has never been on the same level as other curse words, and certainly is less jarring than the dreaded C-word (which actually WAS one of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television). But still, Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back” came before it and got banned and Ludacris’ “Move Bitch” came after it and got banned. So to have something that carried a pop sheen and explained itself within its own chorus probably took Meredith a little further commercially than her peers (at least for this one single), but if she’d called the song “Witch,” and referred to herself as that instead, would the single have made as much of a dent? I don’t think so.

As much as the 1990s now seems like an economic and progressive utopia, the fact that “Bitch” stirred so much teenage giggling tells you a lot about how far we really were. Apparently listening to this song made it OK to say a naughty word—that is, until the DJ (or VJ) moved onto the next selection and the word again became dangerous waters.

Just like Joan Osborne had with “One of Us,” Meredith Brooks employed lyrical provocation and nabbed her 15 minutes of fame. As a result, no one cares about two albums she’d already done in the 1980s or anything that she released subsequently, because the stir’s all about the one “ooooh, can’t believe she went there!” song.

What was surprising about Meredith’s 15 minutes, was just how quickly it came and went. “Bitch” nabbed two Grammys, but within months of that, she’s being bottled off a Rolling Stones support slot, trying to go for visual provocation with her next single (to diminishing returns) and ultimately sees “Bitch” as the comical soundtrack to Mel Gibson trying on pantyhose in “What Women Want.”

(For what it’s worth, “What Would Happen” is unfairly forgotten when networks want to rundown those “All Time Sexiest Videos” countdowns.)

“Bitch” announced itself with a pretense that this would be a strong, individual woman standing up for herself and saying, “This is what I am and I’m proud of it.” If it comes on in a bar today, I’m sure a few women will revel in nostalgic delight and the fact that they get to scream “I’m a bitch” again, but at the end of the day, it’s still just an excuse to say “Bitch” and apologize (without actually apologizing) for ridiculous behavior.

I asked my sister if she liked the song.

“I do. It’s fun and catchy. I like it in the same way that I like ‘The Sign’ by Ace of Base; it is not a quality song, but it’s from the 1990s and reminds of growing up. It was also an excuse to swear in elementary school and that was SO cool. I was clearly a badass in my Keds and scrunchie throwing around the word ‘bitch’ like it was nothing.”

So there you go. And when I asked her if there was any kind of message or anything that could even be considered empowering in the song, my sister dismissed that as “ridiculous.”

“It is how girls are—crazy. We act ridiculously all the time.”

From her lips to former Spanish teachers’ ears.

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