Despite multiple attempts to reclaim the word over the past few decades, "cunt" is still widely considered the worst thing you can call a woman. Really?
A well-known pick-up artist recently taught a seminar based on a bunch of ranty emails he sent me after I wrote about his friend. Naturally, he forwarded me the YouTube link. (Ah, the perks of being a Jezebel writer!) "Let me know what you think! Cunt..." he wrote. In the video, he explained why he peppered his emails with that word: to fuck with me. "I tried to add the word 'cunt' just so she'd be pissed," he giggled.
Pathetic pick-up artists aren't the only ones who think "cunt" is the ultimate feminist taboo. My male friends always shudder when I casually drop the term, as if they're about to be framed as closet misogynists simply by virtue of proximity. "Isn't that the worst word you can call a woman?" one well-meaning guy recently asked me. Apparently! But why?
In "The Uses of the Erotic," Audre Lorde writes beautifully about western society's fear of empowered women and female sexuality:
We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.
It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong. But that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power.
Basically, empowered women are dangerous women, and, as Laurie Penny argues, "there are no other truly empowering words for the female genitalia" besides the c-word."Cunt" isn't scientific, it's erotic. "Cunt" doesn't refer to a baby cat or a treasure chest. It conveys purposeful sexual power, not submission. It's mature. Women get called cunts when they reject sexual advances and assert themselves in the workplace; in other words, when they don't play nice.
People who use ethnic or racial slurs propagate long-held systems of oppression. But "cunt" doesn't have the same type of larger, disturbing historical context. Slate ran an etymology explainer post yesterday explaining how the word went from street name-suitable in the 13th century ("Gropecuntelane." Nice.) to vulgar (Francis Grose's 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines "cunt" as "a nasty name for a nasty thing") to scoring the #1 slot in a 2000 BBC ranking of the most offensive words of all time.
Seriously? Why do we let "cunt" retain so much negative power when we could take advantage of its true awesomeness? (Not to mention how satisfingly it rolls off the tongue; it's way more fun to say than "dick." Try it!) The only possible explanation is because so many people still think the worst crime a woman can commit is to be unapologetically sexual.
It's impossible to talk about the c-word this week without talking about the Onion's Quvenzhané Wallis tweet. Many talented writers have explained why it was problematic, including Roxane Gay, who wrote that the real issue wasn't the joke itself as much as the fact that the site's writers aren't diverse enough to consider how young black girls are regularly hypersexualized. "I'm not outraged about this one tweet," she wrote. "I'm outraged about the cultural disease that spawned this tweet, the one where certain people are devalued and denigrated for sport and then told to laugh it off because hey, you know, it's humor."
Focusing on the word "cunt" is a distraction; for example, the Onion debacle kinda overshadowed how sexist the Oscars were overall. And that's the goal, right? If we're busy being outraged over how "cunt" is the nastiest nasty thing to ever nasty, we'll waste the energy we need to fight against a system that denigrates women for wanting to be treated as equals.
I can understand the argument that calling a woman a "cunt" is akin to telling her that is all she is: a brainless hole that needs to be filled, etc. But since so many politicians and comedians and cops and college kids seem to think that anyway, the solution isn't to be afraid of the word and therefore scared to admit we have cunts — and are capable of acting like cunts, if the situation calls for it.
Image by Jim Cooke, source photos via Shutterstock.