Friday, June 01, 2018

The Full Frontal Insult. Or On C**ts.

The word "cunt" is back in the news*.  Who can say it?  In what venue?  Why is it bad to use it?  Or is it bad? 

Does the badness depend on whom we call cunt?  If it's one of our political foes, is it an acceptable weapon in the war where all weapons are legal, never mind the Geneva conventions? 

Why do some call the word an obscenity while others do not? 

Why is "cunt" in much wider use in Britain than here, and why does it seem less hate-filled there?  Why do most young Finnish women routinely use the word and the verb derived from it  ("vituttaa" to make one feel angry, irritated, frustrated, cunty?)?

To answer such questions I resort to the onion metaphor.  Many problems are like onions, consisting of layer after layer, and the answers you get change as you keep peeling the layers.  You also cry copiously.

The surface layer of the onion regards "cunt" just a swear word, a slur, something people say when they are angry, when they wish to hurt the object(s) of their anger.  Most people are unlikely to deeply consider what choosing the word means.  For most people it's no different than calling someone an asshole or arsehole.  Yelling it makes one feel good, temporarily.  Saying it on television or writing it online might end up feeling less enjoyable, depending on how it is received.

On that layer any slur is just a slur, something we learn by growing up in a particular culture.   A swear word.  Girls learn the same words as boys do, and by the time children enter teenage years, they no longer "see" the word as having a particular gendered origin.

Some swear words, however,  are viewed as obscenities, because they refer to genitals.  The words "prick" and "cunt" are on this level equally obscene, for example, and all individuals behave equally badly (or not, depending on the subculture) if they use such words in either the public sphere or (for a reason that becomes clear in the deeper onion layers) in mixed-genders company.

Peeling the next layer of this metaphorical onion teaches us something different.  The word "cunt" is often used as a synecdoche, where part of something stands for the whole.  Thus, "cunts" can stand for all women**, in particular on the misogynistic sites.  Sometimes "cunts" refers to only women who are bad women, evil women, the Hillary Clintons or the ex-wives of this world, or women who refuse to put out on command or who put out too much.

Despite the fact that most of us are born through what is called a "cunt" here, a "cunt" does terrible things or is something terrible!  In the US, at least,  this even applies to men.  Calling a man "a prick" is not as strong as calling a man "cunt," perhaps because women are viewed as somewhat lower than men in the hierarchical pecking orders.  This gives the insult extra flavor when the target is male.

Further into the onion, we get the reclaiming of the word.  When reclaiming is successful, it neuters a slur, turns into a badge of honor.  I use that trick when I remind you, my dear readers, that the "cunt" is the path most of us take to enter this valley of tears and joys, that we are hating our mothers' bodies, hating life itself, when we use "cunt" as a hate-filled term.

Does reclaiming work?  I am not sure.  But I would guess that it wouldn't easily work in Britain or in Finland where the use of the term is ubiquitous and its connection to misogyny more buried by that very ubiquitousness.

A close relative of reclaiming is the proposed rule that "cunt" should only be used by those who have one.  I'm not sure what this rule means in practice.  Can I, for instance,  call  all people "cunts?"

Finally, we get into the heart of the onion.  For me that has only one salient fact:  The word "cunt" is a slur, a swear word because it denotes the female sexual organs and the love/lust/hate relationship many traditional cultures have had with those organs and women, in general. 

The term is not obscene for the reason that it refers to genitals; it's obscene, because it refers to the female genitals with anger and hatred.  And it is that anger and that hatred which makes talking about "cunts" something not approved in mixed company or outside locker rooms.

The anger and hatred can correlate with female shame.  After all, one of the strongest expressions of anger many cultures routinely use is a part of the female body, something that cannot be easily discarded.  We walk in shame.

Or perhaps not, if the connection between the top layer and the heart of the onion is no longer visible?  And it could well be the case that the term "cunt" became such an insult, because vaginas and vulvas  once were taboo topics in almost any company.  Violating a taboo can make one feel wonderful, for a second or two***.


What's the point of the above essay?  I guess it's filling in all the stuff I didn't see mentioned when I followed the recent debate about who can use the term, who it can be applied to and what the consequences of using the term might be.

And aliens from outer space, if they cared to study our barbarian planet, might learn quite a bit about our cultures  from just the fact that one term for female genitals is also a very common insult.

I used to write about questions like this when I was still a dewy young blogger, because I thought that awareness of this onion's innermost layers might make some kind of a difference.  I no longer believe that to be the case.  But writing about this stuff is still interesting to me.

*  The wider context would compare and contrast the reactions to the Samantha Bee comment  with the racist comment Rosanne Barr made earlier about Valerie Jarrett.  Rebecca Traister partly addresses that.

 **  This post employs a genitals-based definition of sex and gender, because that's what the use of "cunt" also employs, especially in the synecdoche form.  But note that trans women living as women are quite likely to be judged in the same manner.

***  It could be the case that this taboo is stronger for female genitals than for male genitals, for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that the former are more hidden.