Throughout the F Word Fortnight, I was lucky enough to have some wonderful people read and react to my writing. As a dubious thank you, I invited the most engaged to write their own thoughts on the same topic. This post was written by Pia Quartermaine, and I want to thank her for the time and thought she put into communicating this slice of her personal experience.
“The word was at one with its meaning and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement
Imagine if you will, that you are an African-American, socialising with a group of your fellow African-Americans, in say, the 1920s. Conversation is flowing, when one member of the group tells a joke with the n-word in it. You are deeply offended, naturally. This is a word that has been used by the dominant group, of which you are not a part, to oppress, degrade, insult and humiliate African-Americans.
Or pretend that you are a gay person, socialising with a group of your gay friends in say, the 1960s. Conversation is flowing, when one member of the group utters a quip with the word “faggot” in it. You are offended, naturally. This is a word that has been used by the dominant group in society, of which you are not a part, to oppress, degrade, insult and humiliate homosexuals.
What would you do in those situations? Imagine that you decided to speak out, to let the speaker know that the word they had used was offensive and ask them not to say it again. Imagine further that the speaker responded, not with shame or regret or even an apology, but with defensiveness. And that other members of the group defended the right to use this word, some claiming to dislike the word just as much as you, but it was a joke and this person didn’t mean to offend anyone. After all, we all have the right to free speech. You respond, reminding your acquaintances that this word is by its very nature designed to offend, any substitute could have been used and the joke would still have been funny. You’re simply asking that the word is left alone, knowing how deeply offensive it is to you. Imagine that all the other people who join in this discussion defend the use of this word and joke about your delicate nature. Not a single member of the group speaks in support of you.
I am a woman, in the early 21st century. I found myself in a group of fellow women when the c-word was used. Not for the first time, but I’d had enough. I asked politely, and out of respect for my strong feelings on the matter for the word not to be used. Imagine my surprise when the women turned on me, accusing me of not having a sense of humour, of being the free-speech police, of being easily offended. Imagine my disappointment when not a single woman spoke out in support of me.
Those who know me could hardly accuse me of not having a sense of humour, or of being easily offended. I don’t tell other people what to do and I try to live my daily life with respect to all others. I am tolerant. What I am not tolerant of, however, is hate speech. And when that c-word came out, I chose not to ignore it for the first time in my life. I thought to myself, where else would I get a better reception to my feelings on the matter than within an entirely female group? Apparently I was wrong. How silly of me to be disappointed and surprised by a reception not too dissimilar to one I would have expected from my former work colleagues, a group of male bouncers.
The c-word, for those who are otherwise unaware, is primarily a noun referring to female genitalia. And originally, that was all that it meant. But over the centuries the meaning has been extended, and now (as it has been for some years) it is also used to denote women in general, as well as men or any other noun that is seen to be particularly unpleasant. And in every possible use, it is pejorative. When a woman is called this, or when a man is called this, it is never in a good way.
My encounter with the rabid defence of the c-word got me thinking. I remembered a conversation I had with one of those aforementioned bouncers. In hindsight, he was in short an embodiment and exaggeration of some of the worst characteristics that are valued in today’s concept of masculinity. Yet he told me that when a woman uses the c-word, it repulses him. At the time, I thought this: the word is so obviously intended to oppress and humiliate women, that for a woman to embrace it was such a deep betrayal to her own gender that it repulsed this man. A naïve view even for me, as if he placed any value on a woman’s positive self-identification.
Now that I think about it I realise why it was such a turn-off for him. This word has traditionally been used by men to degrade women. That is what the word was designed to do. Nowadays, despite it being the most obscene word in the English language, it is heartily embraced by men of all shapes and sizes, namely (and I realise I’m stereotyping here) men of lower socio-economic status and men in blue-collar employment. I’ve had conversations with men in trades that lead me to believe that the use of this word is directly proportional to your masculinity, to the amount of effort you put into your work.
If one were to complain about a hard job saying something along the lines of, “That job was fucked” the response would be lukewarm. “That was a c*** of a job” on the other hand, would merit recognition for your hard graft, empathy from your fellow worker. The use of the c-word is directly proportional to how seriously you should be taken. Someone at work is giving you a hard time: call them a c*** and mean it, and they get the picture. Want to establish some camaraderie among your colleagues? Jokingly insult someone’s masculinity by calling them a weak c*** and you’ll have everyone laughing. Want to join in on some blokey chauvinistic banter: casually mention some c*** you were sexually intimate with on the weekend.
What better way to assert your own masculinity than to contribute heartily to the persecution of women? Whatever the topic, whoever the speaker, dropping the c-word is a sure-fire way to gain respect from your male colleagues. Unless, of course, you’re a woman. And this bouncer found it a turn-off because a woman is not supposed to claim any masculinity, power or strength for her own. She is supposed to be weak and submissive.
Why is it the ultimate insult for anyone, male or female? Because it speaks about the least desirable, the most unwanted, the ultimate source of fear: the vagina. It’s not enough to liken someone to a woman as a whole; the reference must be to what is biologically perhaps the most identifying aspect of being a woman, her very essence summed up in a body part. To a large proportion of men, the vagina is at best a mystery, at worst, a source of disgust. To have linked the most vulgar word in the English language to the most essential part of femininity is no mean feat.
But it should not be so. Two other predominant swear words that come to mind refer to experiences that are shared by most adults: sex and defecation. But they’re not taboo enough, they simply don’t conjure enough disgust or shame. The c-word trumps them on all counts. It enrages me that something so beautiful has been misrepresented so strongly. The vagina is a sacred body part, something that every woman should be proud to have, not simply for the fact that it is there but also because of the power it holds: the power of giving pleasure, the power of giving life.
This is not the only instance where the vagina is made taboo and shameful, but it is one that I am interested in, as it is insidious. Words have strength and meaning behind them beyond semantics; they are the windows through which we see the world. And it is not okay that our womanhood is undermined and disrespected daily with a word like this. It is not okay for men to use it, and it is not okay for women to use it. Although I’d argue that men have no reason at all to use it, women possess nothing even remotely close to an excuse for using the c-word, with the amount of harm it carries. And I am aware that for a lot of people, they simply wouldn’t have thought about it at all. And that’s okay. But maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we spent a little bit of time thinking about what we say and the words we use to say it. The women I referred to at the start may well have not considered the harm the word carried. But I let them know how I felt and why and they still felt the need to defend it. I wonder if they would defend the use of the n-word to a black person?
Now, I’m not perfect. I cannot honestly say that I have never uttered the word myself. I have, once. I am not proud of it, and ironically it was in a moment that preceded an instance of emotional and sexual abuse. It was an (ultimately unsuccessful although stereotypical) attempt to assert my own strength, regain a position of power and to express the disgust with which I viewed my opponent. It saddens me that I reinforced male abuse of women in a time when I was most vulnerable, a situation where it was the least appropriate. I know better now. And I refuse to stand for it.
But what am I going to do about it? Black people reclaimed the use of the n-word (although not universally) as a term for their own use, to denote some measure of ‘soul’. Gay people have reclaimed the use of the word queer and now wear it as a badge of honour, a positive self-identification. I have to admit, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of reclaiming the c-word as a positive term. Not because of the end-goal but because of the means. This is a word that has centuries of pejorative weight behind it; not only would it take generations for any real shift in value or tone to occur, but it would require the preceding generations to use the word freely. Selfishly, this task is too much for me. So I’m not going to urge all of my fellow women to adopt the word, incorporate into their lives, use it freely when referring lovingly to their vagina (although this would be lovely) because I can’t do that myself. But I wouldn’t have thought it would be too much to ask for women to reject the word in its typical disrespectful sense.
On the 24th of January 2015 Pia shaved her head to raise funds for Greener Pastures Sanctuary. She made this video, which I think is an elegant delivery of many interesting ideas.