The problematic discourse of a “bitch” and how “love” allows her to be tamed (Part 1)

Here I will mildly highlight (the very complex idea of) gender dichotomy (through my cis-gendered heterosexual position), established by the word “bitch” and how visual linguistics of mainstream media keep this structured phenomenon of “the bitch” within the rituals of break-ups, friend zones, and “love”.

The word bitching itself gives a mentalese[1]of a female dog that barks. Basically, the idea is that each time the word “bitch” or “bitching” comes up, it is identified with a characteristic of socially well-defined role-play as constructed by the mental image that the sentence directs to; – a female/femme-like social “object” with a certain kind of attitude. So, hypothetically, if a female common friend confided her deepest regrets about a breakup and you tell her that “at least the person you ended your relationship with didn’t bitch about you”, you are immediately (not only) performing an act of disqualification/nullification of all her insecurities that she so blatantly and trustworthily confided in you, (but also) you are assigning a characteristic to the one you claimed to have possibly “bitched” about the breakup. Basically, a bitch is a bossy, aggressive, unemotional woman (or a feminine, passive, emotional man). Words aren’t just words, they’re powerful. They carry meaning and that meaning shapes our reality and understanding of the habitus we live in, especially enforced by mainstream media, it develops our taste and judgement; particularly because (subconsciously) we tend to bodily enact or mimic that what we repetitively see.

Often, in cases of domestic violence, crisis-counsellors end up with reports containing abusers calling a woman by the term “bitch” (name-calling is something that can be traced to innumerable movies). Even when, with the help of positive-media influence, women reclaim the word “bitch” as an empowering word (rather than a derogatory term) we tend to normalise the stinging burn associated with the histography of the word through embodiment of this self-proclamation. Here, calling myself a “bitch” goes with the strong female character with a particular persona of the young, fashion-conscious, pop culture-savvy woman! A single working-woman persuaded by media to think of herself as the “girl power,” “lipstick feminist,” “power feminist,” “the third wave,” or even “post-feminist” – is the same woman who is well-aware of patriarchal conceptions of femininity and yet manages to use them in a parody-like or hyperbolic manner to her own advantage – e.g. Women figures as Ally McBeal, Monica Lewinsky, Rihanna, and those on Sex and the City. From maternal atonement to perpetual punishment, “bitches” face it all.

In Bollywood, the bitch wife/girlfriend is a glamorous component of the films. She dances around trees, get’s kidnapped, or the hero gets a forced kiss out of her (as he obviously loves her), or touches her inappropriately and provocatively, stalks her – while she (the actress) normalises the sting of humiliation by enacting her satisfaction of the sudden kiss; for she too wants him and “loves” him. Yet, the woman’s dislike for the villain (clearly in a “friend zone”), and the same love drive of the villain creates the perfect excuse for the villain to rape or molest her: ’cause “that bitch needs to be tamed”!

This kind of visual communication of love was particular to the 1980s era of Bollywood cinema. Where rarely a woman stood up and protested. For seriously – who doesn’t like being loved – right?

One such example is the 1987 film Mirch Masala (directed by Ketan Mehta), a story of Sonbai (Smita Patil), a woman who works at a chilli factory in the western part of colonial India (Rajasthan). Her husband left for the city as he starts working for the railways. In the meantime the Subedar (tax collector, played by Naseeruddin Shah) arrives to collect taxes and falls for Sonbai and her delicate charms. He asks the village headman, the Mukhi, to bring Sonbai to him but the headman brings the wrong woman. The next day Sonbai is stopped and grabbed by the Subedar. She frees herself and runs into the chilli factory. An old Muslim watchman Abu Miyä (Om Puri) protects her.

A number of scenes in this movie show women dancing and the lustful Subedar looking at them. In another scene the Subedar looks at Sonbai through a telescope, – thus enforcing a repetitive visual language of voyeurism and the sexual innuendoes that hint at male love as an entitlement, and women freedom as a love-game.

A parallel trajectory to Subedar’s love for Sonbai is that of Mukhi’s wife, the Mukhiain, who faces domestic violence and maltreatment from her husband. Out of love and compassion, Mukhiain tries to get support for Sonbai after learning that the village-men (including her own husband) have formed an alliance with the Subedar to handover Sonbai to him. Mukhiain’s protests got brusquely crushed and the Subedar, accompanied by all the men of the village, reaches the factory. He breaks in an entry, and kills the watchman. The final scene shows the Subedar approaching Sonbai when suddenly all the women in the factory start throwing bags of chilli powder at him. This, although was a glamorous attempt at saving oneself from rape (by the hands of the villain in love), was also a performative imposition of love between married couples, a moral socially-acceptable discourse of love as opposed to a socially-unacceptable form of love (extramarital). What is remarkable is that in the movie one woman (Mukhi’s wife) is treated similar to a common house-animal (a bitch), while the other woman reacted like today’s rhetoric of a bitch (Sonbai). 

Now imagine breaking up with a hyper-masculine Indian male brought up through Bollywood cinemas and media that confirm his entitlement of women he fancies (or is in love with). Imagine, the discourse being that of being “in love”, but “that bitch” is playing games. What is this “love”, where does it reside, how does it manifest? And how is it that the one you love, when chooses not to love you back, is immediately nullified (or signified) as a bitch? 


[1]Aydede, M., “The Language of Thought Hypothesis”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), (Fall 2015 Edition); URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/language-thought/; Visited 26.03.2019.

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