The first time I got called a bitch and it really hurt, it was on a message board.
“Who is this bitch?” some guy with a Sondheim-centric username wrote. “She acts like she knows what the hell she’s talking about. Uppity bitch. I can already tell that I want to punch her in the face.”
I was interning at Broadway.com that year as a theater critic. I’d Googled my name to find an article and stumbled upon the exchange on a theater gossip site. As I scrolled down, this same guy blasted me over and over for no particular reason. After all, I hadn’t even posted my first video blog yet. All that was up on the website was my picture, my name, my bio, and my age.
At the time I thought this was an isolated incident. Some people are jerks on the internet; actually, a lot of people are jerks on the internet. Anonymity breeds contempt. Maybe it was just me – maybe I came across wrong. Something about the way I stood in the picture, or how I filled out my bio.
But the difference between now and then is that I realize that the problem wasn't me or even this one jerk on a message board. The internship repeats each year. Every year, they accept a boy and a girl and every single year, someone has posted on this same website that the current Word of Mouth girl is obnoxious, uppity, and a bitch.
In the four years since I’ve left Broadway.com, no one has ever criticized the boy.
I don’t know when I realized that ambition was a dirty word, but I do know that when I was in eighth grade my teacher told my class that Obama was a better choice for the Democratic candidate because Hillary Clinton was too argumentative for a woman. I remember the SNL skit that followed, with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler proclaiming to the camera “Bitch is the new black!”
From the time we were very young, we’ve been told that there are very clear lines as to how we can and cannot act as women. Cross these lines? You’re too masculine. Or you’re a bitch.
And look – these fears aren’t unfounded. You could be a Hillary Clinton: powerful and strong, but constantly being slapped on the wrist for not “playing nice.” You could be Beyoncé who got called out for “outshining” her past Destiny’s Child bandmates at the Super Bowl. Or you could be any woman who ever been a victim of gossip at the lunch table or the water cooler because she traded in the female “virtues” of self-deprecation and silence for acknowledging her own accomplishments and goals. It’s not too hard to find examples of women relegated to the bitch column. Just turn on any reality show, I’m sure you’ll find a dozen examples in one episode. Go back to your own life, there was probably that girl who looked at you funnily when you said you wanted to run for senior class president. There was probably that one guy who called you “boss lady” and you never knew if he was laughing at you or with you.
It’s frustrating because from a young age we’re told that we can do all the same things as boys. There are tons and tons of education initiatives and non-profits dedicated to promoting young women’s success. There are programs for little girls in science and math and the arts. But then as you get older you realize that the same things that were once encouraged are now big no-no’s. You’re told to be ambitious and to dream big and then you’re called a bitch for doing it.
To aspire is not a bad thing. I don’t think it’s bad to want things and I don’t think that it’s bad to ask for them. I don’t think it’s bad to want to work hard for them. And I don’t think that just because of my gender I should be asked to surrender what I want. I believe in humility, kindness, and cooperation, but I also believe in ambition, hard work, and aspirations. I believe that these things can coexist, and I believe that a woman can be both compassionate and successful, both feminine and powerful. Ballers? Yes. Badasses? Sure. Bitches? No.
Helen has contributed to sites such as Broadway.com and Her Campus and is currently pursuing a degree in Writing, Literature & Publishing at Emerson College. She enjoys long walks on the beach, eating her feelings, and pretending that she's Beyoncé's best friend.