Cuntroversy: On Samantha Bee and the C-word

On her show last week, as everyone now knows, Samantha Bee used a word which is Not To Be Uttered On TV. Addressing Ivanka Trump, who had posted a photo taken with her child on Instagram while her father’s administration was busy separating undocumented migrants from their children, Bee said:

Let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless cunt. He listens to you.

Later Bee apologised, saying that her use of the word ‘cunt’ had ‘crossed a line’: it was ‘inappropriate and inexcusable’. Plenty of people agreed: even if they shared Bee’s feelings about the President and his daughter, they thought her language overstepped the mark. Not everyone, however, took that view. There were some who defended Bee simply on the basis that they thought her target deserved the epithet; but there were others whose comments focused on the epithet itself, challenging the assumption that ‘cunt’ is, in the words of Grose’s much-quoted dictionary entry,  ‘a nasty name for a nasty thing’.

One high-profile example came from Sally Field, who tweeted:

I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. Cunts are powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest.

Another popular riposte (I saw several variations of it on Twitter) was ‘I don’t think Samantha Bee should have called Ivanka a cunt: she has neither the warmth nor the depth’.

This isn’t a new take on ‘cunt’. Feminists over the past 50 years have regularly proposed to reclaim ‘the most offensive word in the English language’ and turn it into a positive symbol of female power.

Germaine Greer was an early advocate of reclamation: initially she thought the goal should be to make ‘cunt’ an ordinary, everyday word, but later she would say that on reflection she was glad efforts to tame it had failed. ‘Unlike other words for female genitals’ she observed, ‘this one sounds powerful. It demands to be taken seriously’. She also expounded a theory that has long been popular in some feminist circles–that the power of ‘cunt’ and its status as a forbidden word derive from the fact that ‘men identified female sexual energy as a dangerous force’.

These sentiments were echoed by Laurie Penny in a 2011 New Statesman column entitled ‘In defence of the C-word’. Repeating Greer’s point that ‘cunt’ is the only non-medical word for the female genitals that doesn’t domesticate or sanitise what it names, she exhorted women to ‘use it and love it’. ‘Cunt’, she rhapsodised, is

a wholesome word, an earthy, dank and lusty word, with the merest hint of horny threat…it’s fantastically difficult to pronounce without baring the teeth.

Unlike Greer, Penny defends not only the use of ‘cunt’ to name the female genitals, but also its use as an aggressive insult. In both senses, she says, it is a ‘word of power’.

I have always had a problem with this kind of cunt-talk, because it depends on what I would argue is a fundamentally patriarchal gesture—defining power, for women, in primarily sexual terms. Men may monopolise all other kinds of power, but sexual power—that magical ability to bend men to your will by provoking desires they cannot control or resist—is held out to women as a consolation prize. It is also used to vilify them and license various measures designed to control their ‘dangerous’ sexuality. The idea that women pose a sexual threat to men, rather than vice-versa, is the foundation for one of the commonest myths justifying rape (‘she aroused me, I couldn’t help myself’); it is part of the thinking behind every religious injunction telling women they must cover themselves to avoid leading men into temptation; it is also, as we have recently learnt, part of the creed of the men who call themselves incels. Why would feminists celebrate any of this?

Emma Rees, the author of  Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, seems rather more sympathetic to it than I am, but she too notes that there are problems with the idea of reclaiming a word which is both a name for the female genitals and a metonymic (part-for-whole) label meaning ‘woman’. Can this second usage ever be positive? Even in a culture that celebrated female sexuality, describing a woman as a cunt would still entail making her sexuality the defining feature of her identity as a person. And yes, you could argue that calling a man a ‘prick’ or a ‘dick’ does the same, but treating the two gestures as equivalent ignores the very different historical positioning of the two sexes: whereas men have never been valued primarily for their sexual utility to women, nor told that their only power is sexual power, that has been women’s experience for thousands of years.

Proposals to reclaim ‘cunt’ do not have to involve spouting mystical nonsense about ‘female sexual energy’. They could be based, and sometimes have been, on the more straightforward argument that if we see nothing wrong with either women or their genitals then we should see nothing wrong with the word ‘cunt’ either. But once again, this skips too lightly over the point that words have histories; the baggage they bring from the past continues to weigh them down in the present. When we ask what gives words like ‘cunt’ their peculiar power (a power that may be entirely lacking in their synonyms—you wouldn’t get the same effect by calling someone ‘a total vulva’ or ‘a bit of a vagina’), the answer lies less in what the words mean than in what they’ve historically been used to do.

There’s a good discussion of this point in a piece by the linguist Ana Deumert about a recent legal decision made by South African Constitutional Court. The case concerned a white man who was dismissed by his employer for using racially offensive language during a dispute about parking at work. Annoyed that another employee had parked too close to his own space, the white man had gone to the person in charge of parking and demanded the removal of ‘that Black man’s car’. He later made a claim of unfair dismissal on the grounds that referring to someone as ‘that Black man’ could not be considered racist; the phrase was purely descriptive, it contained no insulting or abusive terms, and he had not intended it to be offensive.

The Appeal Court had accepted this argument, but the Constitutional Court applied a different test: its question was not what the speaker was thinking when he used the phrase ‘that Black man’, but whether ‘a reasonable, objective and informed person, on hearing the words, would perceive them to be racist or derogatory’. The Court decided that in South Africa, a society still deeply marked by its recent history as an apartheid state, an informed and reasonable person would indeed have grounds to perceive a reference to ‘that Black man’ as racist. Though ‘Black’ is not in itself a negative term, the decision of a white speaker to foreground his opponent’s status as ‘a Black man’ rather than just ‘a man’ during an argument is liable to be interpreted in relation to a whole history of interactions where that gesture was a clear assertion of racial superiority and white power. As Deumert explains:

The performative nature of language – its ability to cause effects – is rooted in its history, in the circulation and repetition of words and phrases across time… [W]ords mean because they have meant before, and, consequently, words also wound because they have wounded before. There is no escape from history, from the meanings we inherit.

This should not be taken to imply that the meanings we inherit are immutable, and will inevitably be transmitted intact to every subsequent generation until the end of time: word-meaning does change, along with the contexts in which words are repeated and circulated. Terms which were once offensive can lose their power to wound, or indeed fall out of use entirely. But people who talk blithely of reclaiming current insults and slur-terms very often underestimate the magnitude of the task, and the time it takes to accomplish.

Last year there was an interesting—and to some, perhaps, surprising—illustration of this point, in the findings of an online survey which investigated attitudes to the term ‘queer’ among members of the LGBT community. 60% of respondents reported that they found ‘queer’ offensive and inappropriate; among gay men the percentage rose to 93%. These are not the kind of figures you can generalise from, since they were compiled from the responses of a small, self-selected and thus unrepresentative sample; but they do suggest that attitudes to ‘queer’ remain more polarised–and more negative–than might have been expected in 2017. The rise of ‘queer‘–which increasing numbers of people are said to prefer to ‘stale and stodgy’ old labels like ‘lesbian‘–has been chronicled at length in pieces on Buzzfeed, Slate et al. Why are some LGBT people–especially gay men–still so resistant to it?

There are some answers in the comments made by survey respondents. In line with the principle Ana Deumert outlines—‘words wound because they have wounded before’—gay men who found ‘queer’ offensive often cited experiences of having it used to and about them in a clearly derogatory and sometimes threatening way. Some of the strongest objections came from men over the age of 60, but negative reactions were not confined to the oldest respondents. Even if they had been, that would still be a salutary reminder that the meanings we attach to words are slow to change: the movement to reclaim ‘queer’ has been going on for 30 years, i.e. for most of the adult life of anyone now in their 60s or 70s. That’s not to say nothing has changed since the 1980s—‘queer’ has certainly become less uniformly negative in its uses and connotations—but it is still far too soon to declare it ‘reclaimed’, or indeed to know whether its older use as a homophobic slur will ever be completely superseded.

‘Cunt’, at least when used to refer to a person rather than a body part, remains unequivocally pejorative, and that assessment is not undermined by the evidence (cited by numerous contributors to social media discussions of Samantha Bee) that in some circumstances it can be used without anyone either intending or taking offence. The comedian Mark Watson remarked on Twitter that he’d been called a cunt while playing Pictionary with friends—one of many comments whose underlying theme was the linguistic (over)sensitivity of Americans compared to Brits or Australians. A linguist I know recalled his surprise when he heard teenage girls in Wales greeting one another (in Welsh) with ‘what’s up, cunt?’ But what cases like these show is that, like other highly offensive words (most obviously the N-word), ‘cunt’ can be appropriated to serve as a marker of solidarity and mutual affection among intimates. This gesture works not in spite of the word’s taboo status in other contexts, but because of it.

Contributors to the social media debate also suggested that in many non-American varieties of English (Scots featured particularly strongly, and Australian English was mentioned too) ‘cunt’ is used so frequently and with so little animus, it has effectively become just another word for ‘person’. Some people referred to this usage as ‘gender neutral’. But the evidence, at least for Britain, suggests otherwise. To the extent that ‘cunt’ can function as a ‘neutral’ word, neither pejorative nor affectionate, its meaning appears to be gender-specific, referring to a male person rather than just a person. More generally, according to Tony McEnery’s analysis of swearing in the British National Corpus, ‘cunt’ is preferentially used by men, and they most often use it when addressing or referring to other men. Men do also use the word in reference to women, though much less frequently, and women sometimes use it in reference to men. But the corpus does not contain a single example of a woman using ‘cunt’ in the way Samantha Bee used it, to address or refer to another woman.

The finding that ‘cunt’ is a much commoner insult for men than for women might suggest that using it against a female target is perceived as aggravating the offence. If so, that would not be surprising: whatever else may be implied by calling a man a cunt, he is not being reminded of his historical or actual status as a commodity for male sexual use. This implication of the word may also help to explain why ‘cunt’ is so rarely a female-to-female insult. Not because women’s sisterly feelings prevent them from hurling sexist insults at one another, but because there are other sexist insults which are better suited to their needs.

As I noted in an earlier post about swearing, both historical evidence from court records and more recent sociolinguistic studies suggest that the words women have most often used to wound each other are terms like ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘slag’, which make distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women on the basis of their (real or imagined) sexual conduct. In the context of verbal conflict between women, the problem with ‘cunt’ may be that it doesn’t make distinctions. When you call another woman a slag you are implying that she’s inferior, both to you and to anyone else who has eschewed the behaviour implied by the term; but if you call her a cunt you’re invoking a status which no one in possession of female genitals can easily disclaim. You’re not just expressing your opinion of her, you’re also recycling an old patriarchal belief about what all women essentially are.

This is why, ultimately, I do not agree with Laurie Penny’s assessment of ‘cunt’ as a ‘word of power’ for women. The power I see in it is largely the historical power of men to define women, to dominate them and to make them Other. (And also–given the evidence that ‘cunt’ is most commonly a male-on-male insult–to weaponise women’s bodies in their dealings with one another.)

So, am I saying we should treat ‘cunt’ in the way polite society has always treated it, as unspeakable? No: I don’t believe that any word is wholly unspeakable, nor am I in favour of banning words. I share the view set out by the African American legal scholar Randall Kennedy in his thought-provoking history of another ‘troublesome word’, the N-word. Though Kennedy has many qualms about its use, he argues that imposing a blanket prohibition just makes it into a fetish, and so does more to increase than to diminish its power. Instead he proposes that every case should be judged on its merits, giving careful consideration to the speaker’s aims, the effect of the word in context, and what alternatives the speaker could have chosen to use instead.

This last point, I think, is an important one for speakers themselves to take on board. In language there are almost always alternatives, and offensive words, words with the potential to wound because they have wounded before, should not be used either on autopilot or simply for their shock value: it’s always worth asking whether a word that carries less baggage might serve our purposes equally well.

In Samantha Bee’s case I think a well-chosen alternative to ‘cunt’, something scathing but not obscene, and more specific in its application to the person being criticised, would actually have served her purposes better. In a different context (like a live performance in a more intimate space) exploiting the shock value of ‘cunt’ might have been effective, but on a national TV show it was always liable to be heard as crass, flouting the rule so memorably stated by Michelle Obama in her own attack on Trump and his supporters: ‘you don’t stoop to their level … when they go low, we go high’. Perhaps what Bee will regret most, in hindsight, is not that she pissed off her sponsors and a large chunk of her audience by using the C-word on TV, but that by doing so she allowed Ivanka Trump to occupy, however briefly, the moral high ground.

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