I locate two seats in our local movie theater and wait for The Gentlemen to begin. The sconce lighting permits slow and small movements, navigating the stadium seating a journey of numerous pitfalls; there are about ten of us, which is more than I thought there’d be considering the director. I know what to expect: flashy mob talk, gun-wielding lackeys, sexy ladies, fast-talking gangsters, British slang. Having seen all of Guy Ritchie’s films, I can’t wait for the language. The real saucy stuff, the language that Americans rarely get to experience even at the movies. No one rolls around in it quite like Ritchie and his rowdy band of actors. I’m surrounded by several couples, all older than my retired parents, but I think nothing of it because my husband and I usually attend the matinee screenings and are often joined by people who are drawing Social Security. The movie starts. I’m waiting on the edge of my seat for some “wanker this” and “cocksucker that.” As the wave of profanity hits my neural receptors, the old woman to my right gasps. And then the woman in front of me mutters, “Oh, dear!” and grips her husband’s shirt sleeve. I can barely keep track of what is happening on screen. I mutter to my husband something like “Is she for real?” He just shrugs, surely oblivious to the morality play I am watching. Does the woman find comfort in her husband’s coat sleeve or is she just pretending to be offended? I find myself laughing the next time it happens. There’s no way anyone can honestly be insulted by this pulpy affair, I think. On the big screen, Hugh Grant lurks in the shadows, wearing goofy shades to avoid the prying eyes of his prey, his victim, Charlie Hunnam, who lobs curses and obscenities at Grant like a pro baller. More gasps! Then Grant returns them with a vitality and rawness that I didn’t know possible for the once-popular lead in a romantic comedy. And I’m laughing so fucking hard. My husband has no idea that I’m watching two shows, reliving the conflict of my conservative upbringing. The old women compete with my laughter, a futile attempt to prove to their husbands (and maybe me?) that they don’t find such crudeness delightful. Not like I do. I used to respond with shock and awe, too, so I feel their struggle. The more Grant and Hunnam cuss at each other, the more guffaws leave my body and more shudders escape the elderly women sitting nearby. Honestly, the theater shelters me, aids my anonymity and protects my sincere feelings. “Dear, me” and “Tsk, tsk.” These women double down in the dark, though. If I’d been sitting with my parents, I’d fall into an awkward silence, oppressive and stifling, an almost comfortable prison. My husband just watches the movie, periodically smirking at the over-the-top performances by Grant and Hunnam, ignoring my nudges. Now that I think about it, all the men in the theater watch the movie, absorbed in the outrageous gangster life chock-full of criminal boxing managers and manipulative paparazzi. They enjoy themselves, impervious to self-reflection.
One man who wouldn’t have felt too comfortable watching The Gentlemen, despite the dapper title, is my father-in-law. He squirms and twitches upon hearing foul language in movies—or in real life—but he loves watching movies, particularly raunchy comedies and action adventures. He close captions everything, foreign films notwithstanding, preferring to see/read the word “fuck.” Hearing a character say “fuck,” however, will pull him right out of the movie. He reminds me of the women in the theater with their pre-existing condition. I believe he thinks there is a real moral difference in hearing the word as opposed to saying it in your brain. He’s a Mormon, a true believer, and wants his body and mind to be a temple. That’s the kind of language I was raised with in the church, despite my parents categorizing my husband’s rearing as “a cult” rather than having the true the Christian perspective of Catholics and Protestants. According to my religious parents and father-in-law, if God doesn’t hear you hear the bad words, then you didn’t sin. However, my father-in-law has given leniency to hearing the word “fuck” if it’s in a non-English language. For example, “fuck” in French, Chinese, or German is acceptable, okay with God, because French “fuck” is not English “fuck.” Having studied French on his Mormon mission, he appreciates the whole of French, as opposed to a very limited acceptance of the English language. Certain words in English make him very uncomfortable, as though God speaks English exclusively. When I was growing up, my parents felt the exact same way. As a young lady, I couldn’t imagine God knowing any language but English, but that’s because my prayers were exclusively offered through my limited monolinguistic perspective.
When I was a kid, I called my older sister “a bag of dog poop” one afternoon. We had climbed atop the six-foot high brick towers that guarded our backyard gate. She began taunting me and I wanted to stand up for myself. I was inspired by the Walmart plastic sack filled with our giant schnauzer’s feces gathering flies just inches away from me where my dad told me to put it. We’d fill that sack every day, my sister and I, with massive poops until the handles nearly tore with the weight. I looked at that sack of shit and saw her face. Even at age 12, I knew I couldn’t call her “dog shit” as that would definitely get me in trouble. I rationalized that “dog poop” was a safe alternative. “Dog poop” had never been delineated as pejorative by my parents, good Southern Baptists; they wouldn’t even let us say “crap,” “crud,” or “darn” without avoiding punishment, so here I was trying to circumvent the rules with new rules. I thought I was being clever.
“You’re a bag of dog poop,” I said to her. It wasn’t the best delivery. Her face scrunched up in confusion and pain, but she stopped talking. Really, she stopped doing anything. I smiled, more confident than ever in my choice of language. I didn’t plan on her storming away into the house leaving me atop my perch, my tower of justice and shit. In her absence, I reveled in my power and autonomy, the world in my palm. That was until I caught a blur in my periphery, a sunspot that was not really there. But it had been my mom kicking open the garage door with the fury I’d only seen in her mom, Grandma Anna Mae. My grandma used to threaten my grandfather on the regular: “I’ll push you out of this car and tell God you jumped.” And he’d only asked her for a tissue. My mom beelined it towards me with Grandma Anna Mae Fury and I started to worry that God would get a different story about me. I didn’t want my last sensory experience to be the hot shit stank that clung to me. We weren’t physically disciplined in my household and usually a faith-based threat, one like “God’s watching” or “God knows all,” kept me in line. One time when I was in high school, my father playfully threw a comb at me and hit me in the head. He smiled, thinking it hilarious. I picked up the comb and returned it, hitting him. Before I could blink, my dad had charged across the room and slapped me. His flat hand on my bare thigh reverberated in our living room and the red mark reminded me that he could play, but I couldn’t. Needless to say, once my mom reached my backyard perch, I felt like I was going to be in big trouble: stern looks, crying sister, fear of danger, tsk tsking. I was petrified that she would tell Dad. I never called my sister a bag of dog poop again because I didn’t want the wrath, the disappointment. It’s not like I didn’t want to say it again many times, but I censored myself out of self-preservation.
All of this brings me to the placeholder, a rhetorical interpretation of my own much like the Other in Lacanian theory. The placeholder is a power hierarchy of words in which one word has all the power and thus all the hate and vitriol that comes with it. Usually, the placeholder is a powerful word, one to be used sparingly if ever. Cultures have placeholders, families have placeholders, and individuals have their own placeholders. Often all of those placeholders wage active war against each other. My father-in-law’s placeholder protects and raises “fuck” to an obscene level, one that is off-limits, out of bounds for him. For me, the placeholder changes. Over the years, I’ve replaced it many times as I remembered or met new words that “set me off,” words that should never cross my lips, exit my lungs, and vibrate across my vocal cords. Moreover, my Christian upbringing set the standards, my religious culture and family placeholders serving as my own. I didn’t realize that I could own my own words. But eventually these placeholders became less scary, less powerful as I heard and said them more often, words like butt, shucks, dang, darn, shoot, cheese and crackers, crud, crap, damn, gd, fu…, shit, ass(hole), pussy, jesus christ, tits, fuck. My list stopped there. Much like George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words,” I knew I could never say those words anywhere because—if my parents weren’t around—someone else was around to hear me say it and would report me. God would definitely hear and know, so it was all over before it even started.
Carlin’s big stand in that comedy special on May 27, 1972, was all about saying out loud what he was restricted from saying on television. He didn’t want to be told that he couldn’t say what he wanted to say to make his point. Essentially, restricting language restricts ideas. He shaped culture and history forever in that special, particularly for the younger generations. In an Atlantic article, Carlin explains why he thinks children in particular should hear these “dirty” words because “as yet they don’t have the hang-ups. It’s adults who are locked into certain thought patterns.” And those patterns are then set for the kids, much like I had from my parents. Had I been a child when I heard Carlin say, “shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits,” at the very least, I might have realized that you can say those words out loud and not immediately turn into a pillar of salt. However, with my uber Christian upbringing, I probably would have thought Carlin was a bad dude because only bad dudes said words like that. I still don’t feel fully comfortable saying any of the words on Carlin’s list in front of my parents or in public. And when I hear these words in public now, I envy those so uninhibited to speak freely; as an adult, when I hear my father say “shit” or “damn,” never “fuck” or “christ,” I instinctively flinch. How dare he? He set the rules and now he flagrantly breaks them in front of me. Does he know that his rules are bullshit? Would he admit as much? As for my mother, the worst thing she’s ever said occurred when my dad nearly killed my entire family. I was six or seven. My dad had decided that passing a car on a double yellow going uphill in the middle of the night was a wager he was willing to take. When the oncoming headlights flooded the cab of our GMC pickup, the four of us, lined up like ants on a log, my mother’s bloodcurdling “Shit!” reverberated for miles.
So I pretend to have a different lexicon when I’m around them to reassure them I was raised right, that I’m a lady, and that I haven’t squandered my education. Oddly enough, as an adult, I’ve realized that Carlin saying the “Seven Dirty Words” proves that foul language has nothing to do with class or education; it has to do with power. I still grapple with my potty mouth, feel bad deep down when I think someone other than my husband heard me say the filthiest thing. And I hate that about myself, the power my childhood and parents still have over me.
Nearly fifty years after Carlin’s big stand and America is still fighting to say those words on television and in movies. We’ve succeeded to varying degrees (depending on which channel you’re watching and what movies you’re going to see). But my perception is that foul language is just less foul than it once seemed. It doesn’t have the same ring it once did. The once reviled potty mouth from my fearful younger self, who gasped at the “bad, dirty, filthy, foul, vile, vulgar, coarse, in poor taste, unseemly, street talk, gutter talk, locker room language, barracks talk, bawdy, naughty, saucy, raunchy, rude, crude, lewd, lascivious, indecent, profane, obscene, blue, off-color, risqué, suggestive, cursing, cussing, and swearing,” to quote Carlin himself, has now found a home in my vocabulary, a place by the hearth wherein I gently stoke the flames. But only privately.
There’s just one word left to conquer and I’ve been warming to it myself, taking it on a test drive here and there, researching it even. It has remained off limits, culturally speaking, so much so that it can’t be referred to by its full name. It has to be called by its first-letter-hyphen-word. They are the only two words in the English language that are referred to by their first letter and then the word “word.” The obvious difference between them is that the black community has reclaimed the n-word (which I can’t—and don’t—want to say). However, in America, the c-word hasn’t been claimed or reclaimed by anyone, despite a push in the 1970s by Germaine Greer. In her BBC-funded mini-documentary series on Balderdash and Piffle, “Germaine Greer on the C Word” covers the history, etymology, and cultural feelings on the word “cunt” in less than twelve minutes. She declares, “I wanted women to be able to say it.”
I didn’t know that I wanted to say it, really, until I started trying it out in my mid-thirties. It was my verbal replacement for feelings I’d had but hadn’t the language for it. I also realized that I had not been able to say it before. No one really told me not to, but society, culture at large, had removed that term from my vocabulary. Why did I wait decades to take this word on a loving and sincere test drive? Probably because, in America, cunts were misbehaving women, cunts weren’t listened to, cunts were worthless. And I knew that I didn’t want to be a cunt. I certainly didn’t want to use the word “cunt” in my daily speech because that word was not meant for me but rather to describe me.
But then I find myself floating on a hippocampus and amygdala high as I delight at the endless “cunt” diatribes by the actors in the movie theater: The Gentlemen won’t stop saying it. And the word those old women are responding to in my screening of The Gentlemen is “cunt” not all the “fucks” and “cocksuckers.” It seems like every third word in the movie is “cunt” and to American ears, that can be quite shocking. Even I’m shocked. For most, the word is offensive and off-putting. That’s why we call it the “c-word” and not its proper, full name. It can be too overwhelming to say the word outright. It stops conversations dead. However, as I’ve aged, all the commotion that surrounds the c-word has encouraged me to associate it with positivity and joy instead.
I loved hearing all the characters in The Gentlemen spit, hurl, lob, and shout “cunt” back and forth at each other like real, proper gentlemen. And perhaps what made their performance riveting is how they felt when they said it. In an interview for Cinema Blend, the cast declares with smiles on their faces that using that word was “therapeutic” and “fun.” Even Michelle Dockery joins the laughter, a native Brit herself. As the only woman in the show, she acknowledges the freedom that comes with using such strong language while sidestepping the real-life use of the word. You can tell she knows that women are judged more harshly for using that word and to mind her manners while touring in America. I can’t imagine a movie called The Ladies in which half a dozen famous actresses shout the same obscenities at each other—particularly the c-word—being accepted with the same open arms as The Gentlemen. Corey Chichizola interviews the cast about the spicy dialogue, but even he can’t bring himself to say “cunt.” He calls them c-bombs, and I think his tiptoeing reflects the American experience, considering no one in the country even uses the c-word remotely like those in Australia or Britain. Matthew McConaughey acknowledges the unique challenge The Gentlemen faces in American theatres: “America has a very different relationship with that word than Britain.” Hugh Grant reinforces this notion, casually tossing in, “It’s a much much more frowned upon word here in America.” Thanks for taking a real hard line on the issues, Gentlemen. Thunderous applause! Seriously, all we seem to agree on is that we can’t say “cunt,” but no one tries to change that norm. We are all too complacent to allow culture to dictate our thoughts and behavior without challenging it. It’s easy to make obvious statements that Americans don’t use or like the word “cunt,” but it’s a lot harder to put your finger on why.
There’s a rich and complicated history with the word “cunt,” one that depends on your country of birth and time in which you live. The word itself was danced around in literature and common conversation, even on street signs, beginning in the 13th century (in the west, at least). The street signs referred to the location of well-known prostitution houses, hence the “cunt” in the name: grope cunt lane. Everyone at the time knew what they referred to. In the late 18th century, there was an overt (yet still veiled in many ways) reference to the c-word by an English lexicographer. Francis Grose published his dictionary of slang in 1788, entitled Dictionary of Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence, and even he could hardly stomach that word. Here’s his entry for “cunt”: “C**T: a nasty name for a nasty thing.” That “definition” sounds like the one my parents would have given me if I’d asked them when I was a kid. Or as an adult, if I’m being honest. I think they’d prefer to pretend ideas and words don’t exist than entertain their daughter’s curiosity. My mom is good at just shutting down. Her defense to obscenity is a kill switch that she deploys when she’s overwhelmed. And only in 1972 did the Oxford English Dictionary add “cunt” to its collection. That was the year after my parents got married. Had my mother heard that word by age twenty? I wonder what took historians so long to include “cunt” and if it has anything to do with second wave feminism or radical comedians like George Carlin who wanted to devour their freedom in public.
According to the Urban Dictionary, because let’s be honest, that’s where we go when we hear people saying things we don’t understand, “cunt” means one of three things: slang/derogatory name to call a woman, slang for vagina, or another word for stupid or idiotic. But when you explore the “use it in a sentence” example, you begin to understand the true contextual argument surrounding the c-word. The first example reads: “Stop being such a pussy… ‘cunt’ is one of the oldest and strongest words in our language.” What’s great about this example is what it says about the word itself: it’s still the most offensive and strongest word in the English language. At least for Americans. This definition/understanding of “cunt” refers to its power, not its nastiness or its female roots. Much like Grose, it doesn’t even define the word itself. It defines the impression “cunt” makes. Further down the Urban Dictionary page for “cunt,” you’ll see a development of how the word is interpreted differently depending on where you live: “A word that is actually gender neutral throughout Australia and Europe but is only targetted [sic] towards women by Americans.” This might be why Jim Jeffries used “cunt” so freely in his comedic acts (Dumb Cunts from 2016) and on his three-season-long The Jim Jeffries Show (premiere June 6, 2017). He regularly called people “cunts” on his show; however, Comedy Central bleeped him every time. He even tweeted a montage of these moments from his show where he’d show a picture of a person and then call them a “cunt.” Here’s the transcript of his rant in the “sorry-not-sorry” vein with the title, “We’d Like to Sincerely Apologize to All the People We’ve Called C*nts on Our Show.”
Look at Nixon, eh. You just knew he was a cunt. / You cunt. / There’s lots of cunts out there. / Cunts. / The biggest bunch of cunts. / Don’t be a cunt. / The French are known to be a bit cunty. Sorry, tres cunty. / It was your fault, cunt. / I think my brother’s a cunt. / You’re a racist. Just own it, cunt! / You could call it a hobby. But it’s a cunt’s hobby. / Call me a cunt. I’ll call you a cunt. You don’t have to come to my house. I don’t have to go to your house. You could fuck off. I’ll fuck off. And that’s the kind of freedom we should celebrate in the country every day.
No one cared that he used the c-word on his show so casually nor that he reminded everyone that he has always used the word freely, openly. The c-word was just part and parcel of Jim Jeffries. This is in sharp contrast to the public’s response to another comedian with a cable television show, Samantha Bee, using that same word. “Cunt” is superfluous to an American woman’s lexicon. It’s gratuitous. It’s uncalled for in all circumstances, no exceptions. And most likely because of his Australian upbringing, Jeffries clearly knows that “cunt” just means “a dumb, stupid person who deserves to be called a cunt.” And sometimes women who are acting like dumb, stupid people are cunts, too. To understand that point of view, a parallel might help: the English and Australians say the word “cunt” like Americans use the word “asshole.” The word “asshole” is not perceived as emotionally charged as the c-word by a long shot, but perhaps you can understand how impotent the word feels to those who were raised in a country that just doesn’t give a shit. In his irreverent rant, Jeffries offered solidarity to his fellow comedian, Samantha Bee. He wanted to show that he said it too, so no big deal. Unfortunately, Samantha Bee was fighting a very different and impossible battle in defending her use of the c-word on Full Frontal.
Here’s what happened to necessitate Jeffries’ supportive cunt montage. Samantha Bee was furious that Ivanka Trump posted a picture of herself posing with her child with the tag, “My HEART! #SundayMorning” during what was some of the most harrowing times in American history: the child camps that the American administration placed immigrant children into as well as those rightfully seeking asylum from their own country, which inevitably separated children from their parents and in some cases led to their tragic deaths. Ivanka Trump’s thoughtless post got under Bee’s skin and she used her platform to call out such rank, privileged behavior. In the episode, she implores Trump to “do something about your father’s immigration policy, you feckless cunt.” Instead of seeing the context of her argument—the deplorable situation for what it was—everyone who watched Full Frontal obsessed over Bee’s use of the c-word and that alone. The Daily Beast breaks down why her use of “cunt” was so offensive and not like other comedians’ use. They argued that perhaps it was the feeling behind the statement; in other words, they didn’t like that Samantha Bee was mad and angrily called Trump a “cunt.” The Daily Beast quotes Jeffries on Bee: “I don’t say the word in anger very often where it’s got a lot of venom behind it,” Jefferies explains. Samantha Bee, on the other hand, definitely had some ‘venom’ behind her most recent use of the word.” At the same time Jeffries admitted that anyone should be able to use the c-word, especially women and Americans, he was content to pile on more requirements: intention has a place in using certain language, and let’s not forget delivery. That matters, too. And gender if you’re paying attention.
The rules for using the c-word are ever-growing: Americans cannot say it; women cannot say it; if you have venom behind it, you cannot say it; men can say it to other men and it’s no big deal; men can say it on television and people laugh. Women, in particular, find themselves in a precarious position, unable to use the c-word or stand by their use of the c-word no matter what. For example, in the first episode of the 2020 British period comedy, Year of the Rabbit, the first female copper, Mabel Wisbech, attempts to join the boys in some bawdy trash talk. She shouts at the criminal, “Yeah, don’t be a cunt!” All three of the men in the room—the cop standing by her side, the cop with the gun to his head, and the criminal holding the gun to the cop’s head—stop and stare at Mabel. All three promptly chastise her: “From a lady!” and “You watch your gob.” This works for comedic effect only because a woman saying the c-word is more shocking than a criminal who his about to shoot a man in the head.
Samantha Bee, despite not being a woman in fiction or comedy not rooted in American politics, experienced the equivalent to this scene in Year of the Rabbit: All eyes were on her solely because of the language she used, not the sentiments behind her use of the c-word. Many people agreed with her point, but many more were stopped short by the use of the c-word. Bee ended her apology for her use of the c-word on her next show by addressing the fact that we can’t say what we want to say no matter how fitting: “I should have known that a potty-mouthed insult would be inherently more interesting to them than juvenile immigration policy.” Bee felt it equally necessary to call out everyone for getting emotional about her use of the c-word by apologizing to those women she offended in saying “cunt.” But the fact that Bee chose to apologize to women, not to men, showcases the inherent problem about the c-word and gender. The c-word has been relegated to men. The arrows clearly point toward women or around them, but women never get to lob the word at anyone or use it lovingly to refer to her sexuality or even say it in exasperation when she shuts her thumb in a door. But I want to say it with all my other favorite words that I exclusively use around my husband. Delightful combinations abound when you’re free to explore language and what it can express for you. I call the teenager who cut me off in traffic a shit cunt. That lady who scowled at me in the grocery aisle is a right cunt. And that gnat that won’t stop swirling my head as I write this? A motherfucking cunt. It is exclusively a word for men while it rightfully belongs to women. I want this word.
Samantha Bee has tried to explain her use of the c-word: “It is a word that I’ve used several times on the show hoping to reclaim it.” Her intentions reveal an attempt to reclaim power that’s been lost, to reclaim ownership over a word that American society refuses to willingly give to women. Bee wants to be able to use that word, probably like Jeffries or Ritchie do. Germaine Greer would have definitely agreed with her during her radical feminism in the 1970s. As “cunt” never caught on, Greer laments her attempts and concludes that maybe a word as powerful as “cunt” shouldn’t be tamed. She second guesses her own desires and ultimately defers to the cultural norm. At the end of her documentary series, Greer has accepted that no one, specifically women, wanted to reclaim the c-word. No one was interested in using “cunt” the way she wanted them to. But I wonder if saying a word means it is tamed. Perhaps the reason Greer used the word “tamed” is because she knows who gets to do the taming: men. They tame dogs, children, and women. She knew who was in charge and despite over forty years passing since her BBC special, I try to ascertain what’s changed. Obviously, some things have, but I feel it’s glacial change. And for me, that means I don’t get to use the words I want to use in the way I want to use them. Perhaps that’s the burden that feminism has to bear in its slog to equality.
What I want is to say the c-word with affection and respect, and I want other women to do the same. Without judgment or punishment. Saying “cunt” doesn’t always have to be used in frustration or name-calling, either. It can be fun and funny. In an interview entitled “Sarah Silverman Is My Kind of Cunt,” interviewer Michael Musto asks her, “Do you favor the word cunt?” She replies,
Yes! I really wanted to use it. “Cookie Party” is a pretty song, and the whole thing is supposed to be that it’s genuine and sweet and then the last line is, “My sister’s such a dick.” Dick is a hard word and hard to get a laugh. Originally, it was “My sister’s such a cunt,” but you can’t say cunt, even if you say, “I meant it the way they say it in England.”
I mean it the way they say it in England, too, Sarah Silverman. I also want to say “cunt” instead of “dick” because “dick” doesn’t work for every situation. Just imagine this song that Silverman is talking about: it’s cute, sweet, and adorable. Then bang! Out of nowhere, the punchline, the surprise is the c-word. Hilarious.
I also want to sound as fucking free and powerful as those gangsters in The Gentlemen or Mabel in Year of the Rabbit but I’m concerned about all the old women (and men, let’s be real) who would gasp and tsk at hearing me use the c-word liberally. Why do I care so much about all those old ladies? Those old ladies certainly seemed to care about their husbands’ and strangers’ opinions. These old women appeared to be tamed by men and society and I don’t want to be tamed by either. However, sitting in the darkness, anonymity gives me strength, too. I refuse to feel bad. I actively fight the judgment that I imagine these old women must be giving me for betraying our gender, our set language. But I don’t see it as betrayal. It’s power and now I have the power. I control the word, not them.
I don’t recall the moment I fell in love with the word “cunt.” The process of falling in love—as many married couples testify—was much like a rising tide: one minute I was on dry land and the next I was swirling in the unexpected swell of the ocean, all hope lost and dizzy like that second glass of wine. Oh, and I fell hard. I went from not hearing or knowing about the word to hearing it, seeing it, and speaking it (in hushed whispers, at first). Even as an adult, I prefer for my very religious parents to do the light cussing, not me. They’ll say “hell” or “shit” every now and then, but I daren’t say anything off limits for I still fear their wrath despite living apart from them for twenty years now. Recently, I suggested a film to watch with my parents and after an unexpected beheading and dozens of squished bodies, my dad looked at me with raised eyebrows, “This has some strong language in it, Kimberly.” I matched his expression, but I didn’t say anything. I could have, but I swallowed it. When I do speak up, usually about feminism, we lob sarcastic comments at each other until he leaves the room to fix something. I still feel the pressure to behave like a lady. I use replacement words when I’m around my mom and dad, my sister and her family as well, to appease them because that’s what I think they want me to do. When my parents visit my home during the summer, my dad digs around in my cabinet for the green mug from The Onion that says, “FUCK OFF.” The first time they came, I hid that mug in the back, on the bottom shelf, underneath all the other mugs, print turned away from view. But he still found it. And he strolls around with it every morning, the look in his eyes saying, “I caught you.” He lords it over me in silent judgment.
But this pressure, this undue power exerted over me feels like what Lacy Johnson addresses in her Tin House essay “On Likability:” “As a woman, I have been raised to be nurturing, to care for others’ feelings and well-being, often at the expense of my own. I have been taught that to be liked is to be good.” This likability factor is perhaps what Samantha Bee came up against and why Jim Jeffries didn’t face the same level of criticism or expectation. His nationality does factor, but I have witnessed and seen the censuring that is placed upon women and strong language is perhaps on the top of the list. I have even had my male college students say with me in the room, “There’s a lady present, so I’ll keep it clean.” I was the lady he referred to, apparently. Of course I want to shout back, “Lay the shit on me, and don’t go easy because I have a cunt.” But I can’t say that. I would be socially and professionally crucified: punished through shame, my reputation annihilated in one breath. I can’t even prove that I’m just as crass and crude as they are, that they shouldn’t categorize me by my gender alone. As an American woman, I was raised with two options: a heightened position (I am put on a pedestal due to my angelic nature) or a lower position (I am weak, treated special because I am so sensitive). Either way I choose, it is offensive. Obviously, there is a third position and that is one of personhood, forged by not yielding to cultural pressures, but it’s fucking hard. I have chosen that route several times—not having children, not having a wedding, not taking my husband’s last name—but it’s always a proving ground, essentially a personal refusal that requires active negation of the world around me.
Johnson says it best towards the end of that same essay, “I think, perhaps, one reason—maybe the primary reason—that the world tries so hard to pressure women to be likable (and punish us when we aren’t) is because they are afraid we will realize that if we don’t need anyone to like us, we can be any way we want.” If women can just shrug the fear of likeability, we can say anything we want. Sounds easy, huh? I hear my husband telling me, “Just do it.” He tells me all the time I can do whatever I want: “You don’t have to listen to them, dear.” But it’s not that easy, shirking the anxiety that comes with breaking the rules. I want to say the word “cunt” when I want to say the word “cunt.” But I also don’t want anyone telling me that I can’t use that word or that I’m a bad person for liking it. So I silence myself. I want to laugh when I hear characters in movies say the word “cunt” and I want my political comedians to be able to say it without fear of losing their careers. Ultimately, I think I want to stop worrying about likeability all together. When I called my sister a “bag of dog poop,” I wanted to call her “dog shit.” I thought the words “dog shit.” I felt the words “dog shit.” But I was restricted by the language provided by my religious parents. So I found a suitable alternative only to discover that I wasn’t even allowed to say that. Had my parents ever thought to explain why language has power and what words actually mean, I think I would have developed stronger connections between symbolic language and the real world; unfortunately, there were just words we didn’t say, under any circumstances, and no conversation was to be had about it. I couldn’t ask questions or receive the answers I sought. This censorship of my mouth, my language, and my thoughts constricted me throughout childhood and into adulthood. Only when I gave myself permission to say whatever I like, in the comfort and safety of my own home with my dogs as my witness, did I feel truly free. And that was when I was in my late twenties. And I still thought God would strike me dead for those first couple of years, so it wasn’t entirely liberating.
I would have felt more empowered as a young woman had someone granted me the right to my own cunt. To say the word. To recognize its strength. To understand why I should care, like Greer says, “For hundreds of years, men identified female sexual energy as a dangerous force and unlike other words for women’s genitals, this one sounds powerful. It demands to be taken seriously.” I wish that someone had talked to me about how to love my cunt. How to treat it nicely and how to spoil it rather than how to hide it and fear it and mask it. To treat it seriously and not as a shadowy figure to hate.
My cunt is not a vagina. Vagina, in Latin, means “sword sheath.” You probably wouldn’t be surprised that 17th century male anatomists came up with the word “vagina.” A vagina is just an emptiness, a nothing. A placeholder for a man’s cock. But my cunt, my essence, not a vagina, is not empty, waiting to be complete when a sword finds its home. I am full and complete. My cunt is maybe the most civilized thing about me. To feel like I deserve to be a person, to take up space neither as an angel or a demon, as a woman, I need to love my cunt and all the power that it and the word brings.
I was afraid for my cunt once, but I didn’t have the words to express my concerns. No one hurt me and I wasn’t called a “cunt” by anyone I loved or by strangers growing up. I was fortunate to avoid the negative aspects and demoralization of the American context of the c-word. But I needed to get a hysterectomy for medical reasons. Moreover, I wanted to know that my cunt would make it through the procedure intact. Even though my uterus and cervix, along with hopefully the last of my bladder-sized cysts, were departing, I didn’t want to lose my sex. The earliest existence of the word “cunt” can be found in the east and I think that in those months before my surgery, I finally felt the depth of my cunt, as explained in “A Brief History of The ‘Cunt:’” “The Hindu Goddess Kunti, or great ‘Yoni of the Universe,’ represented the beauty and power of the female body in Mahābhārata, a major Sanskrit epic of ancient India.” I never thought of my cunt as representative of “beauty and power” growing up. All I recall were the Judeo-Christian messages that demonized women: “In the Middle Ages, Christian clergymen preached the idea of a woman’s genitals as a potent source of evil, referring to the ‘Cunnus Diaboli,’ meaning ‘Devilish Cunt.’” Women’s cunts were to be hidden and cherished—locked up with chastity belts—virginity a virtue; or women, like Eve, who lured and teased men with their sex, were hated because of their cunts and the power they wielded over men.
I sat in my female surgeon’s office, the crinkle of white butcher paper under my ass, the white, sterile walls closing in on me. It was our last consultation before the big day. I had written down my questions on a sticky note that I fiddled with as I knocked my heels against the exam bed, the metal pinging in the closet-sized room. These were tactful questions I had about how the vaginal-entry surgery would affect my sexuality, my ability to have sex, and my ability to feel sex. I don’t recall what I wrote on that note, but I remember feeling compelled to ask despite not having accurate language. I thought of my mom. Maybe she would be shocked to silence to hear me ask questions about sexual pleasure, thinking that I should stick to business. To focus on my health and not my pleasure. At a loss for words, I blurted out my fears to my surgeon—never making eye contact—a list of awkward questions like “Will it feel like normal sex?” and “Can I still have orgasms?” “What will it look like down there?” She didn’t laugh at me but instead answered each one of my questions until I felt reassured that I would “behave normally and be able to resume a normal sex life.” I wish I had had the word “cunt” in my lexicon at that time and that I felt comfortable referring to my body that way as well. “Cunt” was precisely the word I was looking for. The cultural and familial restriction of my language, my expression, suppressed me then and still suppresses me to this day.
Women need the freedom to explore language that has been restricted from them. They deserve the right to use the c-word the way men and foreigners do. What’s ironic is that I am more interested in the c-word than my husband. We both laugh when we hear it, usually on British television, but I am more comfortable saying it. I play with it. I try new things. He’s happy where he is as a classy American man who doesn’t say “cunt.” If I asked him to say that instead of “vagina” or “pussy,” he would, but he’d have to take it for a couple spins first. He doesn’t seem to have the same internal struggle as I do, though. He doesn’t feel left out or chastised when he uses or avoids certain language. He’s indifferent.
When Samantha Bee used the term “feckless cunt,” she was trying to make a point that Ivanka Trump was ineffectual in her role in the White House, a mere puppet to promote empty ethos of family and warmth from the Trumps. And at the end of her apology for calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt,” Bee refuted the idea that we should be more concerned with being civil above all else: “Civility is just nice words. Maybe we should all worry a little bit more about the niceness of our actions.” Civility is just that: putting on airs, playing the part, a performative gesture. But to be uncivil, is that so wrong? There’s nothing that excites me more than to see my dogs forget all their training. They know how to behave in polite society through commands and reinforcement. They respond to “sit” and “shake” as one should. But when something triggers in their brain and they zero in on a bird, a treat, or a stranger and forget the world and everything in it, I experience such joy. The abandonment in milliseconds of all they learned doesn’t require forgiveness or judgment. It demands respect and love.
There is hope, though. I am seeing more and more use of the c-word in my American programming. I’m overwhelmed with joy because they are using the word in such interesting and appropriate ways. In Mr. Mercedes, the retired cop hunting a serial killer calls this wayward youth a cunt. I agree: serial killers are cunts. In Better Things, the mother figure and her eldest daughter get in a yelling match to see who would stop calling the other a cunt first. It ends in a hug and I can’t think of a better way to use the c-word than to bring people together. Hunters, a show set in late 1970s New York where a band of Jewish investigators hunt down Nazis who are themselves hunting and murdering Jews, ends its first episode with Al Pacino saying, “Let’s get to cooking these Nazi cunts!” If anyone deserves to be called a cunt, it’s a damn Nazi. It’s refreshing to hear it more, the c-word. It’s such a beautiful word and one with inherent power, one that doesn’t deserve to be locked up.
It’s not polite to censor others, but it’s a worse crime to censor yourself. Just say it, if you want to. Right now. Speak the letters out loud and feel their power. The crack of the “c” reaches larynx through the spittle and gravel. Feel the “c” start at the back of your throat, where your tongue meets with the roof of your mouth and you lock your jaw, your teeth barely apart. The “u” comes from even deeper in your throat, a guttural sound that dovetails from the “c” still lingering in the cave of your mouth. Lift the tip of your tongue, quickly now. Hum the “n,” feel it reverberate in your skull and out through your nostrils. Lastly, hit the “t” with all you’ve got. Feel your breath rocket through the gaps between your teeth. Say “cunt” softly, then again with different emotions: cavalierly, with vitriol, joyously, with love, frustrated, secretly. Make that cunt sing.
Great essay. Really smart. Enjoyed this very much; it changed me some. What more can you do with words?