I’m not bossy. I just have better ideas.

–From a pillow allegedly owned by Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, quoted here.

The  linked article explores the negative impact words like “bossy” and it’s grown-up version, “bitch”, have on stunting leadership and competence capabilities in young girls. It’s definitely worth a read, whatever your thoughts on Lean In (Sandberg is one of the article’s authors).

Two thoughts and a story coming up. And content warning for the inclusion of some un-obscured slurs, specially towards women and the queer community, below.

Thought #1: the fact that US TV will censor words like “piss” but not “bitch” is, to me, so very telling. The first time I realised this was occurring–watching Hell’s Kitchen, no less–I was absolutely astounded. I’d been hearing people say bitch freely all evening, meaning I had to actually go back and be absolutely certain I was right in “piss” being the word that was missing (it was Ramsey comparing something to “donkey piss”, FWIW).

Piss. Fucking piss–which refers to a relatively innocuous daily bodily function–was considered too dirty for TV. And yet bitch–a word which is actually harmful to actual people–isn’t.

Unbe-fucking-lievable. No wonder getting people to accept the harm of this slur is so fucking difficult.

Thought #2: “bitch” always fascinates me in that it seems to mean both “assertive, dominating woman” and “weak, submissive man”.

I’m sure someone much, much more clever than me can extend that thought to where it needs to go.

Finally, the story:

For whatever it’s worth, “bitch” is on of the list of slurs I try not to use in my own writing. However the issue did come up recently in writing LIESMITH’s sequel… twice.

The first instance involved the character-who-we-shall-for-the-moment-call-Travis-Hale, and who is, as mentioned elsewhere, a gratuitous expy of various tech company CEOs. Mostly Steve Jobs (of Apple), but also Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook). Zuckerberg, you may remember, is notorious for once having a business card with the tagline, “I’m CEO, Bitch.

Well, in a certain chapter Mr. Hale is, uh, not having a particularly good day, shall we say? You could say he’s feeling a tad defensive, for example, and he has a bit of an internal “don’t you fucks know who I am?” sort of moment, in which he invokes Zuckerberg’s infamous tagline.

That’s in the draft, anyway. I wrote the line because it flowed and then I stopped, looked down, and thought, “Fuck.”

Because. Fuck. I don’t want to use that term in my novels. I just don’t. And, lest anyone accuse me of prudery, I will note that “fuck” and “shit” are some of LIESMITH’s most frequently used words by count (so frequent, in fact, that I changed a few of the former to “bloody” and the latter to “crap” to tone the language down a bit for US audiences).

Because, here’s the thing. When I have Hale say “I’m CEO, bitch!” I know that he’s invoking a shitty really-real world example of just how toxic the tech industry can be (see also: why I don’t use Facebook, part 385, compare: article linked above), and the only reason he’s doing it is because he’s frightened and in pain and feels small and helpless and is desperately struggling to remind himself of his own agency by stripping someone else’s. It’s a shitty thing to do, but it’s also a shitty circumstance he’s in. I know that.

I know that… but readers might not. Or, even if they do, is the harm of this slur–and yes, it is a slur–mitigated by the circumstances of its use?

Maybe. I’m not sure.

And here’s the problem with words: not very long after writing the above, I found my fingers tapping out the phrase “ragr jötunn bitch”. Two out of three words in that sentence are slurs–“ragr” is essentially the all-purpose Old Norse version of faggot/dyke/tranny1–and the guy who’s saying them in saying them is because he’s a jerkass. He’s an antagonist and the “point” of the dialogue is to show his dehumanized contempt towards the protagonist he’s addressing.2

So it’s not a casual use, it has utility in the narrative and is intended to be read as A Very Bad Thing…

Still. I don’t know whether it’s worth it.

Language is important, and words cause harm. There are some harmful words currently sitting in my open Scrivener file. I’m not sure if they’ll stay or not.

But this is what goes through my head when I think on whether to keep them.

  1. Side note: I think it’s kind of popular in some circles to throw ragr/argr–and its related noun-form, ergi–around casually to show how rad your Viking is. Gods know I’ve probably been guilty of this in the past but, for whatever it’s worth (probably not much), I would now… discourage this behaviour. These words are slurs, equivalent in toxicity to their English counterparts. Treat them with the same consideration.
  2. Yes. It is who you think it is. Er… sort of.