NYT readers in heat over b-word in headline

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/22 18:13:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

It is not rare for an op-ed piece in a newspaper to trigger a debate among readers. But the outcry triggered by Andi Zeisler's recent essay in The New York Times was exceptional. It was not because of the opinion of the writer but the headline the editor assigned to it - "The Bitch America Needs."

The piece, published on September 10, was about the attacks Hillary Clinton got for her non-traditional feminine traits. Her enemies call her a bitch as a result. But the writer, a feminist essayist who co-founded the magazine Bitch in 2006 to examine pop culture via a feminist lens, pointed out that the traits that won Clinton this bad name are also those that made her an exemplar for women and a qualified leader of the country. Therefore, the bad name may not be that bad at all.

Most readers had no problem with the Times publishing the essay, which after all, only expressed the personal opinion of the writer. But the headline drew many critics because of the use of the b-word. To many readers, this was too much to stomach.

In an article the newspaper published two days later, Liz Spayd, the public editor of the Times, revealed her opinion with the headline "The Word a Headline Didn't Need." She reassured readers that it was inappropriate for a serious newspaper to use such a coarse word in a headline.

I stand firmly on the side of the op-ed editor Rachel Dry who decided to use the headline in question. Bitch appeared 19 times in the 1,000-word essay, more than any other noun in the same piece. When Dry explained her decision to Spayd, she was straightforward, saying, "But that's what the essay is about."

But that's not the main reason I chose to support the b-word headline. The main reason was explained elegantly by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in his acceptance speech for the 2009 Jerusalem Prize: "Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."

The word "bitch," as well as many other epithets such as "nigger,"  "queer" and "Chinaman" are such eggs. Vocabulary has no original sin. Derogatory words were made so by the way they were used by people in the center of power throughout history on people who were on the edge. But when the powerless people start to gain their voices, they begin to reclaim the hijacked words.

Such efforts are also destined to face resistance, and such resistance not only comes from the outside world but also from within the marginalized communities.

In my own Asian community, a breakthrough was Ching Chong Chinaman, a comedy play by Chinese playwright Lauren Yee that was put on the stage by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York in 2010. The show was denounced by many older generation Chinese who couldn't tolerate the three C words being used in the title of a play even sarcastically because these words related to too many bad memories. But Yee, who was still in college then, belongs to a new generation.

The b-word has been taking on a similar route. The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue edited by British lexicographer Francis Grose in 1785 defined it as "the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even worse than the word whore, as may be gathered from the regular Billingsgate or St Giles answer - 'I may be a whore, but can't be a bitch.'" And the word was further stigmatized in the 1920s while the awakening of women's rights confronted the men who, at that time, had almost exclusive power to determine language use and meaning.

Among today's young women, "bitch" has become a popular epithet to show affection rather than disdain to your best friends. The reason, as Zeisler explained in the essay, is that: "The power of 'bitch' to shame is, with a perspective adjustment, also its power to shine. All that's required to reframe the word is to point out that the things bitches are often guilty of can be both unexceptional and necessary: flexing influence, standing up for their beliefs, not acting according to feminine norms and expectations."

Of course, there is always the wall of the mainstream, blocking the way with a stern face, just like Spayd said in her article: "The mainstream may someday apply this term to women who stand up for themselves and bust through feminine stereotypes. Until then, it remains an insult, degrading and misogynistic."

But in my view, such a day began - with a headline in the Gray Lady.

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com

Posted in: Columnists, Viewpoint, Rong Xiaoqing

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