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The bitch is back? UK film festival sparks debate over use of term

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 5 May 2019 11:17 GMT

91st Academy Awards - Oscars Photo Room - Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 24, 2019. Olivia Colman poses backstage with her Best Actress award for her role in "The Favourite." REUTERS/Mike Segar

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From Cersei Lannister in "Game of Thrones" to Queen Anne in "The Favourite", a slew of nasty women are winning kudos in popular film and television

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, May 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A British film festival on 'Playing the Bitch' has sparked a fierce debate over when the use of the word is acceptable and if the nasty women trope can be reclaimed.

From Cersei Lannister in "Game of Thrones" to Olivia Colman's Oscar-winning performance as a scheming Queen Anne in "The Favourite", a slew of nasty women are winning kudos in popular film and television.

Their rise in popular culture could be fuelled by #MeToo campaigns and a backlash against right-wing populism that often seemed to have contempt for women, said Mary Harrod, an associate professor at the University of Warwick.

"There have been 'bitches' in cinema for a long time," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"What's interesting now ... is there has been a shift that's much more about female authorship and women creating angry, nasty characters but they are shown to be made that way by the inequalities of our society and that's quite striking."

Women are still under-represented on screen. Only about a third of speaking characters in top-grossing films of 2018 and less than half of leading U.S. television shows were female, according to research by San Diego State University.

In a male-dominated industry women can face stereotyped roles, such as the femme fatale, scheming social climber or untrustworthy double-crosser.

However, an upcoming season looking at "bitches" on the silver screen by the British Film Institute (BFI) has sparked a backlash from some feminist critics.

It "presumably aims to reclaim language that has been consistently used to insult, diminish and undermine women", said a letter signed by 300 academics and supporters which was sent to the BFI in December but only came to light this week.

They argued plans for the series, dominated by films by male directors, "parrots rather than questions the misogynist logics that inform so much Hollywood cinema".

The criticism has been rejected by the BFI, with creative director Heather Stewart saying their focus is on what the trope says about the images of women in popular culture.

"It's about representation – not real life," she said.

"Some people are saying you should not be saying the word bitch but I don't know what other word describes this (trope)."


The word bitch still has the power to hurt and shock. Rights campaigners said it was often used to demean women and girls.

The term "bitch" appeared in more than a quarter of the street harassment incidents reported to the Catcalls of London social media campaign.

"I do see it all the time and it's always used in a derogatory way. Men do absolutely use it to cause hurt," said Farah Benis, who runs the campaign.

Charity Plan International UK, which carried out research in 2018 finding 38 percent of British girls experience street harassment at least once a month, also found the word bitch was "widely used" in such abuse.

A slowly growing number of women are reclaiming the term, said Eleanor Maier, an editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.

She said offensive uses exist alongside "a more neutral and positive use to refer to any women or girl, or as a form of address" and it is now "quite common" to be used as a greeting.

Benis agreed, saying it was definitely "used in both ways".

"I know loads of women who use it and I use it with my friends - I think it's a way to take away the derogatory use of it and reclaim it," she said.

Meanwhile, Stewart argued audience reactions to on-screen bitches are often more nuanced than simply viewing them as baddies.

Young women in particular seem to be warming to tough women such as Meryl Streep's terrifying fashion editor in the "Devil Wears Prada", she argued, as they look to characters who take control in their own lives instead of demure heroines of old.

"There were lots of young women on Twitter talking about how they couldn't stand the Anne Hathaway character - the 'good' character, the protagonist - who was prepared to give up seeking power in the world of publishing to go off with her drippy boyfriend," she said.

"They liked the Meryl Streep character who was in charge." (Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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