The merch economy that’s grown around the 2016 presidential election is basically the id of the American voter, which is why you see the word “bitch” all over the place.
I saw it on buttons at the Republican National Convention (“Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one“) and T-shirts hanging from the vendor tents that crop up around Donald Trump rallies (“If you can read this, the bitch fell off”).
I’ve heard it in Trump surrogate speeches in Florida (“You have a man who wants to save this country, or you have the bitch of Benghazi”) and in casual conversations between women protesting Hillary Clinton in New York City (“We’re heading to the Waldorf Astoria—the bitch will be there”).
And with the country’s linguistic doubling down on old school misogyny comes the positive reclamations that are accompanied by their own merchandising schemes. (“I’m with this bitch.”)
“Nasty woman” might be having a moment, but this election is really about the bitch.
“There is no parallel word for a man,” Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who has written multiple books on gender and language, told me over the phone. “There is something about women, just by being there, that can be upsetting to people, that can seem threatening.”
As the United States contends with the prospect of its first female president, the language we’ve used to narrate this moment tells us a lot about how we continue to think about women and power. So we pulled anecdotal data from some of the places people turn to express themselves during the campaign—from surrogate speeches to Facebook—to examine the endurance, and rhetorical agility, of this OG of gendered insults.
While Clinton’s critics, none louder than Trump himself, have taken to calling the former secretary of state all kinds of things—crooked, fatigued, incompetent—few land with the same blunt force as “bitch.” Which is why it’s stuck around so long.
The modern “bitch” is a likely descendent of the Old English “bicce”—which means female dog, but its popular rise didn’t really start until the early 20th century, according to Clare Bayley’s short history of the word.
“The first serious rise in the usage of bitch begins at 1920–exactly the same year as another feminist milestone in the United States: suffrage,” writes Bayley. “The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 18th, 1920. After decades of struggle, women finally received the right to vote. But as women became more public, so too did their critics. Now that women were appearing more and more on the American stage, the insult bitch began to slip slowly into popular discourse.”
You can see a similar pattern in the current flood of Facebook comments on both Trump and Clinton’s respective pages. In the months since the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, “bitch” has been at the center of a constellation of gendered insults on both candidates’ pages, according to a data analysis by Fusion.
Here’s a snapshot of what we found on Clinton’s page:
beotch, heifer, biotch, bitc, shitbag, condesending, pos, theiving, seahag, hillaryrottenclinton, cuntbag, wench, murderess, succubus, crookon, rotton, heffer, boooooo, sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze, twat
The gendered comments on Trump’s page also tended to target Clinton, and followed a similar pattern:
beotch, bitc, skank, biotch, ewww, kunt, dike, buzzard, mfer, smurk, possum, chipmunk, beeotch, biatch, seahag, banshee, heifer, wretch, btch, bicth
(Charting the occurrence of “bitch” on Facebook proved a little slippery because Facebook censors some words and flags some comments for removal—which probably explains why many people used “beotch” and “bitc” instead.)
And when Fusion used linguistic analysis to find words that commenters used as a male approximation of “bitch,” the difference was pretty stark:
bafoon, booger, mfer, dickhead, punk, putz, prick, bufoon, baffoon, wanker, bulldog, clown, jerkoff, wuss, wormy, blowhard, stinker, schoolboy, choker, sob
You won’t find a similarly gendered insult used to describe Trump because there really isn’t one. “Bitch can be used to stigmatize a woman for nothing other than being female,” Tannen told me. “And that’s what you won’t get for men.”
The word “bastard” is often held as a kind of sibling to bitch, she added, but there is nothing about it that reads as intrinsically male. And it doesn’t pack nearly the same kind of bile—or really any at all—when deployed as an insult. The harder sounds at the end of bitch make it the kind of word you can hiss—bastard sounds almost cuddly in comparison.
This is the unique power of “bitch”: it’s weaponized gender. It degrades and trivializes because it marks you as a woman.
“The specter of a woman in power is frightening to people,” said Tannen, “and so they fall back on misogyny.”
And they have.
The word has been a familiar occurrence at Trump rallies and across social media, but you don’t have to dig that deep to find more front-facing Trump surrogates using it, too.
Last week, longtime Trump adviser and conspiracy theorist Roger Stone tweeted again about Hillary Clinton’s health—adding that, “LOL Bitch can hardly stand up.” A couple of days later, aging rocker and Trump supporter Ted Nugent called her a “devilbitch” who “hates everything good about America.” (Trump, for his part, has made use of the word in conversation about sexually assaulting women and his opinions about another former secretary of state.)
There are a lot of things a person could say to criticize the former secretary of state and the decisions she’s made throughout her political career. Examining the enduring presence of “bitch” in this election isn’t the same thing as questioning the right to criticize Clinton, or any woman in power. But it does reveal that, when the public wants to put Clinton down, it often falls back on what it believes might cut deepest: woman.
Additional reporting by Daniel McLaughlin.