«Table of Contents Acknowledgments 2 Introduction 3 Chapter One: Things of A Historical Nature 12 Chapter Two: Bitch Products 20 2.1: Product Group A ...»
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Things of A Historical Nature 12
Chapter Two: Bitch Products 20
2.1: Product Group A 21
2.2: Product Group B 32
2.3: Product Group C 41
Chapter Three: Wrapping It All Up with a Pretty Little Bow 50 List of Figures 56 Bibliography 57 Scallen 2 Acknowledgments So, so many thank you-s are due. First and foremost, to dearest Mom, without whom this thesis would be horrendously un-edited and ridiculously grammatically challenged. Thank you for your patience and understanding when drafts were sent in the wee hours of the morning, and needed to be sent back mere hours later. You’re a star.
To Professor Doss, many, many thanks for the last minute meetings and your uncanny ability to “slash and burn” unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs. A true gift.
To Professor Butler, many thanks for sharing with me invaluable resources and guidance in the world of academic feminism. Your support and suggestions helped make this thesis what it is, and I cannot thank you enough for your patience and understanding…especially when I missed class to work on The Thesis.
A big thank you to the staff of Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture for allowing me to sit on a staff meeting, and for putting up with yet another inquiry into the decision behind naming your magazine Bitch!
Many thanks to the UROP program for providing me with the means to visit the Bitch offices, and to Emily and Kate for providing me with the full hippie/hipsterimmersion experience in Oregon. Priceless.
Finally, a HUGE thank you to the countless friends who have listened to my endless chatter about Bitches and shit, most especially dear, dear Anna and Paige.
Without you, I would not have survived the Bitch Thesis unscathed. You da best. And lastly, to Robyn, thank you for sharing the Thesis Cart of Sisterhood and the 9th floor Thesis Table in Club Hesburgh with me. You saved my back, quite literally.
Scallen 3 Bitch: Introduction The perpetrator: a perky blue glass cup with “Bitch” splashed across the front in a
swirly, girly, silver script. Showing here:
Oh, so humorous. Turns out this “Slang Pint Glass” is one of a family: Douchebag, Fucker, Slut, Pimp, and Hot Mess are all neatly packed in right next to each other on the shelves of Urban Outfitters. What a set! Who the hell is buying these? And why? It is here, with one not so average drinking glass, that this Bitch Thesis began.
Further research reveals copious amounts of other Bitch products running around town. The pervasive Bitch! Lest the glass be lonely, Urban Outfitters accompanies it with almost anything your little Bitchy heart could desire. Glasses, plates, bowls, snow globes, birthday banners, you name it: Urban has a version of it with Bitch scrawled across the front. Barnes & Noble proudly displays “Bitch a Day” calendars and planners, along with relationship advice books (Why Men Love Bitches  and Why Men Marry Bitches  by Sherry Argov) and dieting books (Skinny Bitch  by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin). Australian-based R Winery manufactures a red wine titled simply
What is going on? These products suggest a sort of highly commercialized, mainstream Bitch Culture. To the non-critical consumer, it may seem that American women are now embracing the term “Bitch” (at least materially), and claiming it as their own self-elected, self-empowering label, rather than letting it be used against them in its traditional derogatory fashion. Is that true? Can “Bitch” ever be an empowering term? If so, what type of woman claims that empowerment? Exactly what type of woman is the envisioned consumer of this Bitch Culture?
Before we really dive in, it is of the utmost importance that the Capital B Bitch be distinguished from the lower case b bitch. For my purposes in this thesis, I use the term “Capital B Bitch” (or just “Bitch”) to define both the commodified products (referred to as Bitch Products or, collectively, Bitch Culture) and the belief held by some that by capitalizing the derogatory “bitch,” the term becomes immediately redefined as a strong, independent, and empowered female. When referring to the term historically used to put women down, I will use the term “lower case b bitch” or, simply, “bitch.” Onwards.
It would be easy to write these products off as just another mechanism of a repressive patriarchal society: some fat cat white dudes chilling in their corporate headquarters, laughing at the drones of mindless upper-middle class American women who have too much money and too much free time, out purchasing these products. It’s tempting to simply point fingers and shake heads at the sad state of contemporary American society and modern-day feminism. But doing so would not fully explain why this commercialized Bitch Culture exists today, and why the products themselves are so popular. The fact remains: these products not only exist, but continue to be manufactured
feminism and American women today? Cue academic research into postfeminist consumer culture.
All that’s needed is a nice, tidy definition of postfeminism to help contextualize the Bitch Products, and analyze them more thoroughly. Only one minor detail poses a problem: the single consistent characteristic of postfeminism, as it is defined or described by many a heady academic scholar is its inherent contradictory-prone, ambiguity-infused nature. The whole tiresome “love the feminine/hate the feminine, you can’t be a feminist if you’re this, you can’t be a feminist if you’re that, and put the damn lipstick down, no wait pick the high heels up” debate, prevents the formation of, or agreement on, any sort of concrete definition of postfeminism, and at the same time, keeps modern feminists arguing amongst themselves rather than rallying together as a collective whole.
It was one particularly long Christmas break afternoon spent at Spyhouse Coffee in Minneapolis that almost did me in. My attempts at full concentration on Stephanie Genz and Benjamin A. Brabon’s Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories (2009) were continuously thwarted by the inability to drown out the conversation of the two hipsters to my left, engaged in a game of “casually” mentioning bands-that-really-aren’t-thatgood-but-that-only-I’ve-heard-of-and-therefore-demonstrate-my-superior-alternativenessto-you. I reached a boiling point in trying to discern a useful, working definition of postfeminism, and left discouraged and frustrated with the futile infighting among feminists today, both within and outside of academia.
Imagine my elation then, upon returning to college and being assigned an article titled “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility” by one Rosalind Gill.
precisely what I was searching for: a refreshing and honest admission that the attempts to define postfeminism are indeed circular and ineffective. Our best bet is to take a step back and understand it in an entirely different context: that of a sensibility, of a cultural
feeling and understanding. As Gill writes:
Rather, postfeminism should be conceived of as a sensibility. From this perspective postfeminist media culture should be our critical object—a phenomenon into which scholars of culture should inquire—rather than an analytic perspective. This approach does not require a static notion of one single authentic feminism as a comparison point, but instead is informed by postmodernist and constructionist perspectives and seeks to examine what is distinctive about contemporary articulations of gender in the media. This new notion emphasizes the contradictory nature of postfeminist discourses and the entanglement of both feminist and antifeminist themes within them.1 In working with this definition, I was able to take a deep breath and admit to both myself and my thesis advisor that I am not, in fact, academically challenged, but had been going about this project in the entirely wrong way. The interesting, noteworthy, and productive part of this thesis lies not in determining whether or not these products are feminist or empowering (indeed, what would a truly feminist or empowering pint glass even look like?), but rather, in reflecting on how the existence of these products generates an understanding of gender and identity in the twenty first century, and how these products both individually and as a collective whole shape and form an understanding of contemporary feminism both as a lifestyle and as a political movement.
Gill also provides what has proven to be an immensely useful framework for
contextualizing Capital B Bitch Culture, and specifically, Bitch Products:
a focus upon individualism, choice and empowerment; the dominance of a makeover paradigm; a resurgence in ideas of natural sexual difference; a marked sexualization of culture; and an emphasis upon consumerism and the commodification of difference. These themes coexist with, and are structured by, stark and continuing inequalities and exclusions that relate to “race” and ethnicity, class, age, sexuality and disability as well as gender.2 For my purposes, analyzing individual Bitch Products and what they tell us about the relationships between American women and feminism today, requires that particular attention be paid to several of Gill’s points regarding postfeminism: individualism, choice and empowerment; naturalized sexual difference; consumerism and the commodification of difference; and a heavy emphasis on self-surveillance/self-discipline.
Later on in this same article, Gill touches on what will prove to be an absolutely essential concept for fully understanding Capital B Bitch Culture: the notion of irony and
knowingness as it fits into the postfeminist discourse. She writes:
No discussion of the postfeminist sensibility in the media would be complete without considering irony and knowingness...[I]n postfeminist media culture irony has become a way of ‘having it both ways,’ of expressing sexist, homophobic or otherwise unpalatable sentiments in an ironized form, while claiming this was not actually ‘meant.’3 By placing an appropriate amount of distance between oneself and the statement being made, women today are allowed to be Capital B Bitches in an ironic and humorous manner. But does this attached irony really allow us to subvert the socially engrained derogatory definition of the term “bitch?” Moving forward with this understanding of a postfeminist context, it is also crucial to understand the various ways in which contemporary pop culture can be used as a tool for a critical analysis of Bitch Culture. Rather than dismiss the realm of popular
culture as a site of complete oppression and repression that brings nothing worthy of deeper analysis to the table, it is important to view it instead as a site of identity crafting and negotiation: a space that is both reflective and constructive of American society. Full of contradictions and ambiguity, much like the notion of postfeminism itself, pop culture both pedagogically and pervasively informs us of both the “proper” and “improper” ways to conduct ourselves as young American women today.
Stating the obvious: no one exists in society today without interacting with pop culture in some way, shape, or form. Be it hearing an ad on the radio, watching a television show, or merely hearing people talk about it, pop culture is insidious and unavoidable in contemporary American society. A study of the way these messages, through mass media, are transmitted, and then individually interpreted, is essential in understanding how different identities are crafted and negotiated. In his theory of encoding/decoding, British sociologist Stuart Hall highlighted the wide variety of ways in which individual people can interpret a mass media, commercially produced message, as
described here by Daniel Chandler:
Hall proposed a model of mass communication which highlighted the importance of active interpretation within relevant codes...Hall rejected textual determinism, noting that ‘decodings do not follow inevitably from encodings’ (Hall 1980, 136).
In contrast to earlier models, Hall thus gave a significant role to the ‘decoder’ as well as to the ‘encoder.’4 Hall more eloquently states what I personally feel, and a large motivation for this Bitch Thesis: the assumption that all women (or any part of the world’s population, really) passively consume the original messages encoded in mass-produced products without decoding the potential problems within those messages. This assumption is insulting, and
does not allow for adequate space to learn from pop culture. In Bitch Culture, the ‘encoder’ is those producing the products, and the decoder is each woman exposed to those products. Naturally then, as Hall proposes, it makes sense for each individual woman to have a unique reaction to and interpretation of the products, resulting in the negotiation or renegotiation of her personal identity.
Understanding this process, and the commercialized context in which it occurs, then, is crucial to understanding young women in America today. Stephanie Genz and Benjamin A. Brabon take this understanding of encoding/decoding and apply it more
precisely to the interaction of pop culture and feminism: