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Critic's Notebook: Network TV embraces the B-word

Since a court decision loosened restrictions, the expletive has been showing up everywhere — often to great comedic effect. But is there a larger trend at play?

May 02, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) on “30 Rock” is among the network TV characters who have used the B-word.
Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) on “30 Rock” is among the network TV characters… (NBC )

Last year, when the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals curtailed the Federal Communications Commission's powers to punish networks for "fleeting expletives," many worried that network television would become a battlefield of exploding F-bombs and barely bleeped C-words. Turns out, all the decision, currently under review by the Supreme Court, did was unleash the "bitches."

Sure, there have been a few more "damns" and "hells" and S-words, some F-bleeps and a lot of playful word compounds beginning with "ass." But the previously daring expletive that has been served most frequently, and with the most relish, is the B-word. Those "bitches" are everywhere.

They're being dropped by the old — Betty White on TV Land's "Hot in Cleveland" — and the very young — Jane Levy's Tessa on ABC's "Suburgatory" — and in scripted and non-scripted shows alike. A recent episode ofBravo's new reality show "Shahs of Sunset" was titled "It's My Birthday, Bitches." Two of ABC's midseason comedies brazenly revolve around the word — "Don't Trust the B— In Apartment 23" and "GCB," which was originally titled "Good Christian Bitches." (Well, maybe not so brazenly. The network eventually decided the actual word was too incendiary for a broadcast audience.)

But it's a term that remains problematic no matter how many times "30 Rock's" Liz Lemon says it. Not that it isn't a fun word to say, the soft comforting "b" followed by the pinched little "i" and then that deliciously dismissive welter of "tch," which is as close to spitting as you can get while still actually speaking.

It's no wonder that many now want to extend the linguistic pleasure by sneaking an "a" after the "i" and turning it into two even more expressive syllables. Indeed, tweens of my acquaintance seem to think that if you round out the vowels, pronouncing it "bee-yotch," you can slide under parental censorship into the PG land of "freaking" and "shiitake mushrooms." (For the record: No.)

She's a hard-working multi-tasker, Miss B., happy to switch from noun to verb, pejorative to endearment, even female to male (the possessive prison slang has become increasingly popular, as has the tendency toward the plural) with the flip of an inflection. So it's not surprising that the B-word is tossed about with the most abandon in comedies, often — though not exclusively — those written by women; "Suburgatory," "30 Rock" and CBS' "2 Broke Girls"are big fans.

This is not without historical precedent. Feminists have long seen the empowerment potential of the word, attempting, over the years, to reclaim it as a term born of male fear. "The Bitch Manifesto" called on "uppity women" everywhere to stop sublimating their feminine strength.

Subsequent books with titles including "Getting in Touch With Your Inner Bitch," "Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women," "The Bitch in the House" had a similar message: The characteristics the word turned ugly were just manifestations of women fighting to control their lives and be heard. "There are no bitches," read one platitude of the women's movement, "only sisters in difficult situations."

It would be wonderful — weird and highly ironic, too — if the increased use of the B-word on network TV was proof that women were finally becoming a real voice in the industry. Alas, the numbers do not bear that out. The vast majority of writers, directors and television executives — in other words, those writing and approving the use of the word — are still men.

Yet there is no denying that this has been a gynocentric year in television, especially in comedy. As everyone scrambled to echo the critical success of Tina Fey and the hit status of last summer's "Bridesmaids," viewers were introduced to a lot of very tough-talking and openly sexual young gals who seem happy to be considered queen Bs.

Which should, in itself, give us pause. What does it mean that as female characters finally proliferate, the word "bitch" is suddenly everyone's go-to joke? Even the adorkable "New Girl" uses it, in both its mono- and polysyllabic forms. There is, after all, no action without a reaction, and shifts in the female population on TV almost always bring with them some sort of backlash.

Back in the '80s and '90s, some feminists pointed out that as more women were seen on camera, whether as news anchors or performers, the ideal silhouette for these women became increasingly slender. The incredibly shrinking women of "Friends" and"Ally McBeal"were often held up as examples — yes, there were more women aggregately, but less of them individually.

Is the price of having more female characters on TV now that they must proudly admit to being bitches? The denizen of"Apartment 23"is a more riot grrrl version of the term, but those "Good Christian" gals are just garden-variety harridans.

Tellingly, on the drama side, the word retains more of its original sting. Maria Bello's detective on NBC's now-defunct"Prime Suspect" was on the receiving end, and though the word wound up tarring user more than recipient, it was still clearly meant as a vicious insult, for which there is no male counterpart.

Any individual righteously reclaiming a hateful term, be it "fat," "nerdy," "slut" or worse, commits an act of rebellion, and rebellion is power. We needn't fear the "bitch"; it's a great word, often funny, frequently apt, which is why it has become so popular. It's a high-caliber word and, as with any firearm, it should be used with, if not caution, then at least awareness.

And not just as another way to slap down those bitches at the FCC.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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