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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
I read Inga Muscio’s book-length provocation “Cunt” my freshman year of college, on the advice of a male friend. A budding feminist, I was still in that heady, humorless phase of my awakening, when anyone who happened to use a word like “chick” in my presence could expect a lecture. So you can imagine the kind of tirade this guy was in for when I heard him drop the C-bomb — in a book recommendation, no less. Of course, I didn’t expect him to counter with the news that young feminists like me were reclaiming “cunt.” Hadn’t I heard? Someone had even written a book about the sheer womanly power of the word! No one wanted to hide behind timid, clinical terms like “vagina” anymore. We were supposed to proudly call ourselves cunts — and to celebrate our lady parts, worship our menstrual cycles and take control of our fertility.
As I later learned, Muscio’s book was part of a broad, decentralized third-wave feminist project to reclaim derogatory language. Written in 1998, it was preceded by early-’90s riot grrrls who scrawled words like “slut” on their stomachs and Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” which devoted an entire (NSFW) skit to the word “cunt.” By the end of the decade, the C word had became our N word, and we were going to use it over and over and over again until it lost its ability to hurt us.
But a few years into the new millennium, I had fallen out of love with Muscio’s radical book, and “cunt” still held all of the same power to damn and essentialize. Now, if Newsweek’s Kathleen Deveny is to be believed, the word is making a serious comeback — minus the social consciousness. She cites the growing acceptability of printing “cunt” (Hey, look, I just did it there!) in prominent publications such as the Guardian — where it recently made its front-page debut — as a sign that “the rudest, crudest, most taboo term in the English language, the superstar of four-letter words” is no longer as shocking as it once was.
As Deveny notes, “cunt” seems to be more popular in Britain than in the States, where her own publication won’t touch the term. (It almost goes without saying that the New York Times, which recently resorted to verbal gymnastics to review the band “Pissed Jeans,” won’t print it.) While she doesn’t get into why that might be, I have a guess: In Britain, “cunt” as curse word isn’t as gendered. Men and women seem equally likely to be hit with the slur, even if using it against a guy may be a shot at his masculinity.
From there, Deveny goes into the history of “cunt” in an attempt to determine “why we ever got so worked up about it in the first place.” Tracing it to Middle English, she dates its emergence in American pop culture to the 1970s, which brought us envelope-pushing films like “Taxi Driver.”
As Deveny points out, it isn’t as if the female genitalia has a monopoly on derogatory nicknames. I mean, did you think twice the last time you called some guy a “dick”? So what’s the difference between “dick” and “cunt”? For Deveny, it’s our collective squeamishness about lady parts that gives “cunt” its power:
The derogatory term for vagina just seems so foul, so dirty, so … down there. But wait: isn’t the perfectly neutral word “vagina” enough to send most men screaming from the room? Our aversion to the C word may simply reflect our cultural aversion to the C.
She makes a good point, but it seems to me there’s something else going on, too. In a larger sense, “cunt” does not equal “dick” in our culture because “woman” still does not equal “man.” This is also why “nigger” remains more offensive than “cracker.” And as long as women are the second sex and African-Americans are the second race, slurs that target these groups will have greater power. Some will surely say that our growing acceptance of the term, in its pejorative sense, is just another sign that feminism, too exhausted to fight the rising tide of anti-woman hate speech, is dead. But I am willing to entertain the idea that the proliferation of the C word, on the pages of British publications (and on American premium cable), may also be a side effect of greater gender equity. I, for one, look forward to the day when I can use both “cunt” and “dick” with impunity. And that’s not just because I’m a “bitch.”
Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet. More Judy Berman.
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