The next time you hear a feline-centric reference involving the female anatomy on Comedy Central, take a moment to thank the universe for sending us Amy Schumer, patron saint of the p-word. Or, as "Inside Amy Schumer" head writer and executive producer Jessi Klein happily announced to a sold-out crowd Paley Center panel this weekend, "We can say pussy now!"
As Schumer then elaborated, it was the show's fellow executive producer Dan Powell who took up the cause when he "decided that it wasn't fair that they bleep the word 'pussy.' Because you are allowed to say the word 'dick' on Comedy Central." As anyone who watches "The Colbert Report," "The Daily Show," or "South Park" can attest, "dick" is indeed the coin of the realm for the network. But as Vulture's Jenna Marotta explains, "Comedy Central's standards arm would okay certain anatomical references like 'dick' if they weren't used in reference to sex." But that wasn't sufficient justification to Powell, who says, "Halfway through the first season, we started to realize that a lot of the show was addressing women's issues and gender politics. I'd written a letter, sort of like I'd write to my congressman, and I guess it struck a chord." Schumer calls it "Dan's 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'" moment. But instead of fighting political corruption, it was a fight to do a sketch involving animated meerkats. A sketch that, by the way, is a deft, fantastically vulgar commentary on how Hollywood sees and treats female performers – and one that still bleeps out the word "sh__."
Words have power, and the subtleties of the power they wield present challenges to the media. The New York Times has been known to be so spooked by the possibility of impropriety it wouldn't even mention the STFU Parents blog, all because of that naughty F in the middle of the name. And Comedy Central has clearly wrestled with the impact of words like "dick" – declaring them acceptable in some contexts but not others. Four years ago, it faced a different kind of controversy with the creators of "South Park" over the name Muhammad.
And while the latest fight, for "pussy," may not exactly be the most epic battle in public discourse, it still feels particularly meaningful. The insults "douche" and "bitch," two words with their roots in womanhood, have long been commonplace on TV, but "pussy" has remained all but verboten. Sure, not all anatomical references were created equal, and some have a bigger impact than others – it's certainly hard to imagine, at this point, Comedy Central extending the same warm welcome to the c-word. Yet our pronounced cultural disdain and discomfort over words involving women's bodies remains undeniable. Two years ago, Michigan state Rep. Lisa Brown was censured for using the word "vagina" in a debate -- about abortion legislation. Also in 2012, iTunes blocked out the full name of Naomi Wolf's book "Vagina," ridiculously calling it instead "V****a." Last year, a Wisconsin newspaper struck out the word "Vagina" from an ad for a production of "The Vagina Monologues." And as the injustices against Russian feminist band Pussy Riot piled up over the past few years, we've watched as news networks have had to learn to get over their squeamishness around the group's name in order to report fairly on their story.
So bravo to the folks of "Inside Amy Schumer" for waging and winning a small fight for gender balance. Because maybe if we use different words more, and more openly, we'll be less afraid of them. More important, maybe we'll be less afraid of the human beings who own those particular parts.