With 99 problems, the word ‘b—-’ is perhaps becoming one

After he was offended by T-shirts with the words “Cheers B—-es,” on them, Josh Fernandez decided to investigate the origins of this loaded word.

joshua fernandez

Students on Main Campus Tuesday enjoyed live music at the Bell Tower, free Jimmy John’s subs and – for a lucky few – class skipping on the cursed rainy day known as Spring Fling.

While enjoying the festivities, students stood among a handful of their peers who sported blue T-shirts that read “Cheers B—-es,” on the front, with what appeared to be a silhouette of Bill Cosby in the center.

Although Phi Kappa Theta did not fund the T-shirts, its president, Jovan Hernandez, and several other parties – some non-Temple students included – chipped in some money to get the shirts made.
Sold at the Owl Cove a week prior to Spring Fling, I saw one T-shirt distributor speak with a Temple Resident Director who found the shirts offensive.

As I watched their conversation from fewer than 10 feet away, I couldn’t help but wonder about the complex nature of the word at the heart of the controversy.

Catherine Cannon, a junior broadcasting, telecommunications and mass media major, saw a few students wearing the shirts.

“I wasn’t necessarily offended because they said ‘b—-,’ but I was confused and a little taken aback by the message it was trying to convey in general,” she said. “I blew it off when I first saw it because I didn’t understand the context.”

What Cannon references is the tricky part – the “Cheers B—-es” message gets lost for people on campus who don’t understand what, if anything, the shirt references.

Despite our society’s casual use of the term, it has long been associated with the degradation of women, a key reason why many would take offense or question the shirts’ intention.

“I’m sure they weren’t intending to offend anybody by the use of the word b—-,” Travis George Braue-Fischbach, a freshman university studies major, said. “But I’m also sure that many women find that word to be quite offensive and outrageous.

“Then again,” he added, “with songs like ‘B—-es Ain’t S—’ and catchphrases like ‘I’m Rick James, B—-,’ becoming part of pop culture, maybe some people feel it’s more OK to use that word now.”

Take, for instance, 30 Rock writer and actress Tina Fey’s March 2008 performance in Saturday Night Live’s ”Weekend Update,” where she defended then-presidential nominee Hillary Clinton
“What bothers me the most is when people say Hillary is a b—-,” she said. “Let me tell you something about that. Yeah, she is a b—-, and so am I – b—-es get stuff done.”

This confusion between the word’s degrading and empowering meanings led me to the Oxford English Dictionary, per the suggestion of English Professor Muffy Siegel, a linguistics professor who explained that from the 1500s to the 1800s, the word could apply not just to women, but to men as well.

In the OED, the first definition of the word was: “the female of the dog … fox, wolf and occasionally of other beasts,” which followed with: “applied opprobriously to a woman; strictly, a lewd or sensual woman.” And, oddly enough, there was: “applied to a man (less opprobrious, and somewhat whimsical, having the modern sense of ‘dog’).”

Siegel pointed out that the OED entry also had quotes from recognizable literary figures who used the term to describe people. Novelist James Joyce, for instance, wrote in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “Is your lazy b—- of a brother gone yet?”

Comical notions aside, the OED implies that the application of the term toward men – and more so women – is “not now in decent use,” because it is typically used with a profane or misogynistic intent.

As time passed, our society grew accustomed to blurting the term casually and created cultural products like the feminist BITCH magazine and T-shirt phrases like “Well Behaved B—-es Seldom Make History.” Eventually, feminists empowered by the women’s movement reclaimed the word, such as the infamous Jo Freeman with her creation of The BITCH Manifesto.

“B—-es must learn to be proud of their strength and proud of themselves,” Freeman wrote. “We must realize that B—- is Beautiful and that we have nothing to lose. Nothing whatsoever.”

In this context, feminists reclaimed the word to empower the very group it intended to oppress: women.

I’m certain, however, that the “Cheers B—-es” T-shirts were not intended to achieve the equivalent of The BITCH Manifesto. But I don’t think the T-shirt sellers intentionally meant to offend anyone, either.

In fact, Hernandez – concerned about whether people might find the T-shirts offensive – said he asked several girls if they were insulted. One girl, Hernandez said, responded: “Only actual b—-es are offended by the shirt.”

Siegel said she thought it was ironic that the T-shirts said something friendly like “cheers.” She explained that linguists believe it’s not a word that is bad – it’s the meaning with which a word is imbued.

“If your intent is benign and your audience recognizes that benign intent, then there’s nothing wrong with it,” she said.

I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t use the word myself every once in a while. Since I say it in jest, and not from a place of contempt, it could be said that I mean no harm, which I do not.

The T-shirts can be chalked up to an innocent attempt at a joke gone awry. The incident should, if anything, teach us as a campus community to take everyone into consideration, so we don‘t offend our peers or mentors when we try to market products or ideas to them.

Josh Fernandez can be reached at josh@temple.edu.

10 Comments

  1. Amen, sister! I agree with Catherine Cannon, the message was so vague that initially I just thought “whatever”. But seriously, what was the point then? We are supposed to be young professionals in college, working toward making the world different and/or better in whatever way we see fit. What kind of example of this do these tee-shirts make? I mean, I know they were “all in good fun” but I just don’t understand. How silly. Thanks, Josh! Good work!

  2. Josh, great work!
    I have learned in my many experiences on the job and in life, the more I get accomplished through being assertive, the more I am considered a bitch. I used to be defensive. Now, I laugh. I see they are threatened and projecting their “lack of assertive skills” and insecurity on me. Sad for them.
    I much rather be assertive than passive agressive as so many are.

    Keep up the great work!

  3. The issue at hand is more of the fact that Temple is upset we didn’t register our T-shits with them more so than the University being offended by the shirts.
    There are much more offensive groups on campus displaying images of dead fetuses and the Nazi holocaust, but since they received “permission” it was okay.
    Temple just wants to have total control over anything, especially when it comes to someone making money or selling anything on campus.

    I don’t know how some people can walk by a t-shirt sale and be offended by a word that can mean many things, yet there is no uproar on the atrocious pictures being displayed today on campus of aborted fetuses. The world we live in today is upside down, and Temple does not have the interest of the student body in mind. They only care about themselves, and if anything is bringing in money.

  4. you must be completely oblivious to what is going on here at Temple. There is a reason why there are girls all over campus wearing theses shirts, because they aren’t offensive nor are they aggresive. Oh and Kate Mo they are not ment to be philosophical or have a deeper meaning, they are t-shirts with cosby on it! Get over it you don’t need to be able to explain if you don’t like it then don’t buy it but I’ve seen shirts with way worse things written on it

  5. Joking aside, language is becoming more and more disputed as people get more and more free with what they say. The American freedom of speech would imply that it shouldn’t matter, especially when the intent was not to disparage anybody, what vocabulary is used, because you have the right as a human to use it. Considering intent has absolutely everything to do with the law, on a federal level there is absolutely nothing wrong with what the shirts said, nor is there anything another person could do about it.

    Having said that, it goes beyond it all in the fact that if people are expecting you to appreciate and understand others hurt feelings when that wasn’t the point in the first place, they should also be expected to appreciate and understand the message you were conveying, the joke itself, and understand it was not meant to be hurtful in any regard. They should understand your right to say something, or in this case, print it on a shirt, without having to be concerned that people will be offended, because its your god given right (according to the constitution) to do such.

    Finally, with something like “bitch,” it is so commonly used in today’s language and society (Josh did an excellent job of pointing that out himself for everybody) that nobody should really be hurt by the term in the first place. Nobody got worked up with “I’m Rick James, bitch!” and others, so why now?

    Because they have nothing better to do with their time besides… bitch.

  6. This article is “outrageous” if anything. Hey Josh, I’ve never heard b—- be used as an “empowering” source of flattery. Let’s check the Oxford Dictionary per suggestion of a complete idiot. I’m still not certain if this article is meant to be serious, considering 30% of the phrases used were censored out, and each of the phrases were much more demeaning than any of those shirts. So in your meager, and pointless, attempt at trying to stand up for under-represented women, and implying that the term “B—-” is solely for the purpose of degrading women, all you truly did was degrade women further, and promote more degrading, and much more violent, phrases that may actually have in impact on the women of Temple University. I’ll give you an E for effort. Thanks for publicly degrading women, Josh, Cheers Bitch.

  7. This article can be chalked up as an innocent pick up move gone awry. This article should, if anything, teach us never to take our lives as serious as this sad sack, so we don’t, too, embarrass ourselves, and those around us.

  8. Dear TU Kid,
    My point was not about deeper meaning in the tee-shirts. The first point is that we need to understand the words we use and how people might interpret them. Looking into history, b*tch has historically been used to degrade women. Thats a fact. Secondly, we, temple student, are the face of the university. What we say, what we do, and how we act shows the city and the world what Temple students are. I take lots of pride in being a Temple student and would never wear a tee-shirt that said anything similar to b*tch on it. That’s just ME. Props to those who feel differently. The point is, I feel that selling a tee-shirt on campus with-out any concern about how others may see it is insensitive and does NOT shows the intellect, compassion that IS Temple’s students. It is not about “looking for deeper meaning.” It’s about being conscious of our actions and how others perceive them. Temple students are smart. Let’s not walk around wearing tee-shirts that make us look stupid.

    Finally, Al fonz…please explain how Josh “degraded” women? You’re point is vague and very unclear. Please help me understand where you were going with this. Josh’s articles have consistently been in support of women, just look at his archive. I think you may be confused…

    Kate

  9. The word “bitch” is just a swear word and, like all swear words, is a fun way to occasionally spice up one’s everyday speech and written communication. If you use it in a sexist way, its not like substituting another word is going to change the overall tone of your message. But if you use it in a lighthearted way, say, as part of a phrase on some novelty tee shirt that makes use of Bill Cosby’s (unlicensed) likeness, then its totally fine provided the tee shirt is reasonably priced and is available in a range of sizes.

  10. Is the reason the word bitch is “becoming a problem” [title] because “it has long been associated with the degradation of women” [8th paragraph]?

    Either it’s becoming a problem or it’s been a problem for some time, right? Maybe society’s casual use of the word means it’s actually less of a problem now more than ever, you know, since we use it casually.

    Also, why did you censor your paper? Obviously, you don’t intend to offend women, do you think people get offended reading the word in ANY context, even academic ones?

    Is the main reason you wrote this article because you and an RD got offended? Is that the main controversy?

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