Sunday, November 9, 2008

Profanity and Feminism

I'm not a fan of using profanity; I don't mind being around it, and it doesn't faze me in many circumstances to hear it. My mother can swear like a sailor, and one of my sister's favorite words from the age of 2 through a couple of years ago was "damn". But in general, I don't like swearing; this is because when I say "fuck" or a couple of other curse words, I sound stilted and fake. "Damn" rolls off the tongue, but even a mild one like "shit" tends to get stuck somewhere along the way up the vocal chords, making me sound more like a teenager trying to sound edgy and dangerous than someone who is legitimately and mundanely just shooting the breeze. That impression is one I would like to avoid, so I never get enough practice in the cursing in order to actually sound like it is a natural function of my vocabulary.

Demeaning someone through curses also doesn't work very well for me, for a different reason. Too much heavy hitting profanity geared toward diminishing men go back to the guy's mother. Yes, there is the 'dick' insult - and although I am not always successful, I do attempt to avoid that one on the basis that I don't want to be called the female equivalent - but generally, insults for men are more about their mothers than themselves. "Bastard" is less about the behavior of the guy in question than it is about his questionable conception, and is thus more about his mother's morality than his own shortcomings. "Son of a bitch" is fairly self-explanatory in terms of its own problematic nature. We generally aren't really calling the mother of the man we're swearing at a bitch, but that doesn't change the fact that the biggest insult for a guy is still not really about him but about the person who birthed him. Curses toward women are another thing entirely. I'm not a fan of the reappropriation of words. I read Bitch Magazine and am planning on subscribing, but I don't think that reclaiming the word "bitch" is the way to go. It may feel empowering to turn it around, Tina Fey style, and say, "You know what? Yes, I am a bitch". But at the end of the day, it is still a way to demean and diminish women, and it is still used by men as an insult and as a reason to not pay a woman any mind - or to hate her. "She's just a bitch". Same thing with "cunt". Reappropriating these words makes less sense when those in a society who traditionally used those words as insult continue to do so.

What also is damaging is women who will call each other these names out of this trend toward weakening the words' traditional meanings. One of the areas in which I actually disagree with Jessica Valenti is this one. In "Full Frontal Feminism", she writes, "We have to take the power out of sexual insults like 'whore' and 'slut'. There aren't many feminists my age who don't remember musician Kathleen Hanna - of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fame - scrawling SLUT across her stomach as a way to reclaim the word". The word slut has been co-opted by society as a sign of voraciousness: 'coffee slut', 'TV slut' (I myself describe myself as a "spoiler whore" and a "trailer whore", which is very much in this same vein). Because of this, many use these words in jest or affectionately. But the sting is still not removed from the word, no matter how friendly we smile the word or how many stomachs we scribble it on. And that is because the word 'slut', even in its voracious use, even in its subversive text, still says something fundamentally about the way women's sexuality is perceived as opposed to men.

Men can be referred to as guy-slut or man-whore, but even in those cases it is perceived as a sign of sexual stamina and something to be if not proud of then at least not shamed about. Making words like these jokes and in all good fun seems to be more harmful than good, because now when someone is called a slut or a whore or a bitch or a cunt, there is no recourse of action. There is an ambiguity present where the word, used by the exact same person, can either mean that the labeled is not a slut - or still seen as too sexually promiscuous. The implication is still there; sexually active women are still given the message that they need to be careful, to not enjoy sex too much or with too many people because the same moral double standard still applies. It has crawled further under the woodwork because of the journey toward reappropriation, but women are still judged negatively for their sexual exploits - or perceived sexual exploits.

Because of this, taking the words, removing the sting, and making it a proud proclamation of sovereignty doesn't work from me. So I'm trying hard to stop calling guys dicks and bastards, and I'd like bitch and slut to stop being applied to women as well. I think we need to embrace and/or create gender and sexuality neutral insults. So far, 'asshole' seems like the best one. We've all got them, and we generally all have moments where we are one.


John said...

fantastic closing lines! It harkens back to the days of Full Metal Jacket (if I'm remembering right), "Excuses are like assholes. Everyone has 'em, and they all stink!"

I'm not sure how effective "taking back" swear words has been, but I do know that calling a woman "bitch" means something very different from calling a man "bitch." There's no sense of dominance/submission in "she's a bitch-on-wheels" like there is in "I'm gonna make you my bitch."

Personally, I like to combine swear words in new and interesting ways. That's how you get swears like shit-bag or ass-face. The possibilities are limitless!

Habladora said...

Good point about most of our 'male' insults being about mothers, directly or indirectly. Funny, that had never occurred to me. Great post.