Don’t be such a pussy

As a middle school teacher I have to deal with plenty of tweens throwing around inappropriate language. Of course if anyone says “shit” or “crap” or (shock! horror!) drops an F-bomb I immediately require they check themselves and their language, after they apologize to their peers for subjecting them to such inappropriate language. While I don’t hear these words much at school, there are two words that do get uttered a lot, two words that I will not tolerate. Those words are “gay” and “retarded”.

We all know about these words and we all know why it’s not okay to use them pejoratively. I am VERY strict about these words and NEVER tolerate them being used pejoratively in my classroom. Any word that is, or has been, used to describe something that a person cannot change (their mental capability or sexual preference) should never be used to speak negatively about something. If you call something or someone you don’t like “gay” you are inferring that you have a negative connotation of that word and everyone who identifies with that word. Words are powerful tools and can inflict immeasurable pain and even if hurting someone is not your intent, you must always understand the power your words wield. And part of that power comes from the origin or original intent of the word.

Now’s the part where I tell you a story. I think you’re going to enjoy it.

When I graduated from college I eventually started substitute teaching. After about a year I was hired as a long term sub in a 3/4 classroom at my mom’s school. There was a group of 4th grade girls in the class that liked me a lot and spent time with me during recess and after school. They became very comfortable with me as my time in their room stretched from weeks to months.

One day, unbeknownst to me, the girls grabbed my wallet from the top of my purse to look at a picture framed on the back. Later that night I got a call from one of the moms saying that I better prepare myself because  two other moms would most definitely be calling me. Evidently their daughters had asked them that afternoon, “Mommy, what is a ‘cunt’?”

You see in college I took a feminine sexuality class. It was a fabulous class and I found it incredibly empowering. In that class we read the book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Mucio. We also learned the origin of the now hateful word, which was originally rooted in the power and influence of strong women. Over the years, the Catholic church and other women-hating institutions twisted the word cunt, and many other words associated with women and womanhood, into vulgar, ugly incantations of evil and worthlessness. In the class we learned what the word “cunt” originally meant and we learned of a movement to take back the word, overwriting the its current vulgarity with its former positive power. We also were given pins that proudly declared, I [HEART] MY CUNT. I had put mine on my wallet.

Of course the moms did call me and I had to explain where their daughters had seen the word. I also explained why I had the pin in the first place; I told them of the movement to reclaim the word and infuse it with the power and positive connotations it once held. Because their daughters had gone into my personal things and looked at my wallet without my knowledge, nothing came of it but I did learn a thing or two about what aspects of my college self could follow me into the “real” world.

Recently I was reading a blog post where a woman referred to herself as a “pussy” to explain that she felt unable to stand up for herself in certain situation. She was using the word “pussy”, as many do, to mean weak or cowardly. I have to admit I was a surprised. Not because of the vulgarity of the word (I am not adverse to any vulgar language, in fact I drop F-bombs with wild abandon, as my daughter’s budding vocabulary might suggest) but because I identify that blogger as a champion of women and women’s rights.

The truth is, it saddens me when people use words that refer to women, or women’s reproductive parts, to imply anything negative like weakness, filth, malevolence or moral defect. I know that these words are common and many people don’t necessarily make the connection between the negativity of the word and women or womanhood, but it seems unlikely that using female-based words pejoratively doesn’t, in some small way, belittle women. Think of how many hateful words or phrases have their origins in the feminine mystique: cunt, pussy, bitch, son of a bitch, tramp, whore, slut, douche(bag). The only word that is specifically masculine that has a negative connotation is “dick,” when used as a synonym for “asshole.”

It’s no accident so many words that have to do with women are used to put down and insult others. The depreciation of these words was deliberate and had the specific intent of marginalizing women. I know all that word-twisting happened a long time ago, and to use those words today doesn’t necessarily strengthen people’s bias toward women, but it certainly doesn’t do anything to ensure women the respect they deserve. I also know it’s hard to change the way we speak, especially when we hear words used a certain way all the time, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. When my daughter is old enough to call someone–including herself–a “pussy”, I hope she will think hard about all the definitions of that word and what the implications of using it as a synonym for weakness.

Do you use words with feminine origins pejoratively? Do you believe doing so strengthens the belief that women are inherently less than? Do you believe it’s worth trying to purge these words or attempting to reclaim them?

Quick addition: We just had a conversation in my 7/8 ELD class about the word “slut” (one girl was declaring Mi.ley Cy.rus as slutty) and how a woman who sleeps with a lot of men and uses her sexuality as a form of power is a slut and a man who does the same is desired and revered. You could see the light bulbs going on in their heads. My work here is done.

18 responses

  1. I simply don’t use the word pussy because I strongly hate the way the word sounds. I feel similarly with the word cunt. I never put a lot of thought into why I hate the sounds, I just do.

    And this comes from a woman who uses the word fuck in every other sentence when appropriate 🙂

    Maybe subconsciously I don’t like/use the words pussy and cunt because I hate the negative connotations they reflect on women?

  2. Raising my hand as the woman who called herself a pussy. And as we emailed about it, I also call myself a bitch. Which is the equivalent. I say, “we bitched about things” too. Again, derogatory towards women. I’ve also used on the blog or in comments many times, “I didn’t have the ovaries to do it.”

    I think there are derogatory words that we can use against others or ourselves in a derogatory manner, and there are the same derogatory words that we can use with others and ourselves in a tongue-in-cheek way to point out our foibles. There is the tongue-in-cheek title of Bitch magazine and there is a man angrily shouting “bitch” at his wife.

    I have no problem with words; only how they’re used. In the first two examples you gave, the words gay and retarded were used against a person in a negative manner and they’re not negative words. If I truly believed I was cowardly and weak and used that word against myself, it would be a word infused with hate. And if I used that word against another person to put them down, it would be infused with hate.

    And it sounds like it comes down to that for you too with the word cunt — is it being used negatively or in a tongue-in-cheek way. The way I used it is obviously negative to you (since it changed the whole way you see me) whereas it was tongue-in-cheek to me. And that’s the problem with words in general — they’re all in the eyes of the beholder.

    • Your use of the word didn’t change the way I see you. It just surprised me and I’m pretty sure that is all I said in my post. If I implied more that was my poor writing and I apologize.

      I know that people use these words im this way all the time (either purposefully with hate or tongue-in-cheek). My friends do, sometimes I do. I definitely refer to people I don’t like as “bitches” in the privacy of my own home or with people I trust not to share the information with others. I also adore the word “douchebag” and use it constantly. I’m not saying I don’t ever say these words in this way. Nor am
      I saying that people who do feel negatively towards women. I’m just trying to point out what the words mean and start a discussion about them, that’s all. I included your post because that is what spurred me to write about this, though it’s obviously been something I’ve cared about for much longer.

      I’m sorry if I offended you. That was not my intention. I specifically did not mention your name because honestly, I only refer to your post because it prompted me to write about this, not to call you out in some way. I’m sorry if that is what you feel I’ve done.

  3. I have to admit I paused a bit myself when I read the post you’re referring to – and thought to myself “maybe she meant small kitten?” Principle of charity/grace, I guess.

    I like how a friend of mine doesn’t say “balls” (or ovaries) to indicate courage: he says “spine.”

  4. Excellent. I have long tried to bring cunt up to the level of tits (weird sentence). Meaning, I have guy friends that will use “Tits!” as a positive exclamatory (tits are good, yeah?), so when I hear cunt used pejoratively, I often come back with something along the lines of…not sure why you say it like it’s a bad thing; I’m quite fond of my own, actually. I don’t really like pussy = weak and bitch = difficult, either, but for some reason I don’t feel the need to get all snarky/corrective about them (most of the time, anyway). I should be more consistent!

  5. Oh, this has made me think all morning.

    I say: has the stones, cajones, balls to connote strength, gutsiness.
    I say: douchebag

    I really, really don’t want to give up douchebag. I take it to mean an unnecessary and gross hygiene product. But it is a woman’s hygiene product. ARGH!!

    I think the word that is causing women the most damage right now (given the current climate of making women prove they NEED birth control products for medical reasons, the ultrasound/personhood movement) is slut. Can we take back that word and make it into something positive? I recently saw someone post a picture on Twitter that said, “Sluts vote”.

  6. I’m with ifcrossroads above…I’ve never liked those words, but never really thought about why. I also just never liked the sounds of them. But I’m sure it’s because of the negative connotation attached that made me not like them. I’m guessing it was more because it made me think of them as negative, not because I didn’t like them being used negatively. So in other words: that sucks.

    I love that you got your kids to think about the different way we view “sluttiness” in a man vs. a woman. I’ve always hated that.

  7. You know what I do that is absolutely AWFUL?! When my husband is getting whiney, I tell him his vagina is showing. It’s a joke between us, it’s never something I say out of anger, but it is wrong.

  8. I had no idea “cunt” was originally a girl power word. I like that so much better than the contexts in which I usually (hate to) hear it. Words do have power, and I don’t like the way powerful people twist them into something else, especially when it’s obviously intended to hurt a certain group of people. I would love to take the word “cunt” back, although, admittedly, I still have a hard time saying it out loud!

  9. I have been thinking about this all day, Esperanza. Whew. Food for thought. Of course, we all say things that are not so awesome and derogatory to one group or another in some way, in some form. Context, tone, syntax, audience all matter to how a word is used, for sure. I would hope that 99% of the time I use these words in a tongue-in-cheek way, or in an angry vent to a trusted companion. I have been thinking a lot today about the words I would use to describe a man or a woman that I have a genuine distaste and/or loathing for.

    Man: jerk, dick, asshole, douchebag
    Woman: asshole, bitch, (cunt*)

    Now, whether I would say this to their face is a different story. But, it was very easy for me to conjure up a woman I could label with the words above than a man. I wonder why this is, truly.

    *I have only, ever, truly wanted to call one woman in my life this to her face (but I didn’t!). My first OB/GYN, who told me not getting my period for a year was no big deal. Who told me being annovulatory was no big deal. Who told me that IF drugs are no big deal. Who told me my first miscarrige was no big deal. She was a cunt. I call her ‘Dr. Cunt’ to this day. The irony is not lost on me.

  10. I taught a sex ed course to 9th and 10th graders in my church, and this is one of the first things we talk about. What are the words we use for sex? For male sexual organs? For female sexual organs? How do we use those words? Why? And how can those words disempower people? And yes, there were many more disempowering words on the list associated with female sexuality.

    I think the difference is how a group of people *choose* to use a word. The same thing happened with any number of race-related terms. “Chicano” was originally a pejorative term, but was reclaimed by Chavez and his followers. The “N” word (which I have a problem with personally) is used by some African-American people to suggest brotherhood.

    I don’t think that women, as a group, have chosen to reclaim any of those words (with the possible exception of b*tch, and even that depends on who is using it). Did the “cunt” movement have widespread success?

    Sounds to me like the beginning of a movement. 😉

  11. I love love LOVE this post. I am a strong believer in the power of words, of language. Words infiltrate themselves into our belief systems, into our unconscious, and negative words have power. As you pointed out, there are so many words to negatively describe women or women’s behaviour, and yet the counter for men denote positive, almost heroic characteristics. And that infuriates me. There are so many negative stereotypes against women, and they seem to be as prevalent now (or more so actually) than in the 70s and 80s at the height of the feminist movements.

    I can’t use the “c” word (see, I can’t even type it) because – aside from at The Vagina Monologues – I’ve only ever heard it used angrily, abusively. I understand its origin, but can’t imagine us being able to reclaim that meaning. I also rarely use “bitch” or “bitched” for the same reason. I don’t like the casualisation (if that’s a word) of these derogatory terms, now flung about by women at women. Much like – as a woman of the 80s – I cringe when I hear young women refer to themselves as “chicks.” They don’t realise how they diminish themselves.

  12. Great post.

    It’s interesting how different words push different people’s buttons. I have the same emotional reaction to the use of the word “pussy” to connote cowardice, but oddly enough, I’m completely fine with all uses of the word “bitch.” I guess that for me, “bitch” has a much stronger “dog” connotation than “female” connotation, and while I like dogs, I’m OK with using them pejoratively (in fact, the foulest word in my husband’s native language means “dog”). I use “huevos” for bravery (it’s bisexual! which makes me very happy, although now that I think of it, some of the bravest women that I know don’t make functioning eggs). Really, language is full of little land mines. I think you’re right, though, that it’s important to be aware, and to try to be thoughtful about our linguistic choices.

  13. Your post and jjraffe’s post got my head buzzing and you inspired my blog post today. Such a useful conversation I think.

  14. Esperanza that story is hilarious. I never use the p- and the c- word, and I am by no means a prude. In fact, I curse so much that my husband calls me “his little sailor” (I’ve been trying to cut back so that we don’t raise an even littler sailor)—but I like my curse words free of discriminatory or oppressive undertones. The word bitch doesn’t bother me—I think, as noted above, its more of a “dog” word than a “woman” word to me (I do love dogs & have a girl-dog).
    I am OK with douchebag because while it is a feminine hygiene product, it is a completely unnecessary and potentially harmful product invented by men that insinuates that a woman’s natural body is inherently dirty & needs to be cleaned & perfumed.

    I know a lot of women use the p- word or talk about having the “balls” either in an attempt at humor to be seen as “one of the boys”…I guess I just don’t think its especially funny, nor do I think that using that kind of language conveys the kind of “equality” we are really after.

    Words carry so much power behind them, I think this is a great topic that deserves thought & discussion.

  15. I very, very, very seldom use the “c” word. I’ve only used it once or twice, and I think it’s because the word is so ugly and hard. It’s not even the meaning of the word; it’s how it sounds. I also don’t like “pussy.” Again, it just comes back to how it sounds and not its meaning. It’s an ugly word but I also dislike its connotation.

    I will say “balls” even in reference to a woman and I will say bitch. I typically use it as a verb, and I really like the way it sounds. I need to think some more about your post.

  16. As an aside, here in NZ, pussy doesn’t have the same meaning. If I talked about my pussy, I’d be talking about my pussy cat. We all call cats “Puss” instead of or even as their names. “Pussy” as a pejorative is only learned through watching US TV shows/movies.

    It’s the same in England. Have you ever seen this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRJlItzalJY

  17. Admittedly, this post is so old that I almost dare not comment on it… but seeing as how a certain bit of crucial knowledge appears to be missing here.. I cannot help myself.

    Pussy, while perhaps in many minds meaning to refer to the mistaken belief that women are weaker/less courageous, etc, is actually a contracted form of pusillanimous, which actually means ‘weak of spirit’, and more commonly is translated as ‘cowardly’.

    It has nothing to do with the female reproductive organs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s