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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Can "bitch" or "cunt" be reclaimed? I don't think so.


To many, when there are seemingly more important issues to discuss, it seems a trivial question: do sexist terms really present a significant problem to women's equality?

Some (emphasis on *some*) feminists feel it's not a big deal, or at least, that it could be distracting. In light of the effect of things like rape culture or the gender wage gap, who cares if women are openly called bitches, whores, sluts, etc.?

I agree that we should be focusing on "important" women's rights issues, but for exactly that reason, I believe how we talk to--and about--women needs to be addressed. I feel that because language is the foundation of how we communicate (and because it often has an insidious influence), those big-picture issues benefit from encouraging a culture that doesn't have insults based on gender.

You might have just pointed out that there are gendered insults for both women and men, but the vast majority of the time, woman-based insults are used for all genders whereas men-based insults are typically reserved for men.

Think about it this way: every man-based insult has a connotation of criticizing aggressiveness. Dick, asshole, bastard, etc. are usually directed at men who are aggressive or stereotypically masculine.

Woman-based insults, on the other hand, are directed towards women who are seen as overstepping their bounds or men who are considered effeminate.

Woman-based insults don't typically have an aspect of positive characterization whereas man-based insults are directed at strong men.

Because of this, gender-based insults reinforce a culture of gender roles and stereotypes.

And because of that, we reinforce the perception of women being inherently weaker and less powerful, psychologically permitting many to rape and sexually assault women. Although it's estimated over 99% of sex crimes are done by men, it hasn't gone unnoticed that power roles are also seen in the LGBT community, in which their cases of rape or sexual assault (and harassment) are done by the "masculine" party to the "feminine" party.

It's incredibly difficult for people to see this connection between language and rape despite the link being easy to draw on paper.

That's why it's so important to speak out against sexist language when we hear it. When my friends, men or women, say "bitch", I politely let them know it's not okay. 95% of the time they apologize and refrain from doing it in the future (though, for all I know, they may grumble behind my back).

But that 5% really hate the notion that sexist language encourages sexist behavior. Though most are men, I've often had women, including self-avowed feminists, tell me that it doesn't matter.

And some bring up my least favorite myth: the idea that an oppressed group can "reclaim" an oppressive term.

This is a touchy issue for some people, especially those who believe reclaiming works. Although very well-meaning, when asked to prove reclaiming has ever worked, their arguments tend to collapse pretty quickly.

My understanding of "reclaiming" is that the oppressed group is able to remove the sting of a derogatory term specific to their group by using it among other members.

Now, admittedly, I don't belong to any oppressed group. I'm a white, straight, cisgender, Christian man who has no physical disabilities. Add "American" to that, and minus my tax bracket, I'm a member of the most privileged cluster demographic in the world.

So, if members of an oppressed group tell me that using an oppressive term among themselves somewhat lessens the sting of term, I should be inclined to believe it.

The problem is that there doesn't seem to be any evidence of that. I can't think of one discriminatory term that has been reclaimed in our nation's cultural history.

Actually, scratch that: "cracker" seems to be have been reclaimed, but I'm pretty sure that's only because it wasn't doing much damage from the start, probably because it's directed at an oppressor group. Now, it's become a joke among everyone. Louis C. K. did a pretty funny bit on the ridiculous perception that being called a "cracker" would somehow any white man's day.

Meanwhile, every other discriminatory term not describing white men still carries a hell of a lot of sting, the most notable, of course, being "nigger".

And for good reason. This word was used over a long period of time to belittle and dehumanize black human beings. It has become synonymous with enslaving, degrading, torturing, raping, and murdering blacks in the United States.

There's been an excellent effort to take the sting out of the term. It's now used commonly among black Americans, especially in hip-hop culture.

But let's not pretend that the word has been reclaimed. If any white celebrity, outside specific comedy contexts (and even then, it's a thin line) utters the word, their career is shot. And rightly so. It's completely insensitive and hurtful.

The point of "reclaiming" should be to take the power out of a term, and I would argue that the n-word has just as much power as it's ever had.

Ideally, no one would ever say this word again. Should black Americans be able to use the n-word? Sure, but unfortunately, we don't have a national white culture in place that can understand why an oppressed racial minority should only be able to use oppressive words, but they can't. We're not there. We're not even close to being there. When a white kid sees his favorite rapper use the word, he assumes that, despite the historical significance of its oppressive qualities, it's now fine to say the n-word.

(And believe me, there are way more white people using this term behind closed doors than you think.)

Clearly, it's more than a little fucked up that an oppressed group shouldn't have the option of using a word *used* to degrade them in order to teach the oppressor group not to use it. Once again, the actions of the oppressed group are being dictated, even if indirectly, by the oppressor group.

It sucks, but that's how it goes. Progress sometimes requires ripping and tearing.

I say all this on racist language to demonstrate the importance of encouraging all people, regardless of gender, to avoid using gender-based insults but especially woman-based insults.

Some feminists are understandably very keen on the belief that words like "bitch" and "cunt" and "slut" can be taken back, but unfortunately, all they end up doing is sending the message to men that it's fine to continue using oppressive language against women, even if the insults are directed at effeminate men.

And by the way, how crazy is that? By degrading an effeminate man as a "bitch", you're actually insulting women at the same time. Women are getting slammed in whatever context that word is used, regardless of the intended target.

Young men are especially prone to thinking it's fine to use language that oppresses women, which ends up marking women as inherently less human (bitch, cunt), less moral (slut, whore), and even less strong (sissy, girly, etc.).

This is without getting to phrases such as "You throw/play/tackle like a girl."

Man-based insults, while being insulting, tend to characterize desired traits in overdrive. Yes, that guy may have just been called a "dick", but the hidden meaning is that he was being aggressive and masculine, both of which are desired traits in a man. Same goes for bastard and asshole, both of which can be used for women but are most often used for men.

Women aren't typically called assholes or dicks or bastards, etc. Sometimes, maybe, but aggressiveness in a woman is typically seen as negative and derided as the woman being a "bitch" or "cunt".

Man-based insults are rarely damaging, if ever. The only man-specific term that's seen as wholly insulting is "faggot", which, once again, is somehow insulting because it implies the guy is being effeminate or womanly, a "bad" thing, apparently.

Terms of sexual frequency don't apply to men. Even when men are genuinely insulted with "whore" or "slut", it ends up coming off as positive because men can have multiple partners.

Bill Clinton may be a womanizer, but whether or not we'd like to admit it, much of America loves that quality about him and many of us tolerate it. Could Hillary have gotten away with even one affair? No chance in hell.

It's been 15 years since Clinton's sex scandal, and we still love Bill. Meanwhile, Monica Lewinsky is regularly called a "slut" or "whore" for sleeping with a married man.

Had it been a male intern sleeping with Hillary, the country would be high-fiving him for the rest of his life.

I think a lot of women understandably want to believe that calling each other (and some men) these terms is lessening their impact over time, but I just don't see that happening. I have not seen a noticeable decrease in either the frequency or the impact of men using these terms against women and effeminate men.

Even men whom you really respect for great reasons often use these terms behind closed doors. I'm not saying all do, but I've seen very "boy scout" men get around other guys and call a woman a "cunt" for having the audacity to express very reasonable leadership traits.

Many women think they're changing the direction by trying to "reclaim" the words used against them, but it's just not working. All it's doing is encouraging men to use the terms without feeling guilty.

"Well, she just called her a bitch. Why can't I?"

Again, these words have consequences. They make it psychologically easier to harass and assault already oppressed groups.

It's better to just encourage everyone not to use them. I'm not saying ban people from using them, of course, but there needs to be a cultural push to make it shameful to use them.

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4 comments:

  1. "there needs to be a cultural push to make it shameful to use them."

    When you say this, do you mean that people who use slurs aggressively should solely be made to feel ashamed or that this shameful feeling should also apply to those who reclaim the words for their own identities?

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  2. I agree. Some terms are just too charged to be reclaimed. I don't want to be identified by sexually suggestive language, no matter who's using it. I also hate it when men are insulted by being compared to women.

    It really is a small skip from "You scream like a girl" to "Stop being such a little bitch".

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  3. Yeah it's just like that 'Mean Girls' quote, "You need to stop calling yourselves sluts and whores because it only makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores." Though, i think changing the language is something complicated, I have explained to some why using words like that is hurtful, but I know that they still don't see consequences from their actions so they feel free to use them whenever they like. However I would also like to point out that this is mainly an English language problem. English is my second language, with Spanish being my first. And we have vary non-gender insults. As well as very shameful insults only specified to men. I am not sure if you are aware but in Spanish things and words have 'genders' so an insult could be either both feminine or masculine. We don't have 'set' gender insults because they are just insults. So English being a language without this feature, you have only one way to go with words. Same with referring to cars or things as 'she'. So this is what makes it so problematical, and hard to fix at the same time.

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  4. Do you feel this applies to when people use "bitch" endearingly? Walking into a room and declaring "what's up, bitches!" or how women have sort of reclaimed it by using it as HBIC (Head Bitch in Charge)? -- Alex

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