(TW: racist terminology, sexist terminology)
A few years ago, we had an impromptu get-together in our backyard. (Not an uncommon occurrence, round these parts.) An old friend and former roommate had stopped by, with three of his friends that we hadn’t met, and it quickly turned into a “new friends, meet old friends” sort of party.
It was a perfect Florida night, not too hot, not too cold. We had a fire blazing in the firebowl. The beer was chilled and plentiful. We were sitting around, shooting the shit, like ya do. And then, in the middle of complaining about her job, one of our friend’s new friends came out with this:
“My boss has been such a bitch this week. I hate that nigger!”
A shocked silence fell. Someone – might have been me, I don’t know – let out a nervous giggle, loud in the quiet. We stared at each other, stunned, not entirely sure we believed she had just said that. I glanced at my friend – who the hell did you bring here? He gave me a minuscule shrug – I didn’t know she was going to say that!
Realizing too late that her statement wasn’t going over well, she tried to explain: “Hey, I’m not a racist or anything. But she’s really mean to me, so I don’t mind calling her that.”
The silence deepened. Got louder.
Finally our other roommate, one of the world’s natural born peacemakers, came out with, “Heyyy, I think we’ve got some marshmallows. Who wants to roast some marshmallows? I’ll go get ’em!”
And I, quietly, went inside and hid in my computer cave, spending the rest of the evening obsessively refreshing my blogs, trying to find something to distract me so I didn’t go back outside and pick a fight.
To this day, I sorta wish I had. Half-drunk and incensed, I don’t know if I could have voiced my objection coherently. Most likely it would have come down to me insisting that if she didn’t apologize, she would have to leave. And since my friend was her ride, he’d have to leave too, and I didn’t want that.
But I still feel like I should have said something.
My mind, however, keeps coming back to her justification: I don’t like her, so it’s ok to call her a nigger.
At the time of this incident, I was working at a restaurant. And I absolutely despised one of my managers. She was lazy, she was incompetent, she was mean, she flat-out refused to call me by my right name (long story.) She particularly disliked me, and would single me out, whether I’d done anything wrong or not, to be nasty to me. Oh, I hated her. Oh, I called her every name in the book, in the privacy of my own head.
But – even though I’m white, and she’s Black – it never even occurred to me to call her a nigger.
Why would it? None of the things I disliked about her had anything to do with the color of her skin. She would have been just as bad if she’d been white, or any other race. And trust me, I had PLENTY of things to complain about without resorting to racial insults. Why on earth would I use a word to describe her that means, and ONLY means, “you are bad because you are Black”?
If you’re going to complain about your manager, complain about what your manager actually does. Tell us how she messes up your schedule without warning, how she always assigns you bathroom-cleaning duty, how she refused to let you go home even though you were throwing up, how she constantly belittles you. Find an insult that reflects all that, or one that generically says “you are a bad person because you choose to be.” But racial insults mean one thing, and one thing only – racism. You don’t throw the n-word around as an insult and then claim to not be racist, because that word is only insulting if you start from the premise that being Black is a Bad Thing.
So let’s talk about Margaret Thatcher.
Full disclosure: I don’t know anything about Margaret Thatcher. I have less than zero knowledge about her. That’s right; it’s negative knowledge. If you listened to me talk about her for five minutes, you would come away stupider for having had the conversation.
So I have absolutely zero opinion about her politics, her actions while in office, her worth as a human being. No clue. None.
But according to the rest of the world, she was apparently… unpopular. In some circles.
This… this is not ok.
And this is not true.
Much like with the other, racist example, it’s really quite simple: either being female is, IN AND OF ITSELF, something to be despised and mocked, or it is not.
If it is, then you are sexist.
If it is not, then when criticizing and condemning someone who happens to be female, it is not ok to use sexist terms to insult them. Because what words like “cunt” mean are “you are bad for being female.”
If Margaret Thatcher was really as bad as all that, I feel sure you can find ways to insult her that do not ALSO say “hey, being female is bad.”
And no, the fact that she “denied” feminism or that you do not consider her a feminist does not exclude her from this. If feminism means anything, it means that women are ALWAYS people. Whether they agree with us or not. Whether we like them or not. It means doing away with the “exceptional woman” myth, where those OTHER women are bad, but we GOOD women are ok. You are not required to like Thatcher, to respect her, to support the things she did, any of it. But if you are truly a feminist, you have to respect that she was, indeed, human, and that using sexualized insults to belittle her and diminish her – and by extension belittle and diminish everyone she shared a gender with – is 100% Not Ok.
It’s Not Ok to do that to Thatcher. It’s Not Ok to do that to Sarah Palin. It’s Not Ok to do that to Michelle Bachmann. It’s Not Ok to do that.
Gender equality isn’t just for people we like.
“But wait!”, I can hear some of you saying. “You like the term ‘bitch,’ Kristycat! Why are you objecting to it now?”
Why yes, inconveniently-observant reader, I do like the term bitch. I object to it here on two grounds:
1) Many people using it in reference to Thatcher DO consider it sexist. Regardless of the term being used, I want to attack the root idea that “sexism is bad for me, but ok for thee.”
2) Amongst those of us who do use the term “bitch” as an insult, it’s usually used dismissively: “Oh, just ignore her, she’s just a bitch.”
When something that dismissive is used against a woman who holds or held a position of great power, that dismissiveness sends its own message.
Imagine: if someone described George W. Bush, or Mitt Romney, or any other prominent male politician as “just a dick” or “just a jerk,” you would seriously wonder about their political awareness. After all, these men held significant power, or were at risk of holding significant power. The stakes were pretty high. People, real people, suffered or would have suffered as a direct result of their policies. International world leaders knew their names and faces. We may have disliked them, thought them stupid or immoral or irrational or blinkered by privilege… but we wouldn’t have considered them petty or irrelevant. Yet that’s how such an epithet would have rendered them. Someone to be ignored, scoffed at, dismissed as though their very real shortcomings were of no more import than a guy being a creep at a party.
It’s disrespectful to a world leader, and it’s a dangerous way to think – a way of hiding from a problem.
When people apply the word “bitch” to Thatcher, what I hear is that, because she’s a woman, she doesn’t have to be taken as seriously as a male politician. Doesn’t matter what she did, what she accomplished – in the end, she’s Just A Woman. She’s Just A Bitch. It erases all the good and all the bad she may have done, erases all fame or notoriety. It says, “yeah, she did some really bad things, and I WOULD be angry about them, but I don’t really care. Because it doesn’t matter. She’s Just A Bitch.”
Just a bitch.
I don’t imagine men enjoy being demonized either, but at least they get demonized in ways that respect their power, their accomplishments. They’re dangerous. They’re a threat to society as we know it. They’re someone worth mobilizing against, worth debating, worth fighting. In certain extreme cases, they may even be (called) the Antichrist!
They’re taken seriously. Because they’re men.
But Margaret Thatcher was a woman.
So she’s Just A Bitch.