Editors' Letter: Orange
we’ve taken a lot of shit from people who don’t like our name: readers who wonder why we’ve chosen an epithet to grace our covers, friends and family who took a year or two to be able to say it out loud (although they’re all incredibly supportive now, thank you very much), well-meaning folks who suggest that a simple name change might allow us to rake in the clams, people we meet at cocktail parties who clearly think we’re freaks.
But we didn’t think it would cause problems getting a basic business necessity. Let’s back up a bit. We first knew something was up when more than a few people told us they thought the magazine had folded because they couldn’t get our phone number from information. Ever since we moved into our swanky (ha!) new offices, we’ve been paying through the nose for commercial phone service—which is absolutely no different from residential service, except that it costs significantly more and the people who work the customer service lines seem to be even denser and more surly. The one—count it—one perk of commercial service is to have the name of the magazine in the phone book and information so that potential subscribers, writers, and advertisers can call us up. So you can imagine our chagrin when people told us that we weren’t listed. Then we got a call from the Pacific Bell directory asking what we wanted for our White Pages listing. At last, we thought, they’re finally getting around to putting us in. Well, no. You see, when we called the nice lady back and told her to list us under “Bitch,” we were told that Pac Bell would not print obscenity in its directory, nor permit it in the 411 listings.
We’ll spare you a complete account of the runaround we’ve gotten trying to solve the problem, the countless hours wasted wending our way through the voicemail system of the business service business office (not to be confused, of course, with the residential service business office). But one incident begs recounting: There was more than a note of righteousness in the manager’s voice as she explained that our listing would “offend” people; no, we couldn’t have asterisks between the B and the ch, and no, we couldn’t have hyphens. Ever more frustrated, we asked the manager if she didn’t think, since we were paying their exorbitant business fees, that they could manage a listing for us. She thought for a moment, then offered this brilliant solution: “Why don’t you get—[pause for thought]—you know, one of those books—a thororsus [sic!]—then you could find a word that sounds like your word, and means the same thing, and that could be your listing.”
Now, we’re happy to address the question of why we chose the name we did: Some people may consider it an insult, but to us a bitch is an opinionated woman who refuses to back down, a woman who speaks her mind without worrying what others will think of her. And we’re thrilled to talk about why we feel it’s important not to shrink from a word just because some people consider it an insult: Every time someone is insulted by the word bitch, we are kept further and further away from a time when outspokenness will be accepted, even welcomed, among women. But Pac Bell didn’t want to discuss any of these things. They just wanted to label us obscene and be done with it.
But obscenity is not so simple—this might be a good time to point out that not even the Supreme Court has come up with a definition that’s clear and easily applicable. The whole phone-listing thing may seem like a petty issue, but it reflects a larger societal anxiety about the social uses of language. Not too long ago, Glamour magazine ran a little piece entitled “Is bitch a compliment?,” which basically said that, while the word is used fairly commonly, and often in ways that suggest positive connotations, it will always be an insult until all its negative associations are somehow wiped from the linguistic slate. Um, hi—isn’t the point that continued positive usage would do just that? But Glamour is content, like Pac Bell, to label it offensive, obscene, or a lost cause and move on.
The power of language—particularly of naming—is deceptively simple. Pejorative baggage doesn’t simply fall away from words when we want it to; if it did, we’d be a much more comfortable, less complicated society. By stealing that baggage away bit by bit, though, we can transform insults into badges of honor. But as any thief knows, in order to steal, you can’t be afraid to get close: By shying away from words while hoping they’ll lose their sting, or refusing to utter them, no matter what the context, the Glamours and Pac Bells of the world are simply preserving the attitudes that we are trying to surmount. —the Editors
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