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Strong, Bitchy, or Both?

Strong Female Lead or a Bitchy Female Lead - can it be both?

There you are, bold writer of a strong female lead ™, when all the sudden you write your upteenth snarky quip and you find yourself wondering:  “Has my strong lead character morphed into an utter bitch unexpectedly?”

Today I’m gonna talk about strong female characters, sexism and a bunch of other stuff that is sure to invite the twitterverse to eat my face utterly.  Click the read more and just a warning, I’m using the B-word a whole lot in this one!

You know the topic of sexism is just about everywhere when:  I’m sitting in my writing cave, I’m in my happy spot of creativity and I’m working on a character that I hope will be viewed as strong, assertive, and brave… but then, without warning, I find myself wondering if my character is being too bitchy.

Okay let’s stop there and see what the dictionary says about the word: Bitchy – characteristic of a bitch; spiteful; malicious.

Interesting.  Malicious, spiteful… okay well, my gal isn’t those but I still felt the actual word “bitch” come into my head so I hopped over to check that one out too.  There are numerous definitions for bitch and it’s interesting to look at the contrast depending on whether you’re speaking about a man, woman, or dog.

As a kid my parents use to breed dogs so I knew that a bitch was a female dog.

Applied to women, bitch means:

  1. a malicious, unpleasant, selfish person, especially a woman.
  2. a lewd woman.

Applied to men, bitch means:

  1. a man who willingly or unwillingly submits to the will and control of dominant partner in a sexual relationship, especially with another man, as in prison bitch :
    “Watch out, or your cellmate will make you his prison bitch.”
  2. a gay man who assumes the passive or female role in a sexual relationship.

So, if a character is female and I mean her to be bitchy she should be malicious, unpleasant, and selfish… perhaps a little lewd, but if it’s a man then that person is submissive either willingly or unwillingly.  How weird that the same word applied to both men and women is so different?  Not that English doesn’t work that way; as a rule it happens in other cases where the same word has two differing meanings in context, but where sexism is concerned this is worthy of note.

A female bitch is generally a dislikable person because of her self-centered attitude while a male bitch is generally dislikable because he submits to the will of others either willingly or unwillingly.  And there in-lies the rub – the damned if you do or don’t of it.  Some would make a case that men called bitches are acting like women because either they submit to the will of another or are forced to submit to the will of others and yet the female connotations of bitch imply that the woman would be utterly against submissiveness.

So, if you submit, you’re weak and so labeled a bitch.  If you focus only on yourself and fight oppression in thought or action, you’re too strong and so are also labeled a bitch.  Apparently, there is a narrow space between too submissive (or allowing yourself to be forced into submission) and throwing your opinions around too much (dominating too much of the world around you.)  Going one way or the other too far puts you squarely into “bitch” territory.

No wonder my brain went here while writing!  WOW!  All my life I’ve been walking around in this narrow area trying not to be a bitch and I never knew how utterly narrow that space was until I started writing a “strong” female character!  Too vulnerable and she’s weak or acting like a bitch… too assertive and she’s a different kind of bitch, but equally unlikable!

I wonder if other writers, particularly those writing strong male leads, ever suddenly find themselves measuring the space between themselves and the “bitch” border.  My gut says probably not.  I’m sure they want to stay away from the weak one a bunch, but most people don’t look at male leads and say, “Yea, that guy is too snarky, he’s acting bitchy.”

So, what’s a writer to do?

Ignore the bitch line, I think.  Honestly, there are going to be people who think my character was right or wrong no matter the choices she makes or her internal dialogue (I remember being pretty critical of Katniss Everdeen at a few points too, I may have to re-read now what I’ve come onto this enlightenment.) All I can really do is write a character I think is believable and people (real and believable people) are sometimes strong and sometimes not.

However, Tina Fey up there is right, I think, sometimes it takes a Bitchy Person to get things done.  And in this case, my female lead isn’t the sort of person to sit around politely and wait for the world to fix itself… so I’m not going to sweat her feeling like a bitch when the chips are down and shit needs doing.  She’s too busy for that and so am I.

What do you think of the thin line between the two types of bitches?  Do writers ignore it too often and drop the ball?  Are we too concerned about it?  Will our fears of making female characters too bitchy ever fade away?  Leave your thoughts on the word bitch and how it effects strong female characters below and if you’d like to eat my face(tm) on twitter or just follow me you can find me at @deannamross  leave your twitter handle below and I’ll #followback

2 comments on “Strong, Bitchy, or Both?

  1. Deanna, I struggle at every line where my female Protagonist is concerned. The small area you describe is real. Thanks for a great post.

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