By Emily Reily
Though it’s more commonly known as an insult to offend and degrade, in Missy Elliott’s capable hands, “bitch” means something far more positive: a freedom of expression and a symbol of empowerment. Elliott, who’s wielded the term like a jackhammer in her raps and throughout her career, pries the contentious word open with a crowbar on the debut single off her 1999 sophomore record, Da Real World.
“She’s a Bitch” (which was originally the album’s title) is a sparse, menacing rap full of synthy violins and clean, percussive beats that fade in and out amid the Timbaland-produced record. The song, released April 20, 1999, further nudged the narrative of what women can do and be in music, giving them a voice at a time before the #MeToo movement blew down the door on equal rights and protections.
But Elliott didn’t just use the word simply because it’s controversial. The lyrics to “She’s a Bitch” match Missy’s embodiment as an untouchable, yet confident woman (“She’s a bitch / See I got more cheese / So back on up while I roll up my sleeves”). The song let us know Elliott’s work to stay on top is never done.
That single and Da Real World proved she was determined to stay on track and avoid the sophomore slump. In a 1999 interview with Michael Musto, Elliott explained what “She’s a Bitch” is about: “Music is a male-dominated field. Women are not always taken as seriously as we should be, so sometimes we have to put our foot down. To other people that may come across as being a bitch, but it’s just knowing what we want and being confident,” she said.
Missy also pointed out how the word is used negatively in society as a way to describe highly successful women. She told Musto, “You don’t hear people call males ‘bitches.’ But I’ve heard that people talk that way about Chaka Khan. And Aretha Franklin.”
And she acknowledged employing the tactic in her own life. “If I’m paying people and they’re not handling my business right, I have to check them. ‘Cause sometimes you’re nice and people don’t jump on what they’re supposed to do, but if you go in there screaming at everybody — ‘Look, why aren’t my posters up?’ or ‘Why wasn’t my single out on this day?’ — then they jump right on it,” she said.
Twenty years later, the Hype Williams-directed “She’s a Bitch” video that reflected Missy’s bold stance still stands as a brash power statement that other R&B and hip-hop artists have long admired. The 1999 video featured stark images of Missy and her crew in military-style outfits, dancing under stormy skies, speeding on the interstate, or surrounded by geometric lighting. Meeting the standards of traditional beauty was not the goal here, and that’s also what set her apart.
Missy is practically covered from head to toe for most of “She’s a Bitch.” And yes, she’s bald, too. Though not explicitly rejecting the male gaze, she nevertheless renders it irrelevant. She walks toward the camera from a gray tunnel, literal guns blazing, a superwoman in a flowing black trench coat, with ammunition strapped to her uniform, fingers and nails like body armor.
It’s undoubtedly a domineering look, and Elliott has reportedly described the black, weaponized suits of armor she and her dancers wore as “ghetto S&M women.” A fitting if unconfirmed factoid preserved online states that the video’s catsuit was designed by Marilyn Manson’s tailor.
The only “makeup” she uses is strips of encrusted jewels that are seemingly brushed over her brow and forehead, offering just a hint of girliness. Flipping over typical images to bring in a more masculine aesthetic led her to uncover new definition with her aggressive, masterful style and sound.
To go along with Missy’s shiny new exterior came plenty of monochromatic color. A steely, dull sheen of black and gray covered much of the video. Rooms with bright white strips of neon light and infinite tunnels cut into Missy’s shadowy surroundings. Those lights amplified the sci-fi vibe, as if the video was lifted straight from Tron. The futuristic style further solidified her statement of what it means to be a bitch: While her team of dancers was there to back her up, she still stood alone.
That minimalist, post-modern style and alternative view of beauty was also found in her well-known 1997 video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”, also directed by Williams. In that video, Elliott’s seen in what looks like an inflated garbage bag and an orange hazmat suit. Putting herself out there in a less-than-ideal, non-feminine image is a testament to her originality and refusal to follow the norm.
Like in “The Rain,” Elliott wore distinctive sunglasses in “She’s a A Bitch” — bulbous, Antman-like glasses that stretched around her face and reached toward the top of her head. The look gave her the aura of being a lone wolf – a solitary woman refusing to follow society’s lead.
Then came her most daring move in “She’s a Bitch.” With a T-shaped mohawk of spikes framing her dancers’ helmets, Missy emerged from the water in slow motion like the Loch Ness Monster — a leviathan who will flatly sink anyone who tries to best her. As she parted the waters, an obsidian-like platform in the shape of an “M” rose up to meet her. While they danced robotically underneath stormy skies, dark clouds roiled above them.
Beyond striking visuals and statement looks, hip-hop is about domination – who’s on top, who’s the best, and who gets crushed if they try to test the person on top. Hip-hop videos had to reflect that battle, and “She’s a A Bitch” showed that Elliott was a force, even early in her career.
Maury Phillips/Getty Images
Years later, at the 2017 VH1 Hip-Hop Honors: The ‘90s Game Changers, Elliott brought back that look to stunning effect. There, she recreated Williams’s vision by again rising from a murky pool of water and giving a slick, brisk performance in one of the most talked-about highlights of the evening.
Two decades after Da Real World, Elliott continues to champion a positive attitude, women’s rights, and personal freedoms in her music. In “Funky Fresh Dressed” from off her 2002 album, Under Construction, she raps, “My attitude is bitchy, ‘cause my period is heavy.” And who could forget the skit at the end of “Don’t Be Cruel” from 2003’s This Is Not A Test! that has her walking into a porn shop and ordering a whole mess of vibrators? Elliot has often said she “represents for the ladies.” With her, it’s true.