When women say the b-word, "We're girls, we're fooling around," Joy Behar said on "The View."
Yet as recently as 1976, the b-word was linked to "vanity, conniving, lust, fertility and tyranny." That is how Robert A. Johnson described the goddess of love, Aphrodite/Venus, in "She," his popular book on female psychology. Johnson concluded, "She is, in fact, a thorough b----."
Can the sting have been removed from this negatively charged word in only three decades? In coffee shops on Queen Anne Hill and Magnolia, I asked 15 women their opinions.
This is not a formal study. It is a small window onto the reverberations of one, abusive word, and the attempt to rehabilitate it. The women seemed to enjoy airing their views - with one exception.
It was a quiet morning, the sun out, the leaves sprouting on the trees, the coffeehouse peaceful. Carefully, because this can be a delicate topic, I asked an elderly woman if she would mind commenting on a hot-button word. Apparently she was slightly deaf and assumed everyone else was too.
"What word?" she shouted.
"The b-word," I said quietly. People were beginning to stare.
Again she shouted, "The b-word, what's that?"
Handed a piece of paper on which the word was written in big letters, she stood, held the paper up, yelled out each letter and, seeming oblivious of the now riveted coffeehouse audience, proclaimed, "It's awful." She sat down and turned away. The interview was over.
Without the vehemence but with firm distaste, the first interviewee, a barista in her 20s, also disliked the b-word. She and her friends never use it, she said. Overall, only three women took a positive view of the b-word, with three somewhere between, and nine negative. A rundown of the 15 opinions follows in the order they took place.
1-A curse word; 2-Hurtful; 3-Holds centuries of anger; 4-Derogatory; 5-A curse word; 6-Reclaimed; 7-Useful when upset; 8-Derogatory; 9-Usually negative; 10-I can be a b----; 11-Neither charged nor a compliment; 12-It's like "Hey, Dude"; 13-AWFUL!; 14-Offensive; 15-Somewhat reclaimed.
The second and third interviewees, college-age friends Elise and Stacy, felt the word was burdened by its past. "When men use the word about Hillary," Elise said, referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton, "they show a lot of hatred. A lot of women who have power are often seen that way."
Stacy was called a b---- during a summer program, she confided. She was a program head. "The guys were like, 'What's this young pretty girl doing, telling me what to do?'"
After awhile they got used to it, and things smoothed out. But the experience was challenging, and Stacy feels that "the b-word has centuries of anger in it."
On the positive pole, interviewee no. 10, Char Sundust, who gives workshops in writing and shamanism, said she has embraced her inner b----. Her grandmother and mother use the word when playing cards, so for Char the b-word is mixed with affection.
"We're women, we're fierce, complex and multidimensional," she said. "So of course people will refer to us with words that are difficult to swallow." She tries to accept the word and make it her own. "And I can be a b----," she laughed.
Most of those who dislike the b-word agreed, if they are with friends or at a party where someone uses it, their approach is nuanced. Whether or not it is offensive depends on the tone and context. They tolerate other women's attempt to rehabilitate it and don't speak out or object. Except, of course, if the word were directed personally at them.
But if a guy uses the b-word, that's another story! Men take a huge risk saying the b-word in any context around a woman. She may keep quiet. But she will be bristling.
Maybe not Joy Behar, who inhabits a world of her own making. She's a comic. By making people laugh, she can say things others can't. According to this small sample, the b-word retains a good deal of sting.[[In-content Ad]]