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?’: https://magiczebras.posterous.com/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 (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/girls-interrupted-revealed--the-true-cost-of-low-selfesteem-7606258.html ), 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:  http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/laurie-penny/2011/02/sexual-power-word-cunt-hint


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 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/jul/27/loreal-julia-roberts-ad-banned ) 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.





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5 comments:

  1. I completely agree with your argument, but the one problem you appear to overlook is that language evolves, and the context of language evolves with it. Gay did not start out meaning homosexual, it used to mean happy. Does that mean that happy people are now feeling stereotyped as homosexual? I don't think so.
    Also, I never use the C-word with women, only men. Is that sexist? I don't mean it that way - but I guess perhaps this is what you are arguing.
    At the end of the day, all expletives have a serious, often obscene, underlying meaning ('bloody' for example), and those who use them as a substitute for 'normal' language show only their lack of vocabulary.

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  2. Sorry to be really picky and pedantic...

    You say that cunt is used as a synonym for vagina. To me (as a doctor) the vagina is internal, largely invisible. I think that you probably mean that the word is used as a synonym for vulva. To quote wiktionary http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/vulva "Vagina is often used to refer to the vulva or female genitals generally, even though strictly speaking the vagina is a wholly internal structure. Calling the vulva the vagina is rather like calling the lips the mouth or throat." I may be wrong, but I suspect that you meant vulva.

    BTW, I completely agree you with you about "gay", and had much the same conversation you describe with my own teenage children.

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  3. Peter Q - I don't think gay as a synonym for happy is relevant in the example I give, as the young people I work with either don't know the word ever carried that meaning or, if they do, it is not the first thing they think of. Language does evolve as you say, and I would say that most people do not use the word gay in that sense any more.

    I think using the C word in a derogatory way is sexist. I don't think it makes any difference if you're using it to refer to men or women.

    As to expletives showing a lack of vocabulary; I disagree. I love a good swear and always keep a good selection of swearwords in my lexical armoury :)

    Peter E - you're absolutely right, of course, and I did consider using 'vulva' when I wrote the piece. However I stuck with 'vagina' in the end because, medically correct or not, it's the word most commonly used to mean the female genitalia both internal and external. For example "vajazzle" rather than "vulvazzle" : )

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  4. Agree with everything you've said. delightful to see someone expressing it so well. I like the word cunt when it's used for a thing of beauty, but not as an expletive. I have to confess that I use "prick" as an attempt to balance things out a little.

    I used to go into schools raising awareness of homophobic/transphobic hate crime, and the "gay" justifications: of it meaning "happy, miss" or "uncool" or - worst of all as it adds yet another layer of discrimination - "lame" just don't wash, because the same people who say that DO think that same sex love is inferior in my experience.

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  5. "Cunt" is never a thing of beauty. There is a reason it is the most offensive word in the English language, It comes preloaded with cultural meaning that no amount of "empowerment" or fond self-delusion can remove. Sorry, choosy choicefeminists. Only people with power get to define what things mean. We'll only change that when we change the power structure.

    Meanwhile, pretending that this word is not a slur only plays into the hands of those who use it openly and intentionally as a slur. I think that's what "reclaiming" slurs is really all about: it lets wanna-be feminists feel all empower-y without actually challenging the menz. The menz hear "cunt" and think they're being agreed with. Way to dodge actual conflict with the menz! And way easier than confronting the oppressor in a way the oppressor understands, 'cause that would be unpleasant.

    I don't use "cunt", ever. Laurie Penny et. al are wrong in their belief that this word has any redeeming value, and I have unfollowed many so-called feminists who think they're empowerfullizing themselves by flinging it around. They are achieving exactly bugger all for women by doing so.

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