So Lena Dunham can use the “C-word”?

"Girls" and the Onion both use a graphic term to describe people -- and our culture may not be ready for it

Topics: Girls, The Onion, Quvenzhané Wallis, katha pollitt, xojane, julie klausner, Lena Dunham,

So Lena Dunham can use the "C-word"? (Credit: Mark Carrel via Shutterstock/Salon)

The Onion’s tweet Sunday night about actress Quvenzhané Wallis is by now infamous: Apparently in service of a rhetorical point about the way our culture tears women apart, the satirical paper used the so-called c-word to describe the 9-year-old Oscar nominee.

But those watching HBO’s “Girls” instead of the Oscars that night might have heard a male character describe drivers of Camrys using the same anatomical term. Neither Hannah nor Jessa seemed particularly concerned or surprised at its use.

In a season when Quentin Tarantino’s film “Django Unchained” practically mainstreamed the racial epithet known as the “n-word,” winning an Oscar for best original screenplay in the process, could the “c-word” be the next word to enter our common vocabulary?

The outcry over the Wallis tweet indicates that the word, usually used to describe women, is still a rhetorical third rail. xoJane writer Daisy Barringer wrote a personal essay earlier this year about getting called the word. “[H]e knew it was the most outrageous thing he could call me. Because he wanted to intimidate me. Because he wanted everyone in the house to know THAT is what happens if you [mess] with him,” Barringer wrote.

“I really struggled with that Onion tweet,” Barringer told Salon, “because it was clearly ridiculous and a really backhanded compliment. This adorable girl is the opposite of a c-u-n-t,” she said, spelling the word out.

“It’s used by men as one of the worst things you can call a woman. It has that power. It’s so loaded that they know it’s so hurtful. If a man’s not going to hit you, that’s what he has.”

You Might Also Like

The departed NBC sitcom “30 Rock” took on the word in its first season, in an episode called “The C Word.” Tina Fey’s character was called by the epithet after criticizing a male underling. “There’s nothing you can call a guy back!” she says. “There is no male equivalent to this word.”

The term, indeed, refers not merely to difficult women (as in the case of the Onion’s tweet) or men who act like women (as on “Girls”) but to a part of the female anatomy. “It’s an ancient word,” feminist essayist Katha Pollitt told Salon via email — and, indeed, it appears in the work of Shakespeare.

“White people shouldn’t say the n-word, men shouldn’t say the c-word. Children are off limits,” Pollitt said. “It is interesting that so often these edgy bits of boundary-expanding ‘humor’ are at expense of females and minorities.”

Comedian and podcast host Julie Klausner is an example of a humorist who uses the word to describe women — she’s well within the bounds Pollitt sets. “I have used the word ‘cunt,’” she said via email, “usually as a verb or an adjective, and mostly to describe Shirley MacLaine on ‘Downton Abbey’ or Anna Wintour in general.

“Those are both high-status women who seem to be, or act like, cunts — and, in Anna Wintour’s case, part of my POV comes from her participation in an industry I feel objectifies women and gives girls terrible messages about their self-worth. The actual term is a good word with power. It’s absolutely fair game.”

MacLaine and Wintour are notoriously chilly and imperious women — women aware of their own power and unashamed of it; this may have been how the Onion was attempting to portray the youthful, ebullient Wallis. The word, used that way, would seem almost a compliment or at least an acknowledgment of power and privilege. Similarly, British critic Laurie Penny uses it as an acknowledgment of feminine sexual power. “I only wish I could hear more women saying it, more of us reclaiming ‘cunt’ as a word of sexual potency and common discourse rather than a dirty, forbidden word,” Penny wrote in 2011. (The word is more commonly used in England, and, perhaps, less culturally loaded.)

“It is this kind of female sexuality – active, adult female sexuality – that still has the power to horrify even the most forward-thinking logophile.”

Perhaps the reason the Onion’s CEO apologized for the tweet about Wallis, calling it “a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire,” is because the word is still taboo, barely understood. Klausner and Penny are on the vanguard in using the word in a manner other than anger, and directing it at figures whom it might accurately describe. Others are not quite there yet.

“I guess it goes back to taking the power away from the word,” said Barringer, the essayist, “but I would just prefer that people be kinder and smarter and find original ways to say something, rather than resorting to using something so base, that you don’t know who it’ll hurt.”

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>