Is the B-Word Still Insulting?

When it's popping up in the name of network TV shows, it's time to cross it off the list of curse words.

In 1997, Meredith Brooks released her only real hit single, “Bitch.”  The Lilith Fair ladies ate it up with a spoon and the song became an anthem of female empowerment. To a pre-teen Catholic school girl in Northeast Philly, this was the most scandalous thing I had ever heard.

I listened to the lyrics “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother” as it blared from radios—many stations refused to say the title and referred to it as simply “a song by Meredith Brooks”—and during quick, sneaky moments of MTV watching for a whole summer. Every time I heard the word “bitch,” a little thrill of disobedience would run up my spine as my eyes darted around, waiting for an adult to come lecture me on curse words.

Fast forward 15 years and I’m watching a network television show called Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. In a half-hour sitcom, the B-bomb is dropped five times before 10 p.m.—not including the suggestive title—and I barely even blink.

It seems the word “bitch” has lost its chutzpah.

Whether it’s emblazoned on T-shirts, in the title of a TV show or getting dropped in casual conversation, the proliferation of the formerly offensive five-letter word has decreased its impact simply be sheer overuse. I, personally, was called a “bitch” three times last week, twice completely unprovoked by strangers and once in a teasing jab from a pal. You could argue that I happened to be surrounded by vulgar people—and hey, maybe that’s the truth since Philly’s not exactly know for being demure—but I suspect this wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. The word “bitch” is everywhere.

According to a 2009 New York Times article on profanity on television, “The use of the word, ‘bitch’ tripled in the last decade alone, growing to 1,277 uses on 685 shows in 2007 from 431 uses on 103 prime-time episodes in 1998.” In pop culture, it’s become almost like punctuation, a word used to end a sentence and make a point seem stronger. (See: “I’m Rick James, bitch!” “It’s Britney, bitch” and the graphic “I will eat your babies, bitch” from Philly fave It’s Always Sunny.)

A word that previously seemed scandalous and crude and insulting now seems as mundane as “dork” or “nerd” or “jerk.” Hearing a word used in everyday vernacular makes it lose its edge. It’s no longer as intimidating. It doesn’t sting. The thrill of disobedience disappears.

I don’t think our desensitization is necessarily a bad thing. After all, if we’re living in a nation that has become blasé about things like terrorism—when’s the last time you thought twice about a terror alert?—it seems only fitting that words that used to cause us great angst are now ranking lower on our collective freak-out scale.

But Meredith Brooks better not get any ideas about writing songs about the C-word. That one still stings.