Empty signs

I wrote to the women’s studies list yesterday to ask for thoughts on sexist epithets, especially pussy and cunt. Here is a sampling from replies.

“Recently, I was standing at the bus stop with a young man who was singing along to rap music. Suddenly, he yelled “Bitch!” and I almost ran for cover. But he was just singing along to the music. Can anyone wonder why young women are treated so badly when the music kids listen to describes them as bitches, evil, and mean?”

“I’m not sure who your informants are but I can absolutely disabuse you of their misinformation. “Cunt” is seen as one of the worst possible expletives that can be used. “Twat” is aged and falling out of fashion currently. “Pussy” has a little ambiguity as (now very old) comedies occassionaly play on the dual usages as a colloquial for cat and for genitalia. I’d be surprised to see any evidence that the meaning of these words isn’t known – what evidence do your informants proffer for that view?

In my opinion is it explicitly sexist but for slightly different reasons – its implication is that the worst possible thing is to be penetrated and that penetration is a sign of weakness in that instance. It relies on a belief that penetration is synonymous with strength and masculinity and to be penetrable is a sign of weakness. It also (certainly in the UK) is often used in the trope which asserts that female genitalia are dirty and smelly.” [That one is from someone at Oxford, so she’s not clueless about UK usage.]

“I had a discussion about “pussy” in my psych of women class recently, and the students insisted that when Jon Stewart and others use the word they mean “weak as a kitten.” Of course, that is sexist, especially when men apply it to each other to suggest they are not macho enough. But I think they are wrong in their understanding.”

Katha Pollitt refused to believe that the British are ignorant of the word ‘cunt.’ Well I sympathize, I can’t believe it either, and yet people insist – not quite exactly that they’re ignorant of the meaning, but that that’s no longer what the word means. In particular John Meredith in comments on Knowing what words mean.

“‘Slag’ is, nearly always, a sexist term…It means a woman who is disgusting by dint of having more sex than is approved. It is sexist because it can only be applied to women and evinces disgust simply because she is a woman and behaves like one. But ‘cunt’ which can really only be applied to men, just means (in its sweary sense) ‘bastard’ and does not imply any hostility towards women as women, so is not sexist. It is an empty sign, really, that just indicates ‘I feel extreme hostility towards you to the degree that I will use a taboo word for you’. The word itself could be one of dozens used pretty much interchangeably.”

I find that completely incomprehensible, and hard to believe. Just for one thing, why is the word taboo if it’s an empty sign? What is it that makes the word taboo if it is just an empty sign? What are the dozens of other words that could be used interchangeably? I don’t think there’s even one, let alone dozens. As far as I know, cunt is right at the top of the heap of Bad Words to call someone, and it is there because it is the most vicious hate-filled word for the female genitalia, while ‘pussy’ is a little less vicious and ‘twat’ is comparatively mild.

But there’s also a thread on Shiraz Socialist:

The word “cunt” is a highly effective insult precisely because of its shock value – nothing is more guaranteed to upset the secretary of the local WI than such a word. It’s no more endemically “oppressive” than any other word, the point is the context in which it is used. As Rosie said, it’s simply nonsense to claim that most people who use the word these days are referring to female genitalia, any more than when they call someone “posh” they are referring to Port Out Starboard Home. When they use the word “cunt”, they just mean that they really really disapprove of or dislike the individual to whom they’re referring. Like the word, dislike it, use it or don’t – I should care. But don’t invent a hierarchy of oppression amongst swear-words which is simply a false excuse for some left-wing version of parochial moralism.

I don’t buy it. If the word has shock value, then the shock value comes from somewhere. If the shock value comes from somewhere, where does it come from? I submit that it comes from the fact that it is a word that 1) equates women to their genitals and 2) expresses hatred for both. If that’s not where the shock value comes from, then where does it come from?

More later.

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