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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.