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benedict cumberbatch would like his fans to stop calling themselves bitches

Image: Sam Hughes via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Sam Hughes via Wikimedia Commons

We can now add ‘Cumberbitches’ to the list of fan groups in existence – a list that includes ‘Twihards’ and ‘Beliebers’. But it seems the group, dedicated to English movie star Benedict Cumberbatch, may be contemplating a name change.

In an interview for the August issue of InStyle UK, Cumberbatch acknowledged the devotees (a social media creation) but expressed concern with the name, saying: ‘It’s flattering, though I worry about what this says for feminism, it’s quite a pejorative term… “Cumberbabes” might be better.’

Some among the Cumberbitches thought the alternative was better, others wanted to stick with their name and some were just happy to be acknowledged by their celebrity crush of the moment.

I was late to the Cumberbatch craze, occupied as I am with my crushes on Ryan Gosling, Donald Glover, and Amos Lee. I don’t know Cumberbatch’s political feminist beliefs, or his level of engagement in gender issues. Like any so-called ‘regular person’, the War Horse actor is the sum total of everything he says in interviews, and his abilities on screen.

I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Cumberbatch’s concern, and any man who provokes honest conversation about how society treats women deserves kudos. But his comment and the subsequent debate say more about feminism than he may have realised.

Anytime I, or any other woman I know, has been called a bitch, it’s not been for any behaviour I thought I should be ashamed of. Comedian Margaret Cho, in the foreword for the Bitchfest, has her own definition: “To me, a bitch is assertive, unapologetic, demanding, intimidating, intelligent, fiercely protective, in control – all positive attributes.”

That’s not to say that because Cho and some fans on the Internet are embracing it, every woman should. Earlier this year, Christina Aguilera slammed contestant Tony Lucca on the season finale of The Voice for his cover of ‘99 Problems’, disapproving of the song choice because it repeatedly uses the word, calling it ‘derogatory towards women’.

A dissection of ‘99 Problems’ would be futile and unproductive here, but is there not a difference between its use in that song (to describe a ‘problem’) and the way it is used by Cumber-fans? Similarly, don’t most women understand the difference between a stranger on the street calling you a bitch for letting their harassment go unacknowledged and someone like Tina Fey declaring bitch the new black?

Cumberbatch’s feelings about it – that it is a ‘pejorative term’ – is fair, but really, what else could he have said? Had the actor expressed his joy that women were calling themselves bitches in his honour likely wouldn’t have gone over well. Women bristle when men use the word because it hasn’t traditionally been used to hurt them. It has been used by them to deride women who posses the very qualities that make it possible to survive in a patriarchal society. This is probably why whenever another woman has used the term against me, it has always hurt more than when a man has.

When it comes down to it, when someone, man or woman, is calling you a bitch, it usually says much more about him or her than it does about you.

But is ‘Cumberbabes’ really better? The suggestion seems unintentionally anti-feminist. Here is the lusted after movie star, taking away this group’s right to self-identify in any way they see fit. Cumberbatch proposed a term that evokes, in this writer’s mind at least, memories of sexual harassment, adolescent insecurity, and extreme body-image anxiety.

A ‘babe’ is someone who fits a specific ideal of beauty. ‘Babe’ equates to ‘physically attractive’ as someone else sees you. It strips someone of the core elements that make them who they are – their thoughts, their experiences, and their beliefs – and reduces them to their appearance. If we’re going to argue etymology, ‘babe’ is infantile, helpless, and dependent.

A ‘bitch’ is active; she is doing something and usually with an attitude – maybe that’s problematic to Cumberbatch but it sounds pretty good to me.

That’s the problem with words: they can be used by anyone, at anytime to mean anything. And when one definition catches on, it sometimes crushes the others into lexical obscurity. Once harmless words have become slurs, and plenty of slurs are now being adopted by their original targets. Therein lies another important concept to reclamation, whether of gender, race, or sexual orientation: you cannot reclaim something that was never yours.

What ‘Cumberbitches’ says about feminism is that women are defining themselves in a world that has historically defined them, and having serious discussion about what those definitions mean.

In that case, I’d much rather be a bitch than a babe.

22 thoughts on “benedict cumberbatch would like his fans to stop calling themselves bitches

  1. Smart article! – thanks, I enjoyed reading it. I always admire the “bitches” I know and secretly wish to be more gutsy, like them, and live their moxie. Too true about “babes” – we can do better, indeed.

  2. Frankly, I think your distinction between “bitch” versus “babe” is a smidgen inane. Just as you can turn “bitch” into something positive and empowering, so too can you transform “babe”. Who on earth decided that “babe” fits one specific definition of beauty? I disagree.

    It’s true that “babe” started off as a sexist term, with men throwing it out at women they wanted to have sex with and rarely took seriously. It’s certainly inappropriate to call a woman “babe” in any work environment, but then nobody should be using the term “bitch” in such an environment, either.

    Rather, I view “babe” to be a word we should embrace just as we should embrace the term “bitch”. Being a babe simply means that SOMEONE finds you attractive; considering the fact all people should consider themselves beautiful in their own right, I see absolutely no harm in an actor referring to his fans as “babes”. His fans should embrace it. I see this more as an acknowledgment that his fans are beautiful.

    Frankly, I think that as long as women are going to cut each other down and turn every thing into some form of derogatory put-down and/or sexism, we’re going to have a very hard time advancing indeed.

    • I just wish his fans had a name that didn’t have swearing in it. Like what about the female fans that don’t cuss?

  3. They just called themselves ******bitches, as the guy is called ******batch.
    Had he been called Cumberbay – we might have had the Cumberbabes. So much for deliberately defining identity…Let’s not overdo the interpretation.

  4. Lol, yeah right. Babe? Get real. I’m not even close to being an acutal babe, let alone calling myself a “Cumberbabe.” “Cumberbitch” is more fitting to his name, anyway. I like it, it may not sound classy, but we aren’t trying for that. We’re toying with his name. Wonder what Martin Freeman’s fans call themselves?

    • Yeah I agree, and being a cumberbitch myself, I love the name it makes me feel unique! As where babe doesn’t define who we really are at all!

  5. Awesome article! I think meanings have changed and Benedict is probably still stuck with the old definition. He probably doesn’t realize that “bitch” has become the new “I’m assertive and cool” label.

    That said, it depends who uses it. Because, yes, a guy singing a song with lyrics and boasting “I have 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one” is definitely not out to empower women. If anything, it’s a male-bonding song where guys get to feel free of their (cheating? nagging?) women.

    “Babe” to me brings up images of a blonde Pamela Anderson type running down a beach, but I think Benedict did not mean it that way. I think he really just meant it in the best possible way.

    I think he was saying that he thinks of us, all his fans, as babes not bitches. He’s probably thinking, “If I were a woman, I’d want to be thought of as a babe.” And honestly, can we really be upset that he’s calling us babes? I would be turned off if he started calling us his bitches. I mean… ew.

  6. I doubt that Benedict thinks that “Cumberbitches” has a negative and sexist connotation because it’s often used as an insult towards women (though that comes into it as well), but more because “Cumberbitch” sounds related to the term, “You’re his bitch”. That term, where bitch is referring to the submissive sexual partner, is sexist. And while I agree that there are women who find, ‘bitch’ to have a more positive implication nowadays, not everyone does.

  7. I think it’s going very far to complain that by suggesting not to use a derogatory term to define themselves that Cumberbatch is “taking away this group’s right to self-identify in any way they see fit”
    I think that bitch is a derogatory term, and if individual women decide that they want to reclaim it, I have no problem with that. When women reclaim the word, they use it to mean somebody assertive and in control of their own fate, body etc. I think that the term Cumberbitches is the other meaning of the word Bitch, meaning that we’re beneath him, we’re His Bitches, we’ll do whatever he says without complaining and act as useless feminine accessories. So I think that I new term would be really beneficial to the “cumberbitches”, clever as it is.
    I don’t like Cumberbabes. I agree that it’s over sexualised and passive. I’m not going to say Benedict himself meant it to come off that way- if somebody who is so plainly concerned with feminism would suggest the term, he probably uses it differently. It’s hard to get into the meanings of words because they differ widely between areas and countries and people and for example, people who hate the word bitch might find the word babe empowering and vice versa.

    I liked the “Cumbercollective”, not only because it rolls off the tongue but it also doesn’t objectify any of the members or exclude any male fans of Benedict, who would probably feel doubly uncomfortable with “cumberbitches” or “cumberbabes” (because like, even if they would be seen as sort of derogatory terms, they are very associated with women.)

  8. There is so many possibilities to his name there’s Cumberbunny, Cumbercollective and many others the point is that we want to celebrate the awesomeness that is Benedict Cumberbatch and the feelings he induces in us with his superb acting.

  9. I think we should all call ourselves Cumbercookies. because there are a lot of us and when you put all the cookies together what do they make??? a cumberbatch!! batch cookies? well that’s my input

  10. I never called myself Cumberb**ch. I think,that name was a stupid idea. I always hate it. Anything better than this… If somebody LOVE somebody , do not create a unkind name! Our favourite person should keep respected to us. I never understood,that why call themselves ‘bitch ‘ the normal women? Nonsens. ‘Cause this ‘ name ‘ not just disrespect for Benedict,but disrespect for ourself, I think… Not hard ‘ play ‘ with his name, is fact, but we create a lot kinder name for him, if so necessary this. Indeed! Mr. Cumberbatch give to us a community name: CumberCollective. Remember? Why we not use this? I create a nickname for myself , you see: ‘ lassie ‘ also better like the ‘ bitch’ . Don’t embarrased to Ben.

  11. Benedict’s right. I get that whoever came up with the term ‘Cumberbitches’ thought it was a clever ‘Cumberbatch’ alternative for his fans, but you can’t argue with him about what it actually means, despite the fact that some women have tried to change the meaning slightly. It’s touching that he’s seriously thought about this and that he cares about how we see each other and how people will see us (his fans) while we go round calling ourselves his ‘CumberBITCHES’. He comes across as a lovely guy and I’m sure he is as wonderful off-screen as he is on-screen. So let me ask all the Benedict Cumberbatch fans out there: if Benedict came up to you and asked you to change your fan name to ‘CumberBABES’ because he was concerned about how the meaning of the name would be put across, who would honestly stand there and deny him the right to be concerned, and more importantly, who in their right mind would argue with him just for the sakes of a name that could most likely come across as denying feminism, even if women did come up with it themselves…? I’m sure we all have a whole lot more respect for him than that. So there is no point in going off on a huge rant about “we have the right to pick our own fan name”. Yes we do, but ‘Cumberbitches’ isn’t really the best name you could have come up with.

    • When fans/fandoms come up with their “names” it not just a spur of the moment, “oh that fits, let’s call yourselves cumberbitches!” NO we take I long time to come up with our “names” and discuss it with out her member of the fandom through social media and if people don’t agree with the name we come up with others so we must of though the to be fitting. And FYI I am proud to be a CUMBERBITCH and I embrace that!!! Also is any of you are worried about the fans that don’t swear, WE ALLLLLL SWEAR… BITCH

  12. Pingback: Bennedict Cumberbatch and the fan names | lucypearmain

  13. I like ‘CumberBunch’. It has a nice flow, and is neither sexist nor insulting, PLUS it doesn’t assume the fans are female. How many gay guys LOVE Ben? Answer: PLENTY!

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