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Lim Kimvia

How female musicians of the 90s reclaimed the word ‘bitch’

From Lil Kim to Missy Elliott and Garbage, these are the icons who twisted an old insult into fierce new shapes

Our cultural relationship to the word “bitch” is complicated. It’s still not a word that’s been entirely positively reclaimed, and it’s often used by male musicians to diminish women – especially those perceived as promiscuous, unruly, successful, defiant, or otherwise threatening to the status quo. Hip hop has had a problematic history of glorifying objectification and violence against women, and the word “bitch”, especially through the 90s, has been central to the promotion of gender enmity in pop culture (that’s not to say hip hop has a monopoly on misogyny – the history of rock has a similar, albeit less linguistically entrenched, love affair with patriarchy). However, at the same time “bitch” was gaining popularity in the machismo end of 90s music, there was a purposeful, highly visible movement of female musicians reclaiming “bitch” on their own terms in an inspired, self-aware reappropriation of language.

The derogatory musical use of “bitch” was established as a “trend” in the mid-80s by Duke Bootee and Grandmaster Flash’s “New York New York”, and it didn’t take long for the word to become aggressive, instilled in popular culture as a signifier of feminine inferiority, both when levelled against women (sometimes by women also) and occasionally against men as a homophobic slur. And as the decade folded into the 90s, the oppressive use of “bitch” became the rule, not the exception, from The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997) which glorified violence against women, to more on-the-nose tracks like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and Tupac’s “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” (1996).

However, at the same time male artists were propagating the idea that “bitches” had it coming, there was a fresh wave of female artists rejecting its derogatory connotations, and successfully attempting to reappropriate the word. Queen Latifah took on gender equality, and specifically name calling, head on in “U.N.I.T.Y” (1993), in which she raps, “Everytime I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho/ Trying to make a sister feel low/ You know all of that gots to go.” Queen Latifah’s track was an unequivocal demand, not a plea, for gender equality, and it set the stage for similarly bold women to hold “bitch” hostage. Salt-N-Pepa addressed how people treated them as successful women in “Big Shot” (1993), parodying the way people talk about their accomplishments: “You know what? I can't stand them Salt-N-Pepa bitches/ They think they're all that cuz they're popular in Europe/ Yeah, probably sell-out hookers.”

“There was an earnest belligerence amongst women that revealed a seething anger, and celebrated the power of solidarity”

Refusing to be put down by the language of popular music became a powerful trend for female artists in the 90s. But despite being a noticeable “trend”, it was by no means less authentic – there was an earnest belligerence amongst women that revealed a seething anger, and celebrated the power of solidarity. In “Queen Bitch” (1996), Lil Kim declared herself “A diamond cluster hustler/ Queen bitch, supreme bitch,” a female rapper fully empowered in her craft, self-earned wealth, brazen sexuality, and ability to go head-to-head with her male hip hop contemporaries. Trina’s “Baddest Bitch” (1999) echoed Lil Kim’s sentiment, and redefined the “bitch” as an intelligent, autonomous woman in complete control of her sexuality. With lyrics like “I make him eat it while my period on,” Trina’s unapologetic take on female sexuality flips the script on the slut shaming generally associated with the word “bitch” in hip hop, making ultimate strength out of presumed weakness.

One of the greatest triumphs for reclaiming “bitch” came from Missy Elliott’s “She’s A Bitch” (1999), in which she raps the chorus, “She's a bitch/ When you say my name/ Talk mo' junk but won't look my way/ She's a bitch/ See I got more cheese/ So back on up while I roll up my sleeves,” a war cry against the language of misogyny. Missy Elliott, like Kim, Trina, Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa, refuses to let her gender be a cause for abuse, and sings her own accolades in direct rebuttal to sexist language.

This permeated even outside of hip hop, with Meredith Brooks’ folksy-pop hit “Bitch” (1997) identifying “bitch” as but one of a myriad of characteristics that make up dynamic femininity. Likewise, Shirley Manson singing “I’m a bitch, babe/ And I’m on fire” in Garbage’s “Trip My Wire” (1995) had a similar intended effect. By the end of the 90s, “bitch” was a self-appointed delineator of attitude, dynamism and success for women – a word reserved in that capacity to be used by women only. This attitude is embodied in Madonna’s oft-quoted 1996 declaration: “I’m tough, ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, OK.”

Arguably, the reappropriation of “bitch” has lost its momentum since the 90s. Beyoncé used it in “Flawless” (2013) to assert her dominance over women, asking them to bow down to her. Britney Spears has used it similarly in “Gimme More” (2007) and “Work” (2013) to create a chasm between herself and other women. More recently, Rihanna dropped her revenge anthem “Bitch Better Have My Money”, in which she launches the word towards someone who owes her money.

Such instances can feel reductive – it can be argued that women prescribing to the language of patriarchy is tacit complicity in said patriarchy, leading to a conscious policing of women by women based on arbitrary notions of femininity. Meanwhile, men continue to use the word to diminish women. Despite Kanye West grappling with the idea that it might not be okay to use the word “bitch” against, or even as a term of endearment for a woman after releasing “Perfect Bitch” in 2012, songs like Lil Wayne, Drake and Future’s “Love Me” (2013) (“All my bitches love me and I love all my bitches/ But its like as soon as I cum, I come to my senses”), or Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You” (2015) (“I don't fuck with you/ You little stupid ass bitch”) continue to not only exist, but be celebrated by fans. Since the 90s, “bitch” has peppered pop culture in its least positive incantation.

Semantics often escapes the critical lens that feminism applies liberally to visual culture. Perhaps we’re due to revisit the import of lyricism, across all genres, and ask ourselves how we can reclaim what female artists in the 90s worked hard for when it came to the lexicon of music misogyny. It would be nice, indeed, if we could live in a world where all women invited one another to be “bad bitches” in a show of strength, solidarity and empowerment. Failing that, maybe it’s time the word “bitch” was rendered so taboo we could scrub it from the language of oppression entirely, waving goodbye to something which, ultimately, enforces the status quo of gender inequality within popular culture.