Profanity, sometimes the language of celebration, also often gives us something to celebrate. In comedy, it can signify a character’s superiority to situation, the fluid personality unimpeded by almost inevitably hostile circumstance, even if that’s just the prospect of meeting someone in a bar, or dealing with star-crossed love or your crazy parents, or whatever. Profanity provokes a smile or chuckle, too, when it’s used against type, when the good girl emits an unexpected fuck. Who saw that coming? It’s a verbal pratfall.
In earlier installments of the bitch chronicles, we’ve observed these stylistic effects in the situation comedy How I Met Your Mother, its sure-tongued use of son of a bitch and various euphemisms for it, especially Lily Aldrin’s Inigo Montoya-influenced You son of a beetch. It was all in good fun, but some of HIMYM’s bitching appropriates Black Language and whitewashes it for a mass audience. That’s not fun for everyone. On this point, HIMYM is inadvertently political. Its misappropriations of African American-inflected bitch ring false and rather than promote comedy interfere with it, at least for some viewers.
Bitch seems straightforward but it’s culturally complicated — there are lots of bitches. In Black Talk (2000), Geneva Smitherman explains the bitch in question here: “A generic term for a female. Women of various ages use the term among themselves in a generic, neutral way. Rapper Nikki D: ‘It ain’t like we hate niggas [Black men]. We love ‘em … but bitches gotta get down with one another just like men do … We’ve got to come together’” (from The Source, June 1993).” Green’s Dictionary of Slang (2010) defines this bitch as “a person, neither necessarily negative [not the person, but the term] nor aimed solely at women, nor used solely by men,” and labels the sense — s.v. bitch n1 2(d) — as belonging to Black teen language in the West Indies, United Kingdom, and United States.
Like Smitherman, Green underscores hip hop’s influence on contemporary usage, and some of his quotations illustrate subtle changes in this bitch’s meaning. From Amos Brooke’s Last Toke (1977), he culls a conventionally male use: “Best show some respect fo’ the lady you been layin’ with ever’ Friday. Call that gal Miss black bitch from here on!” In “Bitches Ain’t Shit” (1993), Dr. Dre applies bitch indiscriminately to women and men. Bitchifying men is, of course, the ultimate insult, as Lily demonstrates in the very first episode of HIMYM (19 September 2005):
Marshall: So, did you kiss her?
Ted: No, the moment wasn’t right. Look this woman could actually be my future wife. I want our first kiss to be amazing.
Lily: Oh, Ted, that is so sweet. So, you chickened out like a little bitch.
Like Nikki D., Missy Elliot wants to re-appropriate bitch from pejorative male uses. Green cites an article in The Guardian from 25 June 1999: “Elliot has set herself the task of reclaiming the word ‘bitch’ by turning hip hop’s favourite epithet into a ‘power word,’” doing for bitch and gender politics what African American men had done with the n-word and race politics.
But Missy Elliot’s re-appropriation surely has a racial dimension, too, and arguably white folks who begin to use bitch like Black folks — who appropriate the re-appropriation — are actually misappropriating a word so that it undermines the re-appropriation. That is, bitch reclaimed is not just a power word for women, but for Black women, and certainly not for white men. HIMYM is obtuse — some would say insensitive — about linguistic appropriations, re-appropriations, and misappropriations and their cultural implications.
There isn’t much Black in HIMYM. Barney’s half-brother James is Black and gay — the show packs a lot of difference into one role. In “Last Time in New York” (30 September 2013), Robin and Barney are determined to avoid meeting their elderly relatives when the elders arrive at the Farhampton Inn. Don’t ask why. If you don’t know, watch the show. They try to hide in an ice-machine room only to find that James, similarly avoiding, already occupies it. He stakes his claim: “You bitches best get outta my hiding spot.” He’s entitled to the room and the language.
Lily’s best friend from high school, Michelle, is Black, and she visits Lily a couple of times during the series. When Lily is around Michelle, she “reverts” to adolescent African American speech. In “Sandcastles in the Sand” (21 April 2008), they reunite:
Lily: Oh, hell no! Is that my girl, Michelle?
Michelle: Bitch, you know it!
Lily: How she livin’?
Michelle: She livin’ the only way she know how to — large.
Michelle has nearly completed her Ph.D. in behavioral psychology at Columbia University, and when she talks to anyone but Lily, she uses standard American English. Of course, she’s allowed to switch code — the question is whether Lily should, and, when she does, what that may imply about white ownership of Black Language.
White female appropriation of bitch as a term of familiarity persists throughout the series and starts early. Robin enters a room in “Okay Awesome” (17 October 2005), with “My bitches!” Later, when Lily tries to be a “woooo! girl” in “Woooo!” (17 November 2008), her friend, Jillian, greets her at the bar with “Lily — over here, you sexy bitch!” Later, picking up on the language of wooo!ness, Lily leads her new friends out to the dance floor with “Oh my god, bitch, this is our anthem.” The familiarity may come from Black Language semantics, but the anthem comes from arena shows frequented by white people. And when another wooo! girl cries out, “No, bitch, shots are on you. You’re such a whore,” the misappropriation of bitch from Black Language is blatant. It’s supposed to represent white girl carefreedom, but somehow equates bitch and whore, which is not the semantics of where we started. It suggests white misunderstanding of Black Language or the assertion of white authority in the semantic development of what was once African American bitch. Ted leaves the apartment in “No Pressure” (20 February 2012) with “I’ve seen the Olympics. I know what I’m doin’. I’m going skiin’, bitches.” That’s not what Missy Elliot meant by “power language.” She didn’t see that coming, but that doesn’t automatically make it funny.
Appropriation of this sort is old news. HIMYM reflects the general tendency of white America to appropriate and mainstream Black Language, without regard for what that language means to African Americans or how it involuntarily redefines African American culture. African Americans are well aware of the problem and have tried to explain it to white folks, for instance, in a MadTV sketch titled “Slang Gang” ( 4 January 1997) — African American bureaucrats in an underground bunker summarize all of the Black slang white Americans had appropriated, invent some new slang, and then send agents to drop it on the street. Since MadTV, the misappropriation hasn’t stopped, and African Americans haven’t stopped calling it out, either.
Appropriated Black Language enriches American English, just as jazz, rock and roll, soul, and the blues enrich American music — the whole world is richer for that appropriation. Like music, language is dynamic. A word is powerful one decade, powerless the next. Varieties commingle and out comes something new, something different, something that estranges the progenitors, origins be damned. Or, I suppose, it’s like people taking your shit like it belongs to them.
NB: A more recent installment of the bitch chronicles can be found here.
I wonder if claiming ownership of a language or attributing it to a particular racial construct is as fruitless as claiming ownership of a landmass– it must certainly be as artificial. Saying, “It’s ok if ya’ll use my language” is like saying, “It’s ok if you stand here on my corner.” Once you start down the road of tracing ownership, you’ll have to share that with even more marginalized language creators such as transsexual prostitutes, prison guards, and other harder-to-racialize claimants. Hasn’t “bitch” been a widely used term of address across cultures and millennia? Also, is it a good idea to associate a racial construct with a special originator status of what in many languages would be considered unremarkable vulgarity?