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The Bitch Is Back

So. There was Your Humble Blogger, reading the OBO of the ODI, as you do, and there was this sentence typed by the redoubtable Rob Smyth: England have 99 problems in one-day cricket, but I don’t think [Alastair] Cook’s batting is one.

Gentle Readers may remember that YHB dislikes the word bitch, considering it more akin to a slur than to simple profanity. The repeated use of bitch and whore (pronounced ho, of course) in the original Ice-T song (by the way, many of those lyrics are clearly wrong at the moment—he likes to fuck them all and leave them at the curve? I think not) turns it from a moderately clever brag in line with a history of similar hokum songs about sexual prowess into a bit of vicious misogyny. I suppose it could be argued; there’s nothing about violence in the song, for instance. The character does claim to love the ladies, and furthermore claims that the ladies love him. It’s implied that he satisfies his conquests sexually—it’s difficult for me to tell, from tone, whether it’s the kind of double-joke that Woody Allen used to do in his stand-up, where his sexual bragging was funny because of the underlying joke of his actually being sexually unsuccessful. I would guess that Ice-T is more straightforwardly bragging, and making a (humorous) claim to lothariosity. That’s fairly important, I think, because the claims of misogynist objectification are born out more clearly if the brag is straight-up. Either way, the terms of it sound horrible to me, and sounded horrible to me at the time, when I was young enough and went out enough that I’m pretty sure I heard the song in someone’s house or car.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I have never heard the Jay-Z song that uses the same chorus, with its insistence that a bitch ain’t one of the titular problems. It’s a much more serious song than Ice-T’s, judging from the lyrics. Despite the title and chorus, the Ice-T song is not about his problems; the speaker is glorifying his own (fictional) life, and whatever the ninety-nine problems are, they are less important than the one, the thing that ain’t a problem, his sex life. The Jay-Z song is (from the lyrics, anyway) about his actual problems—his legal problems, his critics, his maladjustment to sudden wealth, his untrustworthy hangers-on. It’s also taking himself as the Black Man in America, with both the general problems of race and the specific intersection of race and celebrity. He feels, justifiably, that there are people out to drag him down and drag down his image; when he gets into the criminal justice system, he does not expect fair treatment. His brag, such as it is, concerns his ability to insist on his minimal civil rights to avoid an unreasonable search.

Is it a misogynist song? Well, y’all will have to come to your own conclusions. I’m inclined to say that yes, it stinks of the whiff of misogyny, mostly because of the language. But it would be possible, I suppose, to argue that it is subverting the original Gangsta idea where one’s credit comes from sexually degrading nameless women—where Ice-T dismisses his ninety-nine problems to talk about the one, Jay-Z is dismissing the theoretical problem he might have with a woman (or with women generally) to talk about the more important societal issues. Or you could argue that its dismissal of women is contemptuous. Or whatever. On the whole, if the lyrics contain the words whore, pussy and bitch, you have to do some serious arguing to convince me it’s not bad for women, but there it is.

I do think that the adoption into the popular culture of the chorus is bad for women, and is a symptom of the deeper problems we have with sexual equality. And it certainly is a meme, as you can see on know-your-meme. It seems to have hit that cultural chord at the right moment. And, of course, our political blogosphere is hip-deep in the zeitgeist. Mitt Romney? Check. Newt Gingrich? Check. Herman Cain? Check. Rick Santorum? Check. Stephen Colbert? Checkerooski (in a pdf, yet). And just trust me on Our Only President, OK?

Now, as we see, the trick of it is to say that [x] has ninety-nine problems but [y] ain’t one, so that the phrase makes it into use without the slur. If it is a slur, of course, which I take it as being. Certainly, when the speaker uses the word bitch in the reference, it always comes off as misogynist to me, and is often deliberately, explicitly and nastily so. As a joke, of course, ha ha. Let’s leave those aside, though—while the prevalence of nasty anti-woman jokes are clearly bad for us all, the small subset of obviously misogynist 99-problems ones are, I think, lost in the miasma. No, what bothers me are the references like the one I started with. There’s nothing nasty in there, nothing vicious, no reason why someone would take offense. Particularly when the meme is so widespread that a person like YHB could perfectly plausibly have soaked it up from Left Blogovia without ever knowing that the original word was a bad one. Right?

Only… I’m still uncomfortable with it. There’s no question that the adoption of the meme amounts to a sort of endorsement of the song, unwittingly perhaps. If I were not just uncomfortable but truly offended, I would be offended all over again by every new reference to it (at least, those that didn’t explicitly reject the original), even if I knew that the moment’s speaker doesn’t intend the insult. Much communication of insult to women is done with a wink and a nudge and a seemingly innocuous reference; there’s too much of it to let ignorance be an excuse. If you think that misogyny is widespread and deep-seated, and if you are determined to be part of the proverbial and not part of the problem, then you owe it to your readers to find out about the meme, and to decide if it’s worthy of you.

Understand, I don’t mean to suggest that people shouldn’t listen to Jay-Z, or Ice-T for that matter. I listen to blues singers; I am accustomed to some violent misogyny in my music. I have thought for twenty years or more that the pearl-clutching about rap lyrics is overdone; the problem people seem to have with them is the crudeness, as there are plenty of genres (including opera, of course) that glorify sex, violence and drugs. The over-reaction to rap’s language is class-rooted, I think, as well as race-rooted. It’s not wrong because of that, but it is less persuasive to me.

Still, I’m not sure I can think of another situation where a substitution-phrase like this has become so popular amongst seemingly proper and mainstream writers, where one of the substituted words is a slur. Unless it’s not a slur, of course, but just a cuss. I hear it as a slur, but that’s not a discussion that’s finished yet by a long chalk.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Well, I have a dislike of that word probably as profound as yours (I've likened it to a racial slur). And, until this column, I had no idea that the "99 problems" phrase had anything to do with it. If I've ever used the phrase (which I doubt I have), it certainly didn't involve even unwitting acceptance of that word.
And now that I know? I'm inclined to go on using it. The phrase is catchy and has no implication of the word when it's used about any other subject, and the more it becomes a general phrase the *less* it will be seen as having any specific overtones of the original song.

By the way, I have no qualms about saying something like, "My bitchy neighbor proceeded to bitch about the weather for fifteen minutes." As a verb or an adjective it just means "complaining"; it's the noun form I refuse to use.

I also had no idea what "99 problems" referred to, before this post.

Your Humble Blogger feels compelled to point out that had YHB been on the bet-din referred to in the post Just How Mock is a Mock Wedding? by Mississippi Fred McDowell over at On the Main Line, it would have been difficult to refrain from including in the text of the get that Yitzhak Isaac "Ikey" ben Zvi Hirsch still had ninety-nine problems 1n 1823.

FWIW, Jay Z has explained that in this instance the "bitch" in question is not a woman but the drug-sniffing dog that the officer calls for in the central verse ("Well see how smart you are when the K-9's come"). Of course, you may object that he's obviously inviting the other interpretation (he would say that he's baiting people who complain about rap lyrics), or that that explanation doesn't hold for the other verses, or that most people who allude to the song don't know that.

I am embarrassed by not connecting the K9 story to the word in question; that's an excellent argument for the subversion side. On the other hand, even if you completely buy that, it just puts it in the category of the rest of the memestuff. The equivalent in lyrics of taking a picture of that K9 car and adding text at the top and bottom. If I have a problem with the Rob Smyth version of the meme, I have a problem with the Jay-Z version—and that's before (a) worrying about whether people listening on the radio are following the pun, and (2) the use of pussy and whore in the rest of the lyric.

Hm. And also, I suppose, there's the deeper cultural issue, where Jay-Z expresses his victory over the cops by calling the too-late dog a female. In a cultural setting where the most common way to express one male's superiority over another is to claim to un-man him by making him a bitch, I think Jay-Z calling the pot-sniffing dog (of unknown sex) his bitch is an expression of his, and the cultural, misogyny. Which is, again, my problem with the whole 99 problems meme.


I meant to say, back when you posted this, that I really like and agree with this entry. I have the same concerns, and the same reaction to this use of “bitch.” (Even though I know that some women self-identify as bitches, often as a sort of reclamation of the word.)

I think a lot of the lyrics to the Jay-Z song are smart and interesting and nuanced and nicely political; I had only encountered the chorus before your post, so thanks for the link and the discussion. But I don't buy the "I meant the dog" explanation; it's a clever pun in that one instance, but as you note, Kendra, that explanation doesn't apply at all to the other verses (such as the line “bein' a bitch ain't one”), and in all the other instances he explicitly refers to “girl problems.” In other words, that one line in the middle is a pun that relies on the fact that all the other instances in the song are not referring to the dog.

Anyway, thanks to all for the discussion!

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