LOS ANGELES — No one could imagine seeing the N-word in the title of a network TV show, but the B-word is OK with ABC.
The network uses the letter B as an abbreviation for "bitch" in the title of its new sitcom "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23," which premieres Wednesday. ABC also insists the B in the new prime-time soap "GCB" — based on the book "Good Christian Bitches" — actually stands for "belles." Both shows are about women and aimed at female audiences.
Both may have started out with the complete B-word in their titles, but the network abbreviated it before introducing the shows to advertisers.
Paul Lee, president of the ABC Entertainment Group, said in January that "on broadcast television, as it turns out, that isn't a word you want to use in the title."
Broadcast standards allow the word on TV, and its use has tripled in the last decade, but these are the first American shows to tease with B's in their titles.
Is it just coincidence? A hip reclaiming of the word? A blatant attention grab? Or could it reflect something more telling, given the current climate of political rhetoric challenging reproductive rights: a linguistic representation of backsliding efforts toward gender equality?
No ABC executives were available to answer these questions, but experts in media, language and women's issues say yes to almost all of the above.
"Obviously, they're using it to be polarizing and controversial and attention-getting. Why else would you use that word?" asks Erin M. Fuller, president of the Alliance for Women in Media. "I don't think we're in a time where that word is a celebration of women."
Especially when politically, "birth control has been reopened as an issue for the first time in decades," said Erin Matson, action vice president for the National Organization for Women. "There's a frightening commonality between what you see on TV, in entertainment, and in Congress, where the war on women is being led: The conversation is being driven almost exclusively by men."
"GCB" is based on a novel by Kim Gatlin, who serves as the lone female writer on the show. Starring Kristen Chenoweth and Leslie Bibb, "GCB" satirizes female stereotypes and the hypocrisy of devout, grown-up mean girls in a wealthy Dallas church-going community.
In one episode, Chenoweth's character declares, "Cleavage makes your cross hang straight."
"Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23" stars Krysten Ritter as an unpredictable New York live-wire who bullies her naive Midwestern roommate. Created by Nahnatchka Khan, one of three women credited on the writing team of six, the show seems to take stereotypes to heart (at least in the first two episodes): A woman who seems sweet and helpful at first glance is really an untrustworthy snake who's friendly with men and cruel to women, stealing her roommate's money in one episode and sleeping with her fiance in the next.
"It's very clear that she's actually a sociopath," says Andi Zeisler, co-founder and editorial director of Bitch Magazine. "It's not like here's a strong, confident woman and she's head bitch in charge. She's actually a sociopath and she treats people horribly."
The B-word was rarely heard on TV when Bitch Magazine began in 1996. Founders of the feminist pop-culture magazine "were reacting to the idea of bitch as this go-to gendered insult in a world of very feasible and accessible gender-neutral ways of saying you don't like what someone is doing," Zeisler said.
ABC is using the term the old-fashioned way.
"Their intention was never to really reclaim the word," she said. "Television shows ultimately want to be apolitical. They don't want to engage with the kinds of rhetoric that in real life translates into incredibly ugly reminders that these judgments are still really powerful and really commonplace."
Because the insult is abbreviated, it "kind of defangs what's supposed to be edgy" about the shows, she said, and the B-titles end up looking like a "blatant grab at relevance."
Branding expert Dorie Clark agrees. The B's aren't meant to be sexist or denigrating, she said, but to get people talking and, ultimately, to get ratings. Producers and executives protect themselves by not spelling out the B-word: "They're trying to be provocative to push the envelope and still manage to make it acceptable when it comes time to be listed in TV Guide."
ABC is the rare network headed by a woman: Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, has been named the most powerful woman in entertainment by the Hollywood Reporter the past two years. Such female leadership "actually gives the shows more cover," Clark said.
"If a male executive was green-lighting a show with the word bitch in the title, he may well be criticized and may be called a sexist, where if a woman is doing that, she's more immune to these criticisms," she said. "To rise to the level of the top of the network, your No. 1 responsibility is to get good ratings."
Michael Taylor, chair of Film and Television Production at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, agrees the B's are all about buzz.
"The reason the network is using the word in the title of the show is for its shock value," he said. "It creates talk about it, and that's exactly what the network wants."
Besides, the word isn't offensive to everyone. Madonna used it as a term of endearment in a recent interview. And referencing it so openly could actually "take the charge out of the word," Taylor said, so it no longer seems controversial or derogatory.
"GCB" and "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23" aren't the first to use the B-word in a cheeky way. The diet book "Skinny Bitch" was a No. 1 New York Times best-seller in 2007, and feminist writer Joreen published "The BITCH Manifesto" back in 1970 in an effort to redefine and claim the word, which she said "serves the social function of isolating and discrediting a class of people."
It still serves that function, says Jennifer Siebel Newsom, founder of MissRepresentation.org, which encourages women and girls to challenge limiting media labels.
"People are raised mimicking media — TV is the other parent — and kids are growing up without common decency and respect for each other," she said. "They're fed that women are second-class citizens; women are bitches and they're not to be trusted."
Response to the B-word in TV titles has certainly been heightened by national discussions about birth control and women's issues, experts said, even though the shows were in production long before Rush Limbaugh's recent misogynistic gaffe.1 comment on this story
"When we have national news commentators freely being able to call women sluts, prostitutes and things like that over the last few months, that probably makes women and women's groups close ranks a little bit," said Fuller, of the Alliance of Women in Media. "Maybe we're not ready to let this language fly out of our control."
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APSandy.
"Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23": http://beta.abc.go.com/shows/dont-trust-the-b-in-apt-23
Alliance for Women in Media: http://www.allwomeninmedia.org/
Bitch Magazine: http://bitchmagazine.org/