BY ANY OTHER NAME….
Every Friday on the PBS News Hour, veteran journalists Marks Shields and David Brooks take to the pundits’ table to offer their polite, judicious, Public TV- style commentary on the week’s events. On June 1, in response to Judy Woodruff’s question about the relative DE- merits of Rosanne Barr’s racist tweet and Samantha Bee’s javelin-hurl of the word cunt, David Brooks, always the gentleman touting the virtues of civility, bemoaned the degradation of manners. Shields, always the more colorful and opinionated of these two talking heads, leapt to the high moral ground, sputtering, “It is—what…Samantha Bee did, was nuclear. This is a nuclear word. This is a—this is the universal most offensive word to women that I know of.” Reading the transcript misses the visuals: on screen Shields looked as if he was about to pop, like an overinflated balloon. He appeared apoplectic, his considerable jowls quivering as he shook his head in a palsy of righteous anger.
Now let me clear: the word cunt has stopped me in my tracks when I have heard it hurled as an insult. When I saw news clips of Trump supporters in shirts that applied the cunt epithet to Hillary, I wanted to rent a flame thrower. But watching Mark Shields fulminate in full blown hyperbole about the absolute awfulness of this little noun, I found myself asking why he declares it the “most offensive word to women.” I rummaged around on etymology and dictionary sites, finding that cunt is a very old word used by Chaucer and Shakespeare literally and punningly (as in “country matters” in Hamlet). Some sites note that the word has not always been pejorative. After some web surfing, I decided I was less interested in the history of the word than in its effects, particularly on an old feminist like me. Why did I shudder when I heard the word?
Cunt means literally, according to various sources, female genitalia; some dictionaries say it’s the vagina; others embrace a fuller context of vagina and vulva. (So few young people, girls included, have a clear idea of the complexity of lady parts — vulva, big labia, little labia, clitoris, urethra, all before one gets to the vagina.) All agree that the word cunt refers to our genitalia, our “lady parts,” the terra too often incognita down there.
So why is cunt so vile a word as to earn Mark Shields’ epithet “nuclear?” Let’s analyze dispassionately. The word refers to female genitals. One could compare it to prick, but that word would not, I am sure, earn Shields’ opprobrium at the same level of disgust. Prick is a dry word that conjures up images of the aggressive penis in contrast its opposite, the even less offensive limp dick. Cunt on the other hand evokes from Shields and many others a cringe, a wrinkled nose, the yuk effect. Why? Because there is a long cultural history of revulsion and disgust associated with female genitalia and its functions. Think about the most obvious –menstruation. Even today in the age of TV advertising for tampons, unthinkable when I was a girl, our then president-to-be expressed disgust when he made his “blood coming out of her wherever” remark during a debate. I’ll stick to what I know well here, but there are still religious rules and traditions that stigmatize a menstruating woman as unclean. So menstrual blood (and other seepages) may be an obvious source of disgust toward female genitals.
To call a woman a cunt, the most offensive insult according to Mark Shields, is to reduce her to biological destiny, to those tucked away body parts that pee and bleed and ooze and produce lubricants to facilitate sexual intercourse, which can, in turn, if one wishes and sometimes when one doesn’t, produce a baby. To call a man a cunt is to ratchet up the insult scale; calling a man a woman (as in “you throw like a girl”) is bad enough. Calling a man a cunt reduces him even further, to what lurks between a woman’s legs, hidden, interior, mysterious, female, and disgusting.
Is cunt worse than pussy or twat or any number of other slang terms/insults? It seems to pack a greater punch, a nuclear one according to Shields. The general coarsening of public discourse, so decried by David Brooks and others, has certainly led to a greater tolerance for words formerly banned on TV and radio. (Judy Woodruff noted that Samantha Bee had used a word “so bad we can’t repeat it here on the News Hour.”) Music lyrics, the internet and our current president have “liberated” a whole lexicon of previously taboo words and phrases. Still, some vulgar references to female parts retain the power to shock.
If cunt is a dirty word, it is because women’s private parts are seen as unclean, shameful even as they are desirable. The sexual and reproductive power associated with the vagina and its habitat is both seductive and repellant. Perhaps that power is also mysterious, threatening, fearsome. In Yeats’ poem “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” the old woman cries, “But love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement.” Talking to several acquaintance about why they remove by razor or wax all of their pubic hair, I often hear, especially from young women, that it is disgusting and nasty. When I point out, as I am wont to do, that the removal of pubic hair leaves them looking like pre-pubescent girls, they seem oblivious to the implications of that image. In this supposedly post-feminist age, women have the right to remove, alter, plump up, lift any part they deem inadequate or unattractive, I guess. I do wish, however, that they would be cognizant of the politics of such alterations. I mean, labiaplasty? Vagina rejuvenation? So many ways to make one’s cunt more beautiful, more virginal, more penis-friendly…and less natural.
Back to Samantha Bee and her now notorious use of the cunt-word. (Note, I am not playing the “c-word”game! A word is a word is a word. It gains or loses positive or negative power by the way we use it; its value either way is not lessened by expurgating all but its initial letter.) I am sorry that Samantha chose to use the word cunt in derogation of Ivanka Trump’s insensitivity in tweeting out the photo of her nuzzling her adorable child. In using the word as an insult, Samantha bought into and validated the ongoing cultural problematizing of the female body, specifically its genitalia. She perpetuated disgust for the female body. In choosing that word to do her dirty work, Samantha, usually feminist in her consciousness, added her own brand of plutonium to the nuclear fuel that outraged Mark Shields to castigate feminists in general and the Me Too movement in particular, saying, “but I just found incredible hypocrisy on the part of the MeToo movement, on the part of a lot of feminists and a lot of liberals, that they have not been as harsh on Samantha Bee as they were rightly on Roseanne…” (What’s a week of cultural outrage without an attack on feminists from a white male pundit of a certain age?)
There is a similarity with a difference between Roseanne’s nakedly racist tweet and Samantha’s sexist name calling. Yes, I am calling out Samantha Bee’s use of the word cunt as sexist because cunt’s power to dehumanize and affront depends on the cultural feeling that a woman’s private parts are nasty, disgusting, and vile. If Ivanka had any truly feminist smarts, she would have turned the insult on its head by embracing the word, by claiming pride in her sexual, generative anatomy that produced the adorable toddler in her arms. There is, however, no way to redeem Roseanne’s tweet that called upon a racist trope so widely available in our culture: African Americans as less than human, as ape-like. Both insults rely upon stereotypes deeply embedded in our casually racist and sexist culture. The difference I see is that one can redeem cunt from its power to disgust by reclaiming it as a powerful descriptive noun. There is no redeeming the verbal or visual image of an African American woman as an animal.
I am not defending Samantha’s use of the word cunt. She hurled it out there in the most sexist/misogynistic of ways. She validated its cultural baggage – nasty, smelly, disgusting, vile: that’s what the word has come to say about what lurks between women’s legs. She apologized; I don’t think she should be fired. After all, as Shields points out, the show was taped and approved before broadcast. Samantha did not blurt out the insult spontaneously. Roseanne, the solitary tweeter, has a long history of racist remarks on and off twitter, not to mention her support of wacky and dangerous conspiracy theories. Samantha Bee, like many comedians, is no stranger to the shock value of vulgar language, knowing that it seems more outrageous, thus newsworthy, when spoken by a woman. Since she has already staked out and gotten lots of publicity in the forbidden territory of cunt, I would like to see Samantha deliver a routine in which she reclaims the word; in which she takes us on a tour of cunt’s original meanings and explores why and how it has become such an incendiary verbal weapon. I’d like to see her repeat the word over and over, incite her audience, as Eve Ensler did with vagina, to chant it as a way of reclaiming cunt from opprobrium and misuse. Remember pussy hats? How they and their wearers reclaimed the word that described the female part Trump bragged disdainfully about grabbing? So perhaps, if we can knit the pussy into respectability, we can reclaim cunt from the bathroom wastebasket of contempt. After all, cunt at its four-letter core is simply a word for the collective “down there” parts that we often don’t know how to label. Cunt covers more territory than the more specific vagina. Cunt has a powerful one-syllable punch. Having typed it now many times, I feel ready to befriend the word. I think it will take practice for me to say it aloud, publicly and securely, as in “One’s cunt is a seat of pleasure and sometimes pain.” But really, readers, think of cunt as a useful addition to your conventional vocabulary. The next time some street corner tough or TBS comedian tries to insult or intimidate you by calling you a cunt, refuse to cringe or blush. Somewhere in this great country of ours, someone is, I am sure, working up an intricate crochet pattern that honors the irrepressible cunt.
PS: I want to laud Samantha Bee’s use of another all-too-seldom applied adjective –”feckless.” She called Ivanka a “feckless cunt.” Feckless means “lacking strength of character, weak, irresponsible.” Samantha could have stopped there, as in “the feckless Ivanka Trump.” I don’t think Ivanka or any woman should be attacked by equating her to her cunt, which, after all, is merely a collection of body parts, not a brain with the feckless will to tweet out an insensitive photo. Maybe Samantha just needs a better editor on her team of comedy writers and an online copy of the O.E.D.