It may have been Christmas time three years ago, when, in the daze that was my shopping misery, I finally reached the cash register after a zombifyingly long wait in a Disneyland-like serpentine line. To my shock and then delight, the young ostensibly female Urban Outfitter employee asking me if I found everything “okay” was sporting a medium-sized (not too small and not overly large) white round button pinned to the left of the top of her left breast with the word in bold black capital letters, “CUNT” printed on it.
After a bit of an eye widening, I settled into a smirk and complimented her on her pin. She said her pal, the manager, made it for her. I thought it ballsy to wear it in a store, hip as the location is–the anti-mall, a hipster haven–with commercial intent, especially one run by Conservative homophobes from what I recollected reading.
I immediately wanted one. Up to that year, my 51st, I had not encountered the word very often and it had an aura about it, something electric and taboo. The word had never been hurled at me as a weapon til then, though it has been since–by someone I could not have ever guessed would use it against me, yet neither could I have ever imagined that he and I could have ever entered into hideous combat the way he had.
The initial admixture of discordant discomfort, alarm, and delight was titillating and intriguing. Yes, I understood the neutralizing of such terms through ironic deployment as many other terms have been similarly used: nigger and queer, to name the two powerhouse terms of oppression that have been turned inside out by the intended targets’ co-opting these weapons. No, one cannot harm another with a word she turns on herself happily, so that the term is deflated, neutralized.
My reaction led me on the usual journey of the philologist (a title one graduate school professor knighted his class of comparative literature students with profoundly): What is the nature of language?
Interestingly enough, I had this discussion about language with my class just yesterday. We had read Susan Allison’s, “Taking a Reading,” which is a playful essay examining the language of measurement, supposedly a very precise endeavor of linguists long ago. However, in it, Allison wryly asks how it is that her yard, the same word for a measurement of three feet, and that of her childhood–two different sized and located spaces–are both yards. Even the language of precision has so much slippage.
I asked my students: If we woke up tomorrow and the word for cat was now “dog,” would it matter? Language is merely a referent to something else, so does it make a difference which sounds and letters we assign to the object in mind, and how do we know the object we have in mind is the same referent for everyone using the same term anyhow? And what of the individual raised without a word for “cat” or any language? Does a cat exist in absence of a word for it, to recall it to mind and give it form? Pretty abstract for a class during the need-for-a-tea-or-espresso hour.
My point was to consider the arbitrariness of language even as it forms and informs our very existence–makes our world. I am not alone in pondering this phenomenon way too much. Philosophy teems with such obsessing considerations.
But how is it that such words like “cunt” contain all that energy, all that power? Does calling a man a “dick” have the same effect? No, it does not because of the real life power relations between men and women historically and contemporarily in physical, economical and political disparity of exchange. The magic of the term, however, must be steeped in a rich history of which I am not fully aware because calling a female “womb” or “vagina” or “twat” even does not have the same force or violence in my mind.
Few females wish to be identified as one part of their bodies, I would imagine, and if they did, it probably would not be their vaginas more than their brains. Though, as the wonderful Betty White, comedic tough ass actress long enduring herself, has astutely joked, the vagina is a pretty damned tough body part for its resilience, flexibility and endurance in light of the beatings it suffers.
For your viewing pleasure, an entertaining comic strip content of attitudes toward and reactions to the word “cunt” on the Nib entitled “Just a Word,” is offered for discussion. Is it just a word? A weapon? Is it enough to own the word, wear it on a pin to neutralize it? Breeze through the cartoon and weigh in. This inquiring mind wants to know.