Ignoring the invention of the perm, black chicks are rarely—if ever—susceptible to magic. We don't go up in pillars of smoke. We don't disappear down suspect rabbit holes. And we don't walk into coat closets, never to be heard from again. But somewhere along the journey from slave to soul sister to single lady, we did learn how to shape shift. It all starts with the face—lips pursed, cheeks flattened and eyes like lasers
That's the face the outside world gets when they call us from the corner (“Hey, shawtay”) or in the club (“Excuse me, miss”) or into an office (“Hey, can you pop in for a sec?”). It says you can't talk to me, touch me or trap me. For some, it has become a coolness coat of arms, an impenetrable shield. I call it survival side-eye.
So in 2008, when comedienne Tina Fey declared, “Bitch is the new black!” in defense of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, I decided she was on to something genius. Of course, at first, my reaction was more like, “How daaare you?!” but after a commercial break and as much thought, I realized being a bitch meant something more to the modern woman than just mean-mugging.
From the time the sixth-grader me first uttered the word “bitch” in a nerd’s attempt at bad girl in front of the girls, (who had secret sleepovers they forgot to tell me about on Friday but had no problem remembering the details of by Monday), I realized the power in it. The performance of it.
As does Fey. Guesting on a special segment called “women’s news,” Fey settled into her old seat at SNL’s Weekend Update and began her fake newscast with a line that any woman could get behind: “… we can all agree that this is a great time to be a lady in America and not just because of that new yogurt that makes you poop.”
Then she seemingly went off the cuff, riffing on the inherent bitchiness of then-presidential candidate Clinton. She seemed genuinely pissed that anyone would dare declare “bitch” a bad thing.
“People say that Hillary is a bitch, and let me say something about that:,Yeah, she is, and so am I, and so is this one,” she said, pointing a sideways thumbs-up to her sidekick Amy Poehler, who nodded in approval. “Bitches get stuff done. That's why Catholic schools use nuns instead of priests … At the end of the year, you hated those bitches, but you knew the capital of Vermont.”
Using Fey’s logic, bitches are not just venomous—they’re en vogue, too. They are the chosen. They are capable comediennes and political candidates. They are rappers and writers. Because no one has the monopoly on bitch. Bitches are a motley crew. From the outside looking in, their pants suits, habits and black-rimmed bifocals might appear severe, but beneath the surface stuff is getting done. And isn’t that the point? And like Fey said at the beginning of her most noteworthy contribution to pop culture to date, “this is a great time to be a lady in America.”
A hilarious writer friend of mine recently gave up “the idea of remedying the stereotype.” She told me she can be “an angry black woman” at times and at others she can be the type of black woman who’d drive several miles in the middle of the night to buy her sick boyfriend a kiwi. People have layers.
In 1996, when I was a high school junior who’d yet to be kissed, Tupac let us know exactly why “they call you bitch” on his platinum album All Eyez On Me. But don’t be bad and play the game/ get mad and change/ Then you wonder why these motherfuckers/ call you names. The song’s message was about staying in school, naturally, and on the track’s “outro” Tupac had another message for C. Delores Tucker, the civil rights activist who, in waging her war against “gangsta rap,” filed a $10 million dollar lawsuit against him: “I figured you wanted to know, you know, why we call them hoes bitches.”
Two years later, Queen Latifah was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for her starring role on Living Single. I had the show's theme song memorized (actually we all did). “Oooh in a 90s kind of world, I'm glad I've got my girls!” Mix that with her Grammy-winning single “U.N.I.T.Y.” (“who you calling a bitch?”) and the soundtrack to my pubescence was chopped and screwed by Frankenstein. Now, in my late 20s and on the verge of super adulthood, I tightrope walk a line between hating the bitch Tupac was talking about—and being the new type of bitch who’d “punch him dead in his eye.”
In The Bluest Eye, one of Toni Morrison’s main characters, a little girl named Claudia, says, “… we had become headstrong, devious and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention, so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us—then.” That story was set in the 1940s. Generations of black women have grown up outside of the spotlight, becoming “headstrong, devious and arrogant” because nobody paid them any attention. They have become successful self-soothers and now, because of Michelle Obama, they are under a microscope.
But despite the fact that the most visible woman in the United States is black, popular culture still hasn’t moved past the only adjective apparently meant to describe us—“strong,” or more recently “single.” Add to that the word “bitch,” which despite having the aforementioned racial connotations, applies to all women of a certain perception. I titled my memoirs Bitch is the New Black because I wanted to poke—not appropriate—the stereotype Tina and Tupac were talking about. Am I a bitch? Sure, I can be. But where are the rest of my adjectives? Almost automatically, I’d describe myself as strong. But I’m also flawed, tired, sexy, depressed, frightened, naïve, hilarious, greedy and—of course—bitchy.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root. Her book, Bitch Is The New Black, will be released this summer. Follow her on Twitter.