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On “Cunt”

November 29th, 2006 · No Comments

A post at Feministe—in which Zuzu tears into a poster at Firedoglake (justifiably enough in the instance) for employing a prolonged and severely unfunny whore metaphor to attack a female political opponent—takes a few lines in passing to condemn the use of the epithet “cunt” against hated pundits who happen to have one. I think the general sentiment is dead on: It’s bizarre to watch soi-disant progressives churn out execrable stuff like Henry Rollins’ “Love Letter to Ann Coulter,” as though righteous politics sanctify misogynist bullshit. But I would kind of like to rescue “cunt.”

Now, I’m as wary as anyone about the kind of false equivalences about language that ignore the realities of history and social power. You will, for instance, occasionally see apparent adults suggesting that there is a “double standard” about how we react to different racial epithets: “cracker” versus “nigger,” say. And this is, of course, monumentally obtuse: It takes a special kind of imbecile not to see why there is every reason in the world to have a “double standard” in that case.

On the other hand, racial epithets really serve no useful discursive purpose. “Dick” and “cunt,” while perhaps not the first recourse of a Wildean wit, do. “Cunt” in particular is aesthetically well suited to the task: Short and direct, with that plosive hard-”c” opening and that guillotine “t” to close it off. And it seems like they’re typically used to suggest the same kinds of personality types, so that the condemnation in each case is only incidentally gender-linked: Calling someone a “dick” doesn’t implicate some broader pernicious theory of general male inferiority.

Now, there’s no real good reason our epithets here need to stay gendered, and I suppose we could just decide we’re going to, well, neuter “dick,” and use it to refer to obnoxious women too. But if it turns out not to be excessively difficult to finesse the transition from pernicious to merely insulting—we’re not there yet, but I bet it wouldn’t take all that long either—surely there’d be something healthy about that. Past some point, it seems to give the words all the wrong kind of power if “dick” remains a near-ubiquitous term of mild-to-moderate reproach but “cunt” is just a terrible thing to call someone. I don’t know where that point is, but I expect it will significantly precede the ultimate and final elimination of all sexism in the human soul. That said, I’m sure as hell not going to be the linguistic pioneer here….

Addendum: Piny has a very long follow-up denying that contemporary uses of “cunt” are “reclamations” along the lines of what’s happened with “queer.” Which, of course, they aren’t: That would require losing the pejorative connotation. But there are shades of linguistic repurposing short of full-out inversion. The term “moron” was coined by a psychologist to describe the moderately mentally retarded; it persists pretty much exclusively as a pejorative, and one that’s socially acceptable in a way that, say, “retard,” clearly isn’t. And the reason, obviously, is scope: No 21st century person, whether or not they’re aware of the origin of the term, is going to read a pejorative use of “moron” as signifying disdain for the mentally handicapped generally. It’s a kind of dead metaphor. Plenty of people still do take the pejorative use of “cunt” to mean that you regard vaginas and the people attached to them as generally unpleasant, which is why you won’t find me using it outside quotation-marks. But we do all collectively get to decide what words mean, and whether this particular slur is sexist or merely gendered is also up to us, not built into the word.

Tags: Language and Literature