January 12, 2008

the problem with ‘pussy’

Posted in gender stereotypes, ideology, language politics at 1:25 am by LB

I am particularly troubled by the word “pussy” being used as an insult where I find other terms for (female and male) genitalia used as insults as less problematic. The difference, as I see it, is in the particularly gendered meaning of “pussy”; it is an insult because of its explicit (negative) link to femininity by the definitions of both slang usages (vagina, and also weak, wimpy, etc.) . The denigration of the female is what makes it insulting, and I don’t find this to be the case with other genital-based insults.

my first blog post is dedicated to patty:

Consider: scene from South Park, “Fun with Veal”

Doctor: He’s very luck you got him here when you did. He was in a very advanced state of vaginitis.

Randy: Vaginitis?

Doctor: It occurs when a person stops eating meat. Those sores on his skin were actually small vaginas. If we hadn’t stopped it in time, Stan would have eventually just become one great big giant pussy. [ed: become attached to a cause for injustice, have compassion for the oppressed, and turn into an emotional wimp]

Stan: Well, I guess we learned something today: it’s wrong to eat veal because the animals are so horribly mistreated, but if you don’t eat meat at all you break out in vaginas.

[I also can’t help but see a-perhaps unintentional-insinuation toward ‘meat’ as penis-in not eating meat, Stan was acquiescing his masculinity by disposessing himself of meat-the penis, the symbol of male power . As in, cease to be/have a man (read: be a non-heteronormative man or a lesbian), and you become like a woman-a pussy-which clearly isn’t a good thing. Also, as in: “don’t be a pussy, grow some balls.”]

Keep this scene in the back of your mind as you read.

I am prompted to write this posting from recent conversations with people about the politics of words, and more specifically, slang (for more on this topic, look for my future posting about the “naggers” South Park episode). I am writing specifically on my distaste for the word “pussy” in it’s secondary slang sense (as an insult meaning weak, wimpy, or to define slang with slang, without “balls,” it’s first slang definition being vagina). Further, I want to explain how I see this particular word functioning differently than other derogatory terms for sex organs, male or female.

First, what does “pussy” mean? Weak, wimpy, passive, gutless, spineless, able to be “fucked over”, one who just “takes it”; it tends to be used when someone is seen as “overly” (whatever that means!) sensitive or emotional or caring, or is unable to “handle it”-stress, pressure, etc. Do we see a pattern? Yes!-these are all traits that are traditionally associated with women. When has pussy traditionally been used? As an insult to men-not that unlike “stop acting like a girl.” However, as feminism has pushed society into recognizing that, hello!, these are not traits of women by nature, Western culture still recognized these traits as feminine even if they no longer are necessarily considered traits of females. And subsequently, “pussy” as an insult is now directed at women as well. To have called a woman a pussy in earlier times would have been redundant.

Why is “pussy” as an insult offensive? Well, I think that is self-evident: using a part of the female anatomy as an insult for someone is degrading, especially when said anatomy has been thoroughly denigrated by Western cultural ideology as ugly, unclean, smelly, who in its adult form is deficient and whose role in sexual practice is considered to be passive and secondary. I am not saying this is what everyone thinks as individuals, but this is our ideology-our system of cultural values that reinforces existing ways of thinking and presents them as natural-“the way things are.” Not only is “pussy” an actual insult, but we find actual pussies (meaning, vaginas) to be plain icky and in need of physical and chemical alteration.

So what do I think of other anatomical terms used as insults-dick? cock? and the motherload-cunt? The bottom line for me is that I typically don’t use any of these terms as insults. One exception I can think of is a strategic/political one: I will sometimes call a sexist man a “dick.” I use it rhetorically because of the phallocentric nature of sexism, where power comes by (seeming to) possess the phallus, which is not literally the penis, but rather is symbolized by the penis. Thus, I may refer to a misogynist, phallocentric, sexist man as a “dick.” In that way, I’m being ironic. But I digress…

While I choose to not use the body’s sexuality as an insult to anyone, I still maintain a qualitative difference between how pussy vs. cock, dick, and yes, even cunt, function. Sure, they are all negative, insulting slang terms. Dick means something like jerk, and cock usually indicates an excess of assertion, aggression, self-centeredness; I think of them in similar meaning and usage to the term “bitch,” which also makes a reference to gender (a female dog), and is usually the word of choice when referring to women (it seems odd to me to think of a woman being called a “dick”). And I can’t think of a definition of the word cunt, but to me, that is the worst possible insult you can give a person. And while I am less than thrilled that a term for vagina is also the ultimate insult, it and the male terms do not trouble me like pussy does.

Why is that? Do I have a double standard? Not really. I do not see the insulting quality of dick, cock, or cunt to be in their negative reference to said gender. Is cock an insult because its meaning is linked to the derogation of it’s referent-the penis, or being male? How about for dick? And I’m unsure abot cunt, but for right now I’ll err on the side of saying no, it doesn’t either. The very thing that makes pussy an insult is its explicit link to femininity. It is insulting because it ‘feminizes’ its recipient, and being feminized is a bad thing because being female and traits associated with femininity are bad! negative! insulting! And not just for men, as an affront to their masculinity, like it used to be (think: army trainees). Under liberal feminism, women have gained equal rights and respect in that women are seen to be able to behave “like men,” rejecting those oh-so-terrible traits simultaneously produced and denigrated by Western culture as “feminine”. So, now the pussy insult for women too, whose excessive display of certain “female” traits is seen as a bad thing (unless, of course, “excessive femininity” involves sexual exhibitionism). The insulting term loses its force if it changes to something other than pussy; it has particular meaning only because of the affiliation between women, and-quite literally-their vaginas, and what pussy as an insult is meant to convey. And that simply is not the case for dick, cock, and cunt. Pussy is an insult because of its gender connotation, the others are in spite of their gender connotation.

Food for thought: what other term might we use in place of pussy to insult someone for weakness/wimpiness? Oh I know, fag! And that’s a related topic for another day…

Oh, and the next time someone calls you a pussy, consider replying:

Wow, thanks! I didn’t realize you thought I was a sensuous, aromatic, pleasurable, warm, delicious, sexy, exciting, sensitive, pleasing, responsive, channel of life?! I appreciate you sharing that with me!

and tell them why using sexist and offensive language makes you an, er, um, dick. :-P

 

UPDATE 2/15/08: from feministing.com:

Time magazine’s Mark Halperin recently said, in an interview for a Sirius satellite radio show,

And I can tell you, [John Edwards is] really skeptical of her ability to be the kind of president he wants. But, he kinda thinks Obama is..he thinks Obama is kind of a pussy. He has real questions about Obama’s toughness, his readiness for the office.

Halperin has since apologized for his oh-so-creative, junior-high-level insult. He really used “pussy” in the classic derogatory sense: men trying to show they’re more masculine by using derogatory feminine terms to describe other men. So it’s offensive not only to women (way to use a term for our anatomy as an insult! awesome!) but also to men (mocking them for not conforming to male stereotypes).
Case in point!

14 Comments »

  1. Michael J.W. Stickings said,

    Welcome to the blogosphere, LB. An excellent first post.

  2. Bianca Reagan said,

    I also resent when people use the word as an insult. That’s why I’m conflicted about using the word “douche” to describe sucky men. As I see it, douches are guys whom you thought would be good for your vagina, but turned out to be awful irritants.

  3. lindabeth said,

    I am in some ways conflicted too. Sometimes I feel it’s ok to use it ironically, like I do with “dick”, as I discuss in the post.

    This post from Pandagon is along my line of thinking:

    I want to defend “douchebag” as a perfectly feminist insult. After all, it’s a bag full of douche and we good feminists know that douche is definitely a Tool of the Patriarchy. As such, I would suggest that when people use the term “douchebag”, they’re actually calling them a tool, which is also a fine word that gets wielded often against the slack-jawed morons who reflexively support the patriarchy because they just know their reward is coming for it any day now. For instance, I once knew a guy who thought he was styling when he wore a tie with the Playboy bunny on it. That guy was both a douchebag and a tool, as they are synonymous.

    But, on the other hand, Women’s Space also has a good point:

    My thinking is, “douche bag”, used against patriarchists and male supremacists, is an insult, not because we now realize regular douching is bad, or because douching is per se bad, but because the term hearkens to the reasons for which douche bags were invented, namely, to clean what men believed to be women’s foul-smelling, diseased genitalia. When we use the word, the patriarchists we intend to insult are insulted, not because douche bags are bad things, but because of the revulsion over women’s bodies which the term “douche bags” evokes and which inspired their invention. A douche bag is a neutral object with some valid reasons for existing. It is only revolting or disgusting when it is connected with sexist views of women’s vaginas and bodies. And for this reason, using words like “douchebag” as an insult is, I believe, sexist.

  4. lindabeth said,

    One more link as food for thought…

    via Shameless

    Is it sexist because it seeks to emasculate by labelling someone (generally men) a feminine product, or is it rather a label that describes someone who “exists to both inculcate shame into women and profit off of that shame while harming women’s bodies in the process.”

    If the case is the former, then “douche” is along the same lines of my argument against “pussy”-an insult because of its meaning via its connection to the feminine. A pussy is passive, weak, etc. because women/feminine is connotated that way.

    If the case is the latter, then I think it is a smart way to turn the word on its head, by connecting its meaning as an insult to its history as a production of patriarchy-douching was meant to “cleanse” the “natural impurity” of the vagina, and it is well-known that they are proven to be harmful to women’s bodies and to a product that was largely ideologically driven to support misogyny.

    In this way, the history or the word/product actually makes it a useful term to describe certain individuals, who also are “tools” of patriarchy and misogynist thought, in the same way douching was.

    Maybe this should be its own post…

  5. Bianca Reagan said,

    That is a lot of thought.

  6. Dw3t-Hthr said,

    I wrote about language and genitalia-based insults a while back. Quoting a relevant bit of that:

    Here is one of the demons of the culture this guy is writing from. Male genitalia are obnoxious and stupid; female genitalia (and bottoming) are venomously contemptible. This is what the encoding of the slang that gets grabbed carries with it, down in the subliminals of the use of language. These things are insults to be, these things are insults to have. Be ashamed; be especially ashamed if you are encoded ‘done-to’, because that makes you sickening, rather than ‘doer’, at which point you’re merely some variety of jerk. By definition in the metamessage.

  7. Alexa said,

    I concur with Mr. Stickings, on both points. ;-)

  8. lindabeth said,

    Dw3t-Hthr, right on!

    and Alexa, thanks for your kind words!

    Welcome to you both!

  9. prometheustherebel said,

    This really lays out the difficulty in being an educated and feminist-minded compassionate person. It took some time and quite a bit of work, but I am managing to simply stop using gender-specific insults all together. I think when we talk about really trying to embody gender equality I think this is what it takes. I am by no means perfect, but I have seen how this change has helped me out. It’s also analagous to not utilizing the n word in communities of color. I’ve witnessed how these language changes really can sink in after a while. I would encourage anyone to give it a go for a day or so and see what happens! Great post.

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  11. Holli Smith said,

    The thing that gets me about the word “pussy” being used as an insult is that the same people who use it as an insult complain that western women aren’t feminine. Why would women want to be feminine when it’s considered such a bad thing to be in our society?

    I agree with your conclusion if women took control of this word the same way the black community has embraced racial insults maybe we can be respected and return to being feminine at the same time.

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