Even in mid-October, the Phoenix heat is brutal, the very air like a toss of acid to the skin. But this evening, when I exit the creative writing workshop I teach, there is a faint, delicious breeze, the first in months. I take a deep, untense breath. How suddenly beautiful it is, here.
And class tonight was a joy -- a dozen talented students who are kind to each other, insightful, collegial, respectful; midway through this semester, I feel we have truly connected, that we are speaking the same language. Campus is typically an obstacle course of careening skateborders, zooming bicycles, but now it is mellow-paced, students strolling home or to one of the thousand local bars. I am strolling, too, planning: homemade tacos, a glass or two of wine, an on-demand episode of "The Knick." My step is light.
A guy, a kid, a student, is walking toward me. Tallish, 20ish, backpackish, T-shirt and jeans, the ubiquitous cellphone at his ear. He is sweet-faced, rumpled. He looks a bit familiar -- a former student, whose name has slipped away? A current student, in my large undergrad lecture course, where I am still struggling to put faces to names?
Pop quiz: If a tired middle-aged fiction professor is heading home for tacos at x speed, and a 20-something guy student is heading to his dorm (girlfriend waiting?) at y speed, at what point – in time, in history, in consciousness – do their paths cross?
Twenty feet, 10 feet. He is talking at top cellphone volume, but my mind is on Clive Owen, so I register sound but not words. At 5 feet from each other, our eyes meet and in the second I offer a big pleasant smile (I adore my students, isn't the world lovely?) I hear what he is saying, has been saying, is continuing to say:
“Those fucking girls are too stupid to be bitches. They’re too fucking stupid to be cunts.”
There is a flash of recognition between us: We are student and professor; we are kid and adult; we are male and female. But which is it we are recognizing each other as?
I don’t know what happens to my smile-formed face, but in that second I see a flicker to his eyes, as if some calculation of gender or age or role in life is happening in his brain but not happening quite fast enough to lower his voice or change his words or even stop mid-word in whatever word -- cunts? -- he is on.
I am startled, I feel a clutch in my gut, my face go hot. But neither of us misses a step. We each continue on our algebraic way. The moment is over. Go home, I think. Wine and a hot cable TV doctor await you. Just roll your eyes, laugh it off. Chill. Oh, kids today. You do not have to solve for x or y. Boys will be boys. Shrug.
But I am disturbed. The moment sticks with me for days, creeps under my skin, and I am not entirely sure why. I am puzzled to be so disturbed. When I mention it to a younger (30ish) female colleague a few weeks later, she does indeed shrug. So what? That kind of thing would not bother her. I try to explain my unease. Well, maybe it’s a generational thing, she says. The word stings a bit, but she is right, of course; there is now a full generational divide between my students and me on what is or is not appropriate language and behavior.
For god’s sake: “Appropriate?” I actually think that way, now? What’s the big deal? His words were not directed at me. He didn’t spit at me. He didn’t assault me, or mug me, grab the weathered-leather bookbag from my professorial shoulder, abscond with my lecture notes and wallet. He didn't throw acid. A few years ago, a student was shot dead on the street three blocks from where this kid and I passed each other. So, why am I upset?
Perhaps I am simply offended, yes. I am a bit prudish about language. There are five or six words I avoid saying aloud; they either feel linguistically impoverished, or too juvenile and sniggly schoolyard, or too harsh to my ears. Cunt. The first time I typed “cunt” into a short story (and I have, my fiction does tend, ironically, toward the explicitly sexual), my hands froze above the keyboard. It made me cringe just to type the letters. In telling my colleague about the incident with the student (no, it didn’t rise to the level of incident, not even an anecdote, it was merely a moment), I said “cunt” aloud for probably the first time in my life.
But it's just a word, right? I trade in words, I respect and am fascinated by them, by their exhilarating range and infinite variety, and so I want them used mindfully. I want their power respected. I want honest words – I cannot stand cutesy euphemisms for body parts or bodily functions. And context matters. In my short story, “cunt” was the right word, the only word, the exact word the character would say. Early in every school term I casually drop a well-placed “fuck” into my lectures, or read aloud an excerpt from Palahniuk or Johnson, to assure students This Is Literature and We Are All Adults, Here. That I am a Cool Professor. A word is a word is a word; we can both honor and deconstruct its power. Cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt, all right? No biggie. I am shrugging, see?
Maybe we’re getting somewhere. I am a teacher of creative writing and literature; let’s attempt an exegesis of the text:
“Those fucking girls are too stupid to be bitches. They’re too fucking stupid to be cunts.”
So, if those “fucking girls” are too stupid to be bitches, then “bitch” becomes honorific, doesn’t it? “Bitch,” therefore, implies a superior intelligence, a keen, Machiavellian power, deserving of respect. Those poor fucking girls, the fucking girls in question, will never rise to the elevated level of "bitch." Poor girls.
No, wait – perhaps it is because these are girls who are fucking? And that is what makes them stupid? So, problem solved: If the girls cease to be fucking girls, then they perhaps, someday, can become smart enough to be bitches. There is hope for these girls, then, the possibility of a bright future! If they stop fucking then they will no longer be fucking stupid, and then they just maybe...can become cunts? Intelligent, clever, brainiac cunts?
That doesn’t seem right, though, this slut-shaming theory. Maybe I should study the subtext, the character's underlying agenda that fuels every good line of dialogue. The kid was impassioned. Wounded, perhaps? Perhaps his girlfriend had just dumped him, and what he said was an agonized expression of pain. He is a complex and disaffected youth, and she was the only girl who ever understood him. Who got him. He gave her his heart, and she pulverized the tender thing to mulch. She probably laughed, doing so. Probably belittled and humiliated him. What a bitch. What a cunt, yes. That his pain would alchemize to coarse anger, to profane rage, is so understandable, his words so appropriate, honest and heartfelt. Give this kid an A.
But I replay the moment; I reexamine his manner, I rehear what he said and how he said it. He was not impassioned, or enraged. Not at all. The heightened volume of his voice was more attributable to cellphone-speak, or the focus on hurrying home (girlfriend waiting?). There was no pain in his voice, no cry to the universe for understanding and support. He was casual, actually. Impersonal. These were casual, impersonal words to him, casual thoughts. He has thought this before. He has already formed these sentences in his mind, perhaps said them multiple times, and that is why they flew so lightly and easily from his mouth, like the well-practiced tourist-phrases and questions one memorizes from a guidebook to ease travel: Where can I find a bathroom? These fucking girls are too stupid to be bitches. I am an American tourist and do not speak your language. These fucking girls are too stupid to be cunts. Where can I find an ATM?
And there were other students strolling around, plenty of them girls, and how would they feel if they heard these words from this sweet-faced kid? Maybe the kid actually was hurrying to meet up with his girlfriend for IPAs at some bar, they have been dating awhile, things are going great, he will hold her hand and smile while she talks about her day, and they will go back to her place for sex, and it will be awesome, and how would she feel if she’d heard him say these things? I think of my niece, a recent college graduate -- this guy could be her boyfriend. Her roommate. A kid she sat next to in class, swapped notes with. Would hearing that disturb her?
And I am still puzzled about that moment of recognition between us, when our eyes met. Did this kid recognize me in my role as a professor, as someone with some kind of authority, to whom some kind of respect is, ostensibly, due? He could be one of my students, yes; has he sat there in class or workshop, collegially, respectfully, while I’m blathering about narrative structure and the need for a character’s agenda to fuel dialogue, thinking I’m smart enough to be a bitch? Or that Professor Ison isn't smart enough to be a cunt?
Or was that flicker in his eyes because he recognized me as someone old enough to be his mother, or an aunt? An older woman, an old woman, someone a kid his age might, ostensibly, choose to watch his words around? My friends' teenage sons tease and joke around with me with familiar ease, but they surely don't speak to me the way they speak to their buddies, of course not. So, was it simply too late for this kid to stop saying what he was saying as I passed by, or to lower his voice around this friend-of-his-mother's kind of lady, and that flicker was a kind of abashment?
I do an unscientific survey of millennial women: a bartender, the checker at Trader Joe's, the girl who cuts my hair, my niece. I relate the moment with as little commentary and with as much nonjudgmental impassivity as I can. The consensus: None of them are shocked, or even surprised. A few of them laugh. Yeah, it's not crazy to hear a guy talk that way, they tell me. Well, a guy's never talked to me that way, one says, but my roommate's boyfriend talks that way to her, about other girls, and it's almost a compliment, like he doesn't mean her, it's those other bitchy girls who are cunts, and he can talk that way about them because she's cool. They shrug.
So, this is normal, now, something to be expected, accepted, shrugged off? Maybe I really am an uncool professor, because that is crazy. I still understand the language of dehumanizing hatred, no matter how indifferent the tone. I feel the acidic burn, no matter how casually it is tossed around. There is no generational demographic wherein this is OK -- and shrugging it off bestows impunity, immunity, allows this kid to stroll around spewing at top, indifferent volume.
And now I'm angry.
Because finally, I realize: What I felt in that brief encounter with the young guy was not offense, or discomfort or puzzlement, or the comfortable detachment of sociological or linguistic analysis. It wasn't even that I felt disturbed. What I felt in that moment was fear. I felt vulnerable. Because any protective stature or authority I think I might possess due to my age or professorial rank are still trumped by the fact that I am female. I’m angry that I felt fear. And I'm angry at myself for doing nothing, saying nothing -- the coward's version of "shrugging it off" -- because I felt that fear.
His words were not directed at me, no, but that flicker in his eyes as he oh-so-casually disparaged women, girls, females, still felt assaultive. And this young guy’s casual loathing of women is all the more dangerous due to its seeming detachment; that is what oils the frictionless shift from thought to speech to behavior, to what Toni Morrison might call a “disinterested violence.” I’m angry to have been struck by the simmering threat of that, insidious as radiation. I’m angry it poisons and makes painful the very air.