42 Comments

Feminism Friday: On “Bitch” and Other Misogynist Language

cross-posted by Melissa McEwan , originally posted at Shakesville on November 20, 2007

[Important Note to Feminist Noobs: This is a long post. It contains lots of different, though related, Feminist 101 kind of ideas about misogynist language. Please carefully read the whole post before commenting. If you don't understand one of the points that is made in the post, I highly recommend asking for clarification before issuing an opinion on it. If you make an argument in comments that has already been discredited within the post, be prepared to be thoroughly mocked.]

Andi Zeisler, co-founder (with Lisa Jervis) of Bitch magazine, wrote an interesting piece for the WaPo this weekend on “the B-word,” its cultural connotation, and its reclamation:

Bitch is a word we use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. We use the term for a woman on the street who doesn’t respond to men’s catcalls or smile when they say, “Cheer up, baby, it can’t be that bad.” We use it for the woman who has a better job than a man and doesn’t apologize for it. We use it for the woman who doesn’t back down from a confrontation.

So let’s not be disingenuous. Is it a bad word? Of course it is. As a culture, we’ve done everything possible to make sure of that, starting with a constantly perpetuated mindset that deems powerful women to be scary, angry and, of course, unfeminine — and sees uncompromising speech by women as anathema to a tidy, well-run world.

…[Bitch magazine is] not about hating men but about elevating women. But too many people don’t see the difference. And, at least in part, that’s why the B-word is still such a problematic term.

Definitely read the whole thing.

I found it particularly compelling because of its pertinence not only to the sexism surrounding Hillary’s campaign which we’ve been discussing around here recently, but also because in the last week, I had a really retro and disheartening conversation about sexist language—a really retro and disheartening conversation about sexist language that I’ve had dozens of times before.

It began in the comments section of another blog, when I objected to a contributor denouncing a male public figure he didn’t like as an “all-around cunt.” Naturally, I was mocked for pointing out that demeaning and marginalizing sexist language has the capacity to make women feel demeaned and marginalized. I don’t have any relationship with the contributor who used the term, so I emailed another contributor whom I know better to inquire if using the n-word as an insult is considered appropriate at the blog, and if it would have been acceptable for the public figure to be deemed an “all-around faggot.” I was told that anything was allowable “within reasonable limits.” Racial slurs would not be tolerated or defended, but the use of sexist language was acceptable. Which, by my calculations, means that if you’re lambasting a black male public figure, calling him a stupid n—-r is out of bounds, but calling him a stupid cunt is totally cool.

I’d like to point out it’s a trade-off which insulates other black men against collateral debasement, but just debases black women in a different way, along with their sisters of all colors. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence. Ahem.

So, unlike the racial slurs that would not be neither tolerated nor defended, the misogynist slurs that would be both tolerated and defended were thusly justified:

  1. The Brits use it.
  2. I use it.
  3. The guy who used it is “no misogynist.” He was using this term for female genitalia to insult a man, after all, and his intent was not to be misogynistic.
  4. Comparing cunt to the n-word isn’t accurate and trivializes the n-word.
  5. He can’t “abide” the policing of their comments threads by the PC police (i.e. me).

Quite honestly, I’ve had almost this exact same conversation before with male, self-identified liberal/progressive bloggers at whose blogs I objected to the use of sexist language, which is why I’m not identifying the blogger with whom I had this conversation. It’s far too typical for me to single him out. I was, however, particularly disappointed by the way this conversation went, because I had thought that the person with whom I was speaking would be receptive to hearing how alienating it is, if for no other reason than because it will necessarily limit their audience. I was evidently mistaken.

By which I shouldn’t be surprised, given that, as I said, I’ve had this conversation before, and it always goes the same way. So let me just respond to this point-by-point, since they’re the same responses I inevitably get in such exchanges, and all of them have been raised in the comments of Shakes on multiple occasions:

1. The Brits use it. Some segments of British society are indeed fond of using the word cunt a lot. There are pubs in London where three seconds doesn’t go by without someone shouting “yeh feckin’ cunt!” at his or her mate. And…that really has nothing to do with its use at an American blog about American politics.

It also, btw, has nothing to do with whether it’s intrinsically sexist. There are also bars in America where not three seconds pass without one guy calling another guy a fag. The frequency of its use in specific regional areas doesn’t make it not homophobic—in those areas, or anywhere else.

Relatedly, the attempt to rip misogynist slurs from their roots to try to redefine them doesn’t fly. “I’m using it in the European way” is just a cynical ploy to justify the continued use of misogynistic language that feels good to use. “Asshole” just doesn’t have the zing! of “cunt,” which is why we get these tortured explanations about how “cunt” isn’t being used in the misogynistic way, but in the British or European way, where the word’s ubiquity is fallaciously used as evidence that the word has lost all its meaning.

Throwing around the word cunt as if it has no meaning anymore—or some “new” meaning separate from gender—is ignorant and lazy, and contributes, in spite of all protestations to the contrary, to a culture of inequality.

2. I use it. My using the word cunt to describe myself and a man using it to describe another man are fundamentally different contexts. To pretend that this difference is not patently fucking obvious is what August calls a fabricated belief. No one with two brain cells still knocking together honestly believes that white people using the n-word as an insult and black people using it for any reason are equivalent, nor that a gay man describing himself as a faggot is the same as Ann Coulter describing John Edwards as a faggot. And no one should have the slightest bit of trouble wrapping their heads around the idea that my (or other women) reclaiming the word cunt (or bitch, or other sexist euphemisms) to describe ourselves is not the same as a man using it as an insult.

I love the word cunt, and I’m all for reclaiming it—but reclaiming “cunt” is about a woman wearing it herself and wielding it ironically, which is necessarily as a compliment, not an insult. If I call my girlfriend “a beautiful cunt” for expertly handling a sexist wanker, that’s got reappropriative power. If I call her “a dumb cunt” because she does something foolish, not so much.

There are ways to use words and there are ways to use words—and knowing the difference, rooting out the subversive context from that which simply perpetuates oppression, is not remotely difficult.

And no matter how often women use it in a reclamative fashion, it doesn’t give anyone (of either sex) permission to use it as an insult. The whole “you use it” justification strikes me as a rather pathetic bit of whining; why do you get to use it and I don’t? As if that’s some big coup for the girlz. Trust me—in the whole “undeserved privilege since birth” v. “getting to use cunt” cage match, you’ve got the better end of the bargain. So STFU.

3. The guy who used it is “no misogynist.” He was using this term for female genitalia to insult a man, after all, and his intent was not to be misogynistic. Okay, first of all, let’s pull this apart into two pieces:

A. Intent: If you’re turning part of a woman’s body into a slur to insult someone, the implication is necessarily that cunts are bad, nasty, less than, in some way something that a person wouldn’t want to be or be associated with. That’s how insults work. When cunt is used as a slur, it is dependent on construing a woman’s body part negatively—and it thusly misogynistic, because it inexorably insults women in the process. Specifically using a misogynistic slur against a man can’t be anything but intentionally misogynistic. If you don’t intend to demean women, then don’t use misogynistic slurs. It’s really as simple as that.

B. Not a Misogynist. How often does one have to use misogynistic language before one can be identified as a misogynist? Twenty times? A hundred? An infinite number of times, as long as he doesn’t beat women? During the “cunt/whore” dust-up recounted here, Piny wrote a great post addressing this very question:

I wholeheartedly agree that there is a difference between someone who posts an ill-conceived blackface photoshop caricature and, say, Nathan Bedford Forrest. I will also happily concede that there is a difference between someone who openly identifies as feminist but casually uses misogynistic slurs and graphic misogynistic riffs to deride people–women in particular–and, say, John Knox.

This does not mean that it’s a good idea to restrict “a racist,” “a sexist,” and “a misogynist,” to the very worst of the worst. …[I]t reduces complaints about all of these words to matters of personal affront, such that “sexist” and “cunt” are equated. “Sexist” becomes not a criticism of someone’s demonstrated beliefs, a term like “reactionary,” but an epithet as crude as the slurs to which it responds. It’s mean and unfair to call someone a sexist.

Absolutely spot-on. Also see the except from Pam here, which talks about how reserving these terms for the extremes allows people to “rationalize away such incidents because a real racist burns a cross on someone’s lawn, or ties a black man to the back of a truck and drags him until his limbs fall off.” Reserving “misogynist” (or “sexist”) for equivalent displays of contempt for women means that a guy who flippantly refers to another guy as a cunt (or a bitch, or a pussy, or a girl) can justify it with assertions that he isn’t a misogynist, even if he uses the terms with regularity. Back to Piny:

Then, inevitably, it becomes impossible to describe behavior as repeated and typical, part of a pattern, because there will always be a John Knox whose lack of respect for women is more constant and more obvious. In fact, it arguably conflates extremism with consistency. If my bigotry does not reach a certain level, then it is a negligible component of my persona, even in discussions about bigotry that respond to demonstrations of bigotry.

…If someone cannot be called a sexist unless they either constantly treat women as though they hated them or engage in behavior that even Bill Napoli considers abominable, then little things like using a misogynist slur are automatically trivial. They’re so far from true sexism that they might as well be called feminist.

Indeed.

And the ultimate result of resisting being deemed a misogynist for the use of misogynistic language is that it’s yet another way of giving oneself permission to resist self-examination. As I’ve said no fewer than a nonillion times before, all of us, failing extraordinary effort to examine the narratives of bias—with which we’re all indoctrinated by our culture—in an attempt to extricate ourselves from their divisive grip, will hold prejudices. The only question is whether you allow your own to be unexamined prejudices. Responding to questions about the use of misogynist language with “I’m not a misogynist!” is a near-certain step to burying and making intractable the very prejudices that allows someone to engage in such behavior in the first place. There’s more shame in denying being a misogynist when you patently, undeniably are than saying: “Yes, I’m a misogynist, but I don’t want to be.”

I’m reminded of an exchange I had with Bill soon after he started posting at Shakes. He used something (way less obvious than an overt slur) to which I objected in one of his posts, and I asked him to please remove it. Here’s how he responded: He said, approximately, “Thanks. I don’t always notice stuff like that, and I’m trying to be more sensitive to it, so I appreciate your letting me know.” That’s it. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I respected him for that, how profoundly appreciative I was of his utter lack of defensiveness. And if you want to know what a swell dude he really is, he removed it from the post at his own blog, too. (In other words, he wasn’t just blowing smoke up my ass.)

4. Comparing cunt to the n-word isn’t accurate and trivializes the n-word. I’ve seen a lot of this “slur ranking” lately—JFH did it in comments here just this weekend, although, unlike my correspondent, he decided that the n-word and cunt are equivalent, but probably only because he was rejecting someone’s having compared bitch and the n-word: “[C]omparing ‘bitch’ to ‘[the n word]‘ is not fair. The equivalent to ‘bitch’ is ‘bastard’ or ‘asshole’. The equivalent to ‘[the n-word]‘ is ‘cunt’.”

The ludicrous thing about these examinations of equivalence is that when someone says, “Would you use the n-word in that way?” what they mean is, “Would you use racial slurs in that way?” Parsing whether cunt is the precise equivalent of the n-word is just a way of avoiding the underlying idea. Sexist language, like racist language, is marginalizing and demeaning. Full. Stop. And I shouldn’t have to determine the exact racial equivalent of “cunt” before that point can be made. “It’s not as bad as the n-word, but it’s worse than darkie…” Yeesh.

The internal rankings are equally useless, i.e. “bitch isn’t as bad as cunt.” Women who are marginalized and demeaned by misogynist language take little comfort from the fact that the people who use it only mean to marginalize and demean us “this much” with “this word” and “that much” with “that word.”

And if there are women who say, “I hate being called a cunt more than being called a bitch,” I suspect it’s merely indicative of our being inured to one word more than the other and/or having been given more cultural opportunities for reclamation. It means something that there’s a Bitch magazine at your local newsstand and not a Cunt Quarterly. (Or if there is, it’s a porno.)

5. He can’t “abide” the policing of their comments threads by the PC police (i.e. me). Well, this is what it always boils down to in the end. I’m just too sensitive and I’m trying to censor someone and blah blah blah. In a word, no.

What I am is more sensitive to how misogynist language affects women, because I am one. People of color are more sensitive to racist language (particularly racist dog whistles, for example) than I am; that doesn’t mean they’re too sensitive. When a reader pointed out to me that my use of the word “lame” to mean “stupid” could be offensive to disabled Shakers, it wasn’t that she was too sensitive; it was that I was not sensitive enough. It means that (duh) I still have shit to learn in this world.

Life is hard enough without my unexpectedly smacking people in the face who trust me not to be a jerk, and it’s in that same spirit that I’ve tried to convey how misogynist language is uncool—hey, I don’t want to get blindsided with shit like that from an ostensible ally. When I highlight the use of sexist language at a male-authored blog, it’s because such language is alienating and demeaning and infuriating and I’m operating under the assumption that those bloggers don’t want to alienate, demean, and infuriate their female readers.

But that, as it turns out, usually tends to be a faulty assumption.

Repeatedly, it comes down to this insistence that I’m trying to police their blogs, but they refuse to be censored, man! Which itself is bullshit. It’s not about being censored, but about the refusal to self-censor to make their blogs non-misogynist, as if giving up the use of the word cunt is some kind of creative apocalypse. I’ve got news for you: If you feel like self-censoring to forego the use of misogynist language is a compromise of your integrity, you don’t have much integrity to begin with.

I self-censor all the time. I’m not exactly proud to admit this, but it’s not like the phrase “Bush is a fuckin’ retard” has never entered my mind. But I don’t use the slur—not because I’m oh-so-scared that the “PC police” will come after me, but because it’s not a nice term. That’s reason enough.

And I don’t think I’ve exactly failed to convey my feelings about our less-than-brilliant president without using a word that would unnecessarily insult people I have no desire whatsoever to demean and alienate people who love them. It’s not particularly challenging to expand one’s vocabulary beyond cunt and retard.

But the attitude I routinely get for suggesting such a infinitesimal broadening of one’s horizons is, essentially, “Deal with it or fuck off.”

So “fuck off” it is.

I generally don’t read (so as not to tacitly support) progressive blogs that use misogynist language, even if they’re ideological allies in other ways, because sexism is deeply illiberal. There are plenty of progressive blogs, including exclusively male-authored blogs, that don’t use misogynist language—so I don’t need to read blogs that do.

Plenty of us have managed to figure out that refusing to use language which perpetuates oppression is not enslaving oneself to the language police. It’s just doing the basic work required of someone who doesn’t want to be a fucking asshole.

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42 comments on “Feminism Friday: On “Bitch” and Other Misogynist Language

  1. Fundamental rule for language reclamation- If you are not one or do not have one- you cannot use the word. I am a bitch and I have a cunt- I can use both words. I am not black and therefore cannot use the n word. I am not gay and therefore cannot use the f word.

    • Then you better not use the word “dick” or “prick” when referring to a man, because you don’t have one….

      • John,

        Although I do agree that it is inappropriate to use gendered insults for both women AND men, your post does not make it apparent that you understand the privilege men carry. It mostly just seems sarcastic, but I apologize if I’m reading into your response incorrectly. Really.

        Men have so many advantages in most societies that women don’t. I really don’t think that is news to you or anyone here. Men may be offended by the above insults, but they do not contribute to the oppression of men. Women are continuously marginalized as human beings by slurs (if only it were just slurs!) and at the end of the day, if I call you a “prick” or a “dick” or any other male-associated insult, you are still a male and carry many male privileges with you, offended or not. If you call me (or anyone else) a “bitch” or a “cunt” or a “pussy” (etc. etc.) I am still a woman who is subject to inequality almost everywhere, offended or not.

        I am poorly articulating my thoughts, but do you see the difference?
        I realize you were just responding to Red Queen’s post but I couldn’t help but feel you were making assumptions about Red Queen in a very sarcastic and insensitive way.

        -K

  2. Whilst reclamation isn’t a bad thing I think the ultimate aim should be culture moving along to a point where these things aren’t considered offensive (in the same way that “heathen” used to be a very offensive word but has lost most of its bite due to the general increase of religious tolerance). But they can be a good stepping point.

  3. Fundamental rule for language reclamation- If you are not one or do not have one- you cannot use the word.

    Agreed. Where I think this particular one gets thorny is in one particular realm of derogatory terms based on status as a sex worker – “whore”, “slut”, possibly “tramp” and “tart”.

    Where I stand personally: I don’t think women who haven’t been sex workers get to reclaim “whore”. I know there are at least several feminist bloggers who do use this term, and I disagree with that usage.

    “Tramp”, “tart”, and possibly “slut” – these are in my grey zone, because they’ve also been used for so long to denigrate sexually active women who aren’t sex workers. The issue of who “is” or who “owns” these terms could be reasonably contentious.

  4. So, if, say, a female driver cuts me off on my morning commute, what gender-specific term would it be acceptable for me to use? Or is there one? And if not, is it acceptable for women to use gender-specific terms like “dick” when expressing anger or frustration towards men?

    • Why do insults have to be gender specific? If a (female) person is driving badly, is the reason for her bad driving the fact that she is female, or simply that she is being careless? If it is because she is careless, then why does the insult need to make reference to her gender when in this case her gender is totally irrelevant?

    • I was cut off on my bike this morning by a white (Asians are supposed to be bad drivers too) man making a left hand turn on a red light.

      What gender- or race-specific term would it have been acceptable for me to use?

      As for your other question, since men aren’t an oppressed group, women can call them whatever they want. People of color are free to call white people honky cracker-ass whities too.

    • “Asshole” works for everyone. ;-)

      But why not use it as an opportunity to become truly creative with one’s insults? The main reason (I think) that people use terms like “cunt,” “lame,” “dick,” “bitch,” et cetera, is a lack-lustre vocabulary. Why not refer to an unpleasant individual as “the putrid sweat from a mangy camel’s left nut” or some such? “A cancerous polyp on the anus of humanity” is one of my personal faves from Red Dwarf. It’s insulting, I don’t *think* anyone will be demeaned or belittled by the language (beyond the intended target), and just the effort of thinking up the perfect insult for them is in itself satisfying, I find. Far more so than simply dismissing them as a “cunt” or a “retard” or whatever.

      I say we fight to expand the vocabulary of people world-wide, so we need not rely on these inferior, out-dated insults! If we’re going to make the effort to insult someone, why not make the effort worthwhile and come up with a really *good* one? >:-]

  5. I like the word slut. I use it all the time to describe myself. Owning female sexual agency is a good thing, and I think reclaiming words like slut, tart and tramp take the sting out of words that describe perfectly natural behavior. I think.

    Whore is a different word though. It implies and exchange of money for services (which we all do- it’s called a job) but most of us don’t have to risk our lives and health everyday to do that. It would be hard to compare my job to prostitution because it’s kinda like saying you “got raped on your taxes”. The degree of damage caused by one activity is in no way comparable to the degree of damage caused by the other.

    And arkhilokhus- I generally use the non-gender specific asswipe for fuckwad instead of dick. Though with all the penis worship in the world, calling someone a dick isn’t quite as insulting as calling someone a cunt. There are a million and one insults in the world that can be used specifically for the intended without denigrating an entire class of people at the same time.

  6. Let’s leave female genitalia; being a woman (at least in my country) is an insult itself, i.e. “you’re such a girl”. It bothers me to no end. I heard such comment a while ago, as I had thousands of times through my life, but this time it did hit me. I hadn’t realized something so obvious, since I grew up with it and I never gave it much of a thought. And you can’t really point that out to anyone (in my case, I can, my brother and sister, God bless their awareness), they’d reply you’re overreacting, it’s just a way of speaking. But language does matter.

  7. When I first started reading blogs I mostly read political blogs. When the sexist language cropped up I usually left a comment stating that I was a member of the half of the population that did not appreciate being considered the default insult for the other half. Sometimes people would think about it and talk about it, but most of the time it came down to these are the doodz interwebs and if you dont like it fuck off.

    I usually chose to “fuck off”.
    I am amazed that people are still trying to pretend that they just can’t figure it out.

    I don’t know how much clearer a person can make it. If you use race based or gender based terms as insults you are clearly prejudiced against that race or gender else you would not consider that race or gender an insult.

  8. As a WOC I have thought alot about word reclamation. If the historical meaning of a word is negative no matter who uses it, it has the potential to do harm. No matter who would refer to me as a cunt, whore, slutt of nigger for that matter I would be offended. These terms are not meant to reflect positive aspects of either femininity or blacks. Just because we desire a different definition does not mean one is possible. I also believe that by continually using these words we endow them with power. Only elimination through non usage will ever truly remove the sting of what they infer.

  9. I can see the point that words with negative conotations with always have those negative conotations among certain people, usually the majority. I still feel there is something to be gained by attempting to reclaim these words. As a woman and a feminist, I too have thought a lot about word reclamation. I feel that my reclamation of words like cunt and bitch and slut are positive. They redefine the words for me and allow me to use the words in a postive manner. This also allows me to deflect their power to hurt, as well. It still hurts when someone calls me a bitch or a cunt, but it’s easier to brush off when I don’t see these words as the ultimate insult and I understand that the person is merely trying to insult me by drawing attention to the fact that, yes, I am a woman. If I don’t find my womanhood insulting, point out that I am a woman is not insulting.
    I see nothing wrong with endowing these words with power. It’s the kind of power that can be problematic. When I make cunt a powerful word, it’s powerfully positive. The asshole driving by who yells it out the window is hoping to fill the word with a negative and demeaning power. I think as the object to which these words refer, I should be able to chose how they are used, how I use them and how I chose to define them.
    Also, I think they will never go away as long as we still live with misogyny. Nonusuage can also give them even greater, taboo power.

  10. Denigrate – to blacken. Root niger, nigr (Latin) – same root as nigger (vernacular pronunciation of negro, black in Spanish and Portuguese). I am assuming that blackening is not actually a bad thing so perhaps another word would be more friendly?

    It’s possible that some of the people who don’t get it after the nonillionth explanation actually do get it and simply disagree with language policing as a political strategy. That is, they understand that the language is useful because of its asymmetrical ability to demean and provoke offense but think there’s nothing self-evident about the conclusion that hurtful speech should be censored/self-censored by the speaker as the solution.

    These dissidents of conscience may disagree that the power to alter the use and impact of hurtful language should be left to the speaker. They may even think that depending on others to act differently rather than independently adjusting one’s own emotional reflexes and interpretive strategies is a frail sort of empowerment.

    They may think that treating words as powerful incantations is a kind of magical thinking that distracts attention and effort from more fundamental relations of power. Or they may see both censorship and self-censorship as violations of a value of individual free expression, including the repurposing of words, more fundamental than the value of interpersonal sensitivity.

    I don’t know whether being flat misunderstood is better or worse than being understood but found unconvincing. But I do think that assuming the first is always the case tends to obscure some of the ways that thoughtful people of good will and common goals might end up irritated with each other.

  11. “It’s possible that some of the people who don’t get it after the nonillionth explanation actually do get it and simply disagree with language policing as a political strategy. ”

    Sure, Carl, it’s all about the language police and never about the racist, sexist, bigotry spewing. Because the bigotry spewing never seems to be a problem for the person who is spewing. And of course, they really don’t mean anything by it. Just because a person uses racist and sexist slurs that doesn’t mean they’re a racist or sexist, oh goodness no. They just play one in the comment threads.
    Oddly enough Carl, people of good will don’t usually pepper their conversations with racist and sexist slurs. That’s one of the ways you can tell they are people of good will.

  12. We get a lot of American TV and cinema here in Australia, and I get really annoyed at the American swearwords ‘motherfucker’ and ‘son of a bitch’.

    What I find bizarre about these terms is that they are designed as insults TO men, but they are ABOUT women. To me, they carry an embedded patriarchal assumption that women do not exist in their own right, but are merely subsumed within men’s existence.

    Thankfully, the terms don’t seem to have been absorbed into the Australian vernacular, as have so many other American words and phrases. I hope they never do.

  13. “To me, they [common US slang words 'motherfucker' and 'son of a bitch'] carry an embedded patriarchal assumption that women do not exist in their own right, but are merely subsumed within men’s existence” — so very well described. The omnipresence of American TV is infecting all cultures with the brand of misogyny made in the USA. Ironically, the words reverse the natural primacy of woman’s body as birth-giver and convert to insult. The words also suggest why nothing short of overarching social evolution to something else than what we now have can really liberate us — womankind, children and men of good will.

    The pyrrhic victory of equity feminism does no more than achieve equality with patriarchal values and the social roles/constructs/systems developed over centuries of dominant trickery and trauma by men of ill will. As one modern result, birthing occurs in US hospitals mainly by agency of allopathic obstetricians (token females, more males) with increasing C-section/surgeries imposed against women in the hype that this is somehow advantageous (to doctors’ annual incomes, yes). Midwifery is allowed to exist (where it does) only in the framework of OB-GYN predominance and the patriarchal legal system’s regulation/insurance.

    To womankind’s credit, we can find ways to make birthing more humane (and caring men as partners participate). But it’s a challenge to do so, when the birth of chosen children should be a living celebration in tangible community.

    Instead, we have slang which labels mothers and children the property of men, who hurl words that hate us on their battleground.

    I choose to eat a nectarine. And keep the seed. When the global patriarchy falls of its own hubris and Mother Nature’s self-defense, nobody will be left to tell me where I may plant.

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  15. responding to # Lee, on May 17th, 2008 at 1:45 pm Said:
    Let’s leave female genitalia; being a woman (at least in my country) is an insult itself, i.e. “you’re such a girl”. It bothers me to no end. . . . And you can’t really point that out to anyone, . . . they’d reply you’re overreacting, it’s just a way of speaking. But language does matter.

    Indeed.

    Besides, if language didn’t matter, why would the sexists be so desperate to keep slurring? If somebody tells a TV meteorologist, “Don’t say rain. Say precipitation.” nobody gets up in arms. But sexists act as if a whole way of life would end if they had to stop using slurs. Which it would.

    I’d say, though, that “You’re such a girl” and “You’re such a cunt” are two sides of the same thing. The only reason the first one isn’t heard so often any more in some places is that the status of women has improved enough so that it doesn’t hurt enough. Now using “cunt” is the way to kick someone in the teeth for being female.

    But either way, the real point is kicking females. If you can do it by using “girl” then you have the added bonus of being able to pretend you’re polite and fun-loving. (For instance, the current Governor of my state calling legislators who didn’t do what he wanted “girlie men”.) But having to ratchet up to “cunt” is not all bad. Then you can be both crude (thereby pledging allegiance to the Boyz Club) and not a prude. There’s always a bright side.

  16. (There is NOT supposed to be a wink-icon in my post! I think it interpreted close parentheses the wrong way.)

    [Editor note: I fixed it, quixote. That'll teach you not to put punctuation inside quotation marks!]

  17. I’m so glad I came across this today. It’s very well explained. I just spent the whole holiday weekend with a bunch of very macho guys. I could put up with all of their behavior except when they called each other “bitch”. Every time they did it, I winced. I wasn’t sure whether it made me feel better or worse to realize that they had no clue they were being offensive.

  18. It’s quite simple.

    Anyone who resorts to this kind of language needs to be ignored until they can make their point without scraping the gutter.

    Eventually, they may pick up some of the other 500k words in the English language, and present a more cerebral argument.

  19. I think the issue with labels is a lot deeper that sexism or racism. Labels are meant to be tools that we use so that we can apply them to a meaning, saving us a lot of sweat clarifying the menaing each time. Instead of applying labels to meaning, we give meanings to labels. This gives the label a life and instead of language serving us, we serve it. In the manipulation that is communication, these labels get used to try and control others. Regardless of what labels we use, we are unable to escape the manipulation of communication for power. This is a pervasive mechanism and everyone is subject to its effect. There are specific slurs and the sexist and racist ones get most of the airtime because of their high profile, however in all zones of power conflict, any mechanism including language gets used.

  20. [...] Nor would I ever refer to you as one. This is feminism 101, though, so I will let you visit this link if you are interested in reading up on misogynist language: http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2008/05/16/feminism-friday-on-bitch-and-other-misogynist-lan… [...]

  21. Anyone else finding Carl’s comment unintentionally hilarious?

    That is, they understand that the language is useful because of its asymmetrical ability to demean and provoke offense but think there’s nothing self-evident about the conclusion that hurtful speech should be censored/self-censored by the speaker as the solution.

    Seriously? Seriously? “I realise my language hurts others, but I don’t think I should have to refrain from doing that.” Why don’t you?What’s wrong with you?

    But wait, there’s more!

    “These dissidents of conscience” *snort* People languish in hell as political prisoners of regimes all over the world because they fight for freedom of thought and mind, but Carl! Carl will not let you tell him he should take the 10 seconds to think of another word that won’t hurt people!

    Oh, someone pass me a flag to raise, for I must follow him!

    They may even think that depending on others to act differently rather than independently adjusting one’s own emotional reflexes and interpretive strategies is a frail sort of empowerment.

    Why am I not surprised that Carl blames the victim? Oh, you oppressed groups whose very identity is used as a slur. You’re just too sensitive! Why can’t you toughen up a bit?

    Or they may see both censorship and self-censorship as violations of a value of individual free expression, including the repurposing of words, more fundamental than the value of interpersonal sensitivity.

    “My right to say whatever the fuck comes into my head is more important than your right to be treated as an equal member of society.”

    I don’t know whether being flat misunderstood is better or worse than being understood but found unconvincing. But I do think that assuming the first is always the case tends to obscure some of the ways that thoughtful people of good will and common goals might end up irritated with each other.

    Carl, there may be a bunch of reasons why people of good will and common goals end up irritated with each other, but you wouldn’t know a thing about it, because you aren’t one.

  22. I’m not convinced that Carl is speaking out of bad will, but I don’t think I agree either.

    The problem with thickening one’s skin as a response to racist and sexist language (which it sounds like is what is being suggested there) is that it’s not really handling the actual problem. It may make life easier for an individual to be able to ignore insults, but as long as people have the desire to tear into people based on gender, they’ll just come up with new ways to do it when an old one loses it’s power.

  23. Nonsense – I may be considered crude, but there is no case for how it IS a misogynistic word. It is not used to oppress or insult anyone based on their identity as racial slurs or even ‘bitch’ are. It applies to men and women. The word may not be popular this side of the pond, but that scarcely justifies burdening it with label. Methinks this is a case of someone not liking a word and deciding, unconsciously perhaps, to relabel it as misogynistic. Just like calling someone a dick or a tit.. it is demeaning (theoretically) only to the target inasmuch as it demeans their humanity by making them a part of a human body and not a whole human.

  24. Is Drewsifer actually explaining—-yet again—-that the Brits use the word ‘cunt’ differently than us repressed Americans? It’s

  25. Crap, posted too soon.

  26. Henry Rollins uses “pussy” a lot in his spoken word shows. I wrote to him about it, basically asking, “How can you use pussy as an insult but also like pussy?” And he told me to get over it. He makes his living with words but doesn’t give a crap about how powerful language is. He has the ear of a lot of impressionable, angry young men — a lot of people, period — and that makes me sad.

    This happened again with a movie reviewer. I started noticing his posts contained insults couched as terms referring to females, called him on it, and he was not nearly as civil as Henry.

    Sometimes, when I ask the guys (and gals) around me to stop using pussy, they’ll switch to nancy or call each other little girls or bitches. It seems it’s quite the insult to be called a chick … or be bested by one.

    • If a prominent female entertainer constantly referred to ‘cocks’ or ‘pricks’ or ‘shlongs’ or whatever in a derogatory way, then I guess I would feel insulted. If it happened over and over again, every day, in music, on tv, in magazines etc etc then I would be more than insulted, downright angry in fact.

  27. If I say something that others find offensive (even though I did not intend it to be so) then I will cease using that word or phrase. By continuing to say it, after I have found out that I am causing offense, then I am deliberately and knowingly being offensive. That is not how I want to be.
    If I think something is harmless or even funny, but someone else is hurt by it, then my enjoyment does not justify causing another person pain.
    But the real problem here is that the people who are the most vociferous in defending their right to use sexist/racist language under the smokescreen of ‘free speech’ do not really have protection of free speech as their primary motive. Their motivation is simply to promote themselves by putting others down. Men who belittle women do it to make themselves feel superior.
    Language is not harmless at all, the old verse ‘sticks and stones’ is wrong. Rather, the line ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ is certainly correct.

    • Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness. Those are the fundamental rights granted to all individuals in the U.S. Freedom of speech is another one of those rights. Nowhere does it say that people have the right to not be insulted.

      I agree, self censoring to not hurt others is a GOOD thing. And when somebody doesn’t self-censor, you have every right to be offended. Such is life. Saying that people deserve to never feel offended is the same as saying that people deserve to never feel sad. These are basic emotions, and part of being alive.

      • @John, not everybody posting to this blog is a US citizen, so not really sure exactly how your particular national constitution is especially relevant.

        Still, freedom from government interference with one’s free expression of personal opinion is indeed a fundamental principle of human rights; it’s just got nothing at all to do with whether other people have to put up with listening to one be a jerk just because the government can’t stop one expressing jerkish opinions.

        Freedom of Association is another fundamental principle of human rights, and any one has the right to withdraw from association with somebody who is being a jerk. Jerks cannot demand that other people hang around to listen to them just because we can’t stop them spouting off.

        Sure, people don’t have a right to not be offended. They do have a right to express their disgust and disdain though, and they do have a right to shun jerks.

  28. The problem comes down to intent versus interpretation. Most slurs have an inherent intent to demean their recipient by making a deliberate reference to being part of a certain group (gender, race, et. al.). For most slurs, this is clear-cut even if not self-obvious to the user. The exception is bitch.

    The original term (as I’m sure everyone knows) refers to a female dog. From there it evolved to refer to the unpleasant/complaining nature of those same dogs when raising puppies. Thereby came the verb-form of the word.

    Bitch (verb): To complain in an unpleasant manner.

    Now it gets cyclic and anyone said to be “bitching” is (this time without reference to gender) a bitch.

    YES, the gender-referencing slur DOES exist, and is unnecessary to use.
    YES, the origin of the word is gender-specific, but the word is not ALWAYS gender-specific.

    I’m sure someone will try to argue that having a gender-specific origin DOES make it ALWAYS gender-specific no matter what, and that’s their nice prerogative.

    • I would say it is gender specific. For example, in calling a man a “(little) bitch” the insult comes about by comparing him to a woman, in behavior or role, which is supposed to be insulting because of the implied association women=inferior. It’s not about the origin — that is just a synchronic fact. “Gay” used to mean happy. Now it can be a neutral or positive self designation or an insult (“that’s so gay”). It’s origin didn’t entail it’s use as an insult, but that use is a synchronic fact.

      I find reclamative uses of words problematic… It just perpetuates the existence of hate words and keeps alive the argument that “if you use it I should be able to too”. I find it bad to fight inequality with… more inequality of a pettier kind. If in the cage fight of use of cunt v. privilege, we would give up cunt for privilege, why not take the high road, give up cunt (or at least exclusive access to it — why not just reserve “cunt” for positive uses, whether by men or women?), and demand equality? I wouldn’t mind if a man said, “Way to show that sexist asshole, cunt!” in a positive way. ;)

  29. From dictionary reference.com: N&gger: a person of any race or origin regarded as contemptible, inferior, ignorant, etc.
    Ya, you know, its not always referring to black people! Gee, don’t be so sensitive. I didn’t mean it that way/sarc.

  30. I hate it when women call other women “bitch”. I hate it when men refer to a strong, independent woman as “bitch”. So, my proposal: substitute the word for another without a dehumanizing (because being called a “female dog” dehumanizes you) connotation. My proposals:

    1. amazon

    2. valkyrie

    I think valkyrie is cooler because the stoopid menz who think women are objects will surely have trouble pronouncing it!

  31. I am going to read the whole article, promise.

    I just want to say its great to read someone even bringing up the topic. I swear, ANY topic past abortion.

    And a quick note about women’s bodies. I recall a wonderful feminist author/activist I saw on Democracy Now who mentioned that in some other countries their languages don’t even have a WORD for the female body part. No words. Considered something not worth a word. Too vile. And here, its a nasty insult. To be “one of those”

    I tell my kids the world hates women, and they don’t get it. They’re boys, so they probably never will. Anymore, I’m just glad I had boys, and good luck to those of us without a penis. I’m very bitter. Very.

  32. Women are not oppressed by society, they are protected by society. Men are the ones considered disposable. Feminists are the ones restricting the freedom of women as they dictate how women should behave, often by moronic and juvenile means such as the quote from Bitch magazine.

  33. “Bitch is a word we use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. We use the term for a woman on the street who doesn’t respond to men’s catcalls or smile when they say, “Cheer up, baby, it can’t be that bad.” We use it for the woman who has a better job than a man and doesn’t apologize for it. We use it for the woman who doesn’t back down from a confrontation.”

    …Huh? Maybe it’s entirely possible that this word’s just plain used to refer to people with terrible attitudes/insufferable personalities while at the same time happening to be women? I mean, it’s not that difficult to understand. I can see why the whole feminist movement is upset with the use of gendered insults but it’s like there’s always some theory that the word’s been consciously planted in the vernacular to belittle women whenever they’re “stepping out of line” or whatever OUR CULTURE and OUR SOCIETY supposedly thinks. Yeah gendered insults are as a whole unnecessary but when you start playing armchair psychologist and painting it as the man psychologically intimidating you and keeping you down, that’s about the point where you lose everyone who doesn’t have a serious victim complex.

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