Sunday, 15 April 2012

The problem with the C word...

For a long time now I’ve been debating about the use of the word ‘cunt’. I say it’s not OK when it is used as a derogatory term, that it is demeaning to women and misogynistic. Other feminists disagree, arguing  that we have bigger problems to deal with, that they don’t use the term in a gendered way, and that it is unfair to make others out to be ‘bad feminists’ for using the word. For example, Anna Fleur (@magiczebras)  wrote a blogpost on this subject: ‘Can we check our cunting privilege?’:

I hold my position firmly but, rather than keep arguing it in 140 character bite-sized pieces (damn near impossible, not to mention time-consuming) I decided that I had to write something explaining my position more fully. What finally prompted me was Melissa Ben (@Melissa_Benn) tweeting a link to a piece in the Independent on the huge impact low self-esteem has on young women ( ), for it is this effect I seek to counteract.

First of all, let me be clear. I have no problem at all with the word cunt when it is not used in a derogatory manner.  I have had several people genuinely ask me if the word can be used in any other way? Well, I have a cunt. There, that’s not derogatory, although I have had people physically recoil from me when I’ve said it. Strangely, they’re often the same people who would think nothing of using the word cunt as an insult.  I love the word cunt, I think it’s a great, powerful term and completely agree with much of what Laurie Penny (@pennyred) says in this piece where she argues that alternatives like ‘pussy’ are hopelessly inadequate:

So why do I object to the word cunt being used as a derogatory term?  Well, I believe in a Derridean approach to language that says that language has a value that constantly changes, depending on the experiences the person hearing or reading it brings to bear.  The value we attach to a word, a phrase, or a sentence in our head, is hardly ever the same value someone hearing it will attach to it. We cannot simply say, “well I didn’t mean it in a negative way, I wasn’t using it as a gendered term, etc”, and wash our hands of it. Language is extremely powerful, it can have a tremendous impact, and we have to be aware of that when we use it. 

I give you this example.  I’m a secondary school teacher and the word ‘gay’ is in constant use as an expression of derision.  I constantly challenge students on its use and the response is often the same. That the person using it is not using it to mean homosexual, but uncool or stupid.  So, is that OK? Should I just let it go?  I think not, and for this reason: research shows that around one in ten of the young people I work with are likely to be gay, and they may come to realise this during their time at school. What impact will the constant use of the word gay used negatively have on them as they come to terms with their sexuality?  I don’t think it will have a positive or healthy impact, which is why I continue to challenge the young people I work with, getting them to think about their language choices and the potential impact they could be having on others.

So, how does this impact on my stance on the use of the word cunt? Well, whether you use the term in a gendered way or not, cunt is absolutely a female word. It’s used frequently in porn films as a synonym for vagina, and porn, unfortunately, is where many of our young people get their ideas about what sex should look like, and what bodies should look like. Women in porn these days are all too often stripped of natural body hair so they look like prepubescent girls. 

Saying I don’t use cunt to mean genitalia, or I don’t use it in a gendered way, does not mean it’s not heard that way. Young women absorb it as meaning genitalia, as surely as they absorb the messages about body hair being unacceptable on their cunts, the appearance of their cunts not being up to scratch (think of brazilians and vajazzles) and their cunts being unpleasantly smelly (think of the ads for scented ‘feminine hygiene’ products and schoolyard insults that buy into this such as “fishy fanny”).

I worked in an inner-city school recently, in a very deprived borough, where we ran a well-being survey to see how our students were doing. One of the questions was about what you had for lunch, and where you ate it; in the playground, in the dining hall? I asked a group of young female students this question, and they looked at me aghast. “I don’t eat lunch!” one said. All around her there were nods of agreement. “Why not?” I asked. “Because I’m fat!” came the reply, and again, vigorous nods signalled agreement from the group.  Now, these young women were not overweight at all, and yet they had picked up the message from the media that their normal, healthy shape was unacceptable, and must, even at the expense of their health, be changed.

When cosmetic companies are being fined for airbrushing supermodels almost beyond recognition ( ) we must accept that young women are being constantly bombarded with images and standards that are actually impossible to achieve. They will spend their lives struggling to meet a completely unattainable physical  ideal, and be manipulated into constantly feeling that they are not up to scratch, are lacking in some way.

It is against this background that I set my argument. I believe that the young women that I love working with so much have enough misogyny on their plate without us adding to it. In the same way that I don’t think a young gay student can come away completely unaffected by constantly hearing the word ‘gay’ used in a negative way, I don’t think that young women can come away from constantly hearing the word 'cunt' being used in a negative way without being affected.

I know people argue that words like dick and cock are used as insults. “What’s the difference?” they say. First of all I would say that it’s all about the power balance. The use of these words has to be seen against the backdrop of our society, one in which women are oppressed and men are not. The other difference is that dick and cock sound almost friendly and ‘matey’ in comparison to cunt. There is a level of vitriol and hatred behind the word when it is spat out that ties into a misogynistic hatred of women.

I completely take Anna’s point that there are other issues facing women, but I just don’t think it’s either or. You can argue about language AND fight against truly awful practices like ‘honour’ killings and female genital multilation. To me it’s all part of the same fight anyway; normalising the hatred of women through language creates an atmosphere in which people feel freer to continue with practices like FGM.

And as for speaking from a privileged position? I agree, I do, I am definitely guilty as charged. But I can’t change that, and it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work as hard as I can towards helping to create a better, more equal place for the young women I work with to grow up. And language is a huge part of that.

More blogposts on this subject:

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Murdoch, Gove and Toby Young

Just how close are these three?

And what motivates their interest in our education system?

I put the following timeline together in a few minutes earlier today. I’m sure I’ve missed plenty of key things out, so I reserve the right to add to it, but it makes interesting reading as is, I think you’ll agree. I leave you to draw your own conclusions...

6 May 2010

The last General Election took place. No party gained enough seats to form a government. After negotiations the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was formed and on 11 May David Cameron becomes Prime Minister. On 12 May he appoints Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education.

19 May 2010

Gove has first of 7 meetings with his ex-employer, Murdoch, including two dinners in June 2011:

12 September 2010

The Guardian reports concerns at plans to give News International an academy school to run:

2 March 2011

Toby Young gets go ahead from Gove to set up West London Free School:

24 May 2011

Murdoch makes speech declaring that News Corp are to set up an education arm:

27 July 2011

Mail publishes story showing that cabinet ministers, including, Gove, have met senior News International officials almost one hundred times since the general election. The Mail describes the relationship between the cabinet and News International as “cosy”:

6 August 2011
Independent publishes story stating that, despite the hacking row, Gove is pressing on with his plans to give Murdoch an academy to run:

Friday Oct 14 2011
Murdoch makes speech saying education is an untapped market worth $500 billion in the US alone:
10 January 2012

The Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle reports that Toby Young's West London Free School is to set up a primary school opening in 2013:
15 February 2012

Toby Young uses his Telegraph column to defend Gove against what he calls a “hysterical attack” by the respected journalist Seumas Milne:

21 February 2012

Gove attacks the Leveson enquiry which is, of course, closely examining the behaviour of the Murdoch press and says that it is creating" a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression"

23 February 2012

Toby Young announces that he is leaving the Telegraph and going to work for Murdoch at the Sun on Sunday:

26 February 2012

Toby Young uses his first column in the Murdoch owned Sun on Sunday to suggest that Gove should be our next Prime Minister:

The Guardian publishes this article by investigative journalist David Leigh examining the close ties between Murdoch and Gove, and what might motivate those ties. A Gove spokesperson declines to comment on the article:

25 April 2012

The Guardian reports that Murdoch's witness statement to the Leveson enquiry reveals that, while plans to establish a News International academy school had fallen through, the company had begun looking in to setting up a free school:

29 May 2012

Gove uses his appearance at the Leveson enquiry to praise Murdoch, calling him "one of the most impressive and significant figures of the last 50 years":

In the same appearance at Leveson Gove gave a clear signal that he was about to allow profit making by free schools:

Sunday, 22 January 2012

What is the point of Toby Young?

What is the point of Toby Young? No really, what does he do? He seems to make a living being obnoxious. Is that all he does? Clearly I’ve take the wrong career path because he seems to be making a much better living doing that, than I do as a teacher in an inner-London secondary. I would argue that I’m more useful to society, but there you go, people clearly enjoy gawping at his buffoonery.

And what a spectacular example of his special blend of nonsense was displayed in his column today. The Observer had dared to attack Katherine Birbalsingh’s proposed free school in Tooting and Toby has responded by spewing bile all over the page. Not only is it bile, it’s also nonsense.

First of all Toby says that the writer Daniel Boffey has tried “to create the impression that there's growing local opposition to the Michaela Community School – Birbalsingh's free school – which is due to open in Wandsworth this September.”

Er, Toby, hate to break it to you mate, but there is opposition, and it is growing. Now I know you almost certainly take the Gove line that anyone that opposes these plans is some kind of backward ideologue, but I’m afraid that some people feel that new schools should be planned in conjunction with other schools and not just foisted on a community whether they’re needed or not, and damn the negative impact on other schools.

Then Toby goes on to attack Jane Eades, an officer of the Anti-Academies Alliance (AAA). He takes umbrage at the fact that she is referred to as “a retired teacher from Wandsworth” despite that fact that Janes actually is… wait for it… a retired teacher from Wandsworth. Toby tries to imply that Jane and the AAA are some kind of sub-branch of the SWP. Again Toby, I hate to break this to you, but I’m also an officer of the AAA and, like Jane, I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the SWP.

Not that I’m denying that there are members of the SWP in the AAA. We’re a broad church and our members come from across the political spectrum. We even have some Lib Dems and even the (very) occasional Tory.

I tell you who HAS been in the SWP though. According to a local SWP organiser, Katherine Birbalsingh’s name appears on an old membership list he has. Who’s the “Trot” now Tobes?

Next Toby chucks his toys out of the pram over the figures cited by the local anti-free school campaign which show that there isn’t any need for a new school in Wandsworth. I know Toby, they’re annoying aren’t they, figures, especially when they say something you don’t want to hear. But, there you have it, no school is needed in Wandsworth whether you like it or not.

Oh and don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’ve changed your description of Lambeth Council from “hard-left”. Even you realised that was stretching the truth a bit too far. Hard-left? Lambeth? Oh, if only!

Finally Toby moves on to talking about the proposed site for Birbalsingh’s free school, the Trident Centre, home to a number of local businesses that collectively provide around 400 jobs. Those local businesses are understandably furious that, if this plan goes ahead, they will be pushed out and there will be an inevitable loss of jobs. But wails Toby, “the Trident Centre – have signalled their intention to sell it willy nilly”.

Where does one even start with this? Yes Toby, they probably have. They’ve sniffed the scent of big bucks from the Dept of Education and, quelle surprise, they have indicated that they might be willing to sell. Whodathunk???

Toby rounds off his fit of pique with a final dig about the SWP “and its various fronts”. You know Toby, you really ought to see someone about this 'reds under the bed’ obsession you have. It does seem to distort your view of things. Although if you are looking for former members of the SWP, there is one right under your nose…