Monday, January 17, 2011

What do we do with the c-word?

I can't say that I'm really a huge fan of reclaiming words. For me personally, there are always three that come right to mind: bitch, slut, and cunt. (Whore's also a close fourth.) My level of comfort with each word seems kind of arbitrary and based more on gut reaction to the overall aural aesthetic of the word than its semantics and history. "Bitch" usually makes me bristle, even when coming from the friendliest of allies in (at least what they feel is) a genuine attempt at reclamation. "Slut" is okay in very specific circumstances, and even then, only with people who have a very clear, intentional understanding of how the word can be interpreted in feminist circles (for example, in regard to the concept of slut-shaming).

So right off the bat, for better or worse, you can see I have some pretty complicated pre-requisites for certain words. Reclaiming them sounds like a lot of unnecessary work to me personally, since my feelings are so negative to begin with.

But "cunt" is a whole other ball game to me. I like it. I'd never heard of the word except for when hearing that it was the worst insult ever, to be used even more rarely than the [formerly] taboo eff-dash-dash-dash word. (Which, incidentally, is a word that was used much less frequently at the time, but that's a different story.) Cunt was the word you should simply never say. Uh, okay, I guess. There was no explanation why.

The next time I ever heard of it was in porn, then in the Vagina Monologues. When I saw/read/heard it in porn, it was pretty much another synonym for vagina--I never felt like there was any extraneous negative connotation to it (except, arguably, the context of pornography itself, but that's again a different story). And then in the Vagina Monologues, it was back to Reclaiming Cunt, but I still didn't understand who or what exactly we were supposed to be reclaiming it from.

Perhaps it's worth noting here that I've only been called a cunt one time. In a way, it was a little like being insulted with the worst word in a foreign language. I had to stop and interpret, like: "Hmm, okay, he said this because he wanted to say the worst thing ever. I should probably react accordingly." It didn't switch on any anger inside of me the way being called a bitch does.

All that said, I like the word. I like how it sounds. In my opinion, it sounds much better than other words out there for a person's vagina. (Snatch? Ughhhhhh...)

At the same time, I'm well-aware that, even if it is for reasons I don't completely understand, it's a loaded term. It can bring out a lot of negative feelings (not unlike bitch or slut or whore) I think that's important to keep in mind. I like what Sara Gwin is quoted as saying in this essay:

"Women have every right to reclaim the word for themselves or for a particular group. However, there has to be the acknowledgement that this word is still incredibly insulting to many and we have to respect that"
Recently, I've been doing some thinking about the ways I take control in a conversation. I'm a fairly shy person--quite often I've felt like I'm being talked over or blown off--and so I think one of the ways I sometimes gain power or control in a conversation is by talking about topics that tend to make others uncomfortable, and thus shutting them up to give me some space to talk. This would include subjects like menstruation, sexual assault, most things related to women's sexualities, or jokes considered over-the-line gross--things that deliberately make others uncomfortable. I hadn't been aware of this behavior as a tool for conversation domination until the past few months, and I think the catalyst for that realization came from when other people did it to me.

All this came to mind when I read a blog post from one of my favorite zinesters, venting about complaints generated by the jewelry she makes bearing the word cunt. I agree with Amber on most things, and her zines are by far some of my favorites (do yourself a favor and read as much Culture Slut as you can), but I was kind of put off by the way she chose to respond to those who were offended, opening with: "The title of this listing is 'Reclaim The Words That People Use To Put You Down'. I guess it went over your head." Eek. It's made me think more critically about what it means to actually reclaim a word, and if it's even possible on a large scale.

As I mentioned before, cunt is a loaded term, and not everyone's interested in turning around into a positive. (It could perhaps even be argued that most people are uninterested in reclamation? I'm not sure.) So what does that mean when you're wearing cunt jewelry or preaching about pussy power? I really feel like it puts you in a tight spot (ha), because you're very much in the danger zone of making people too uncomfortable and shutting them down to any type of message you might have, controversial or otherwise. But, like Amber also says, if this is a word that's being used to put you down, there's something to be said about being bold enough to turn it around. I guess my question is, how do you balance boldness with tastefulness, that is, how do we achieve reclamation without alienation?


Aana Rae said...

I use cunt to specifically refer to my vagina almost 100% of the time. Now I do understand that this is not always appropriate, like in front of my son, and so there are times I censor myself, but like you, I think the word cunt is a much better euphemism for my vagina (I HATE HATE HATE the word pussy) and if I'm in a situation where cunt is inappropriate I simply call my vagina my vagina.
As a student of literature, I have come across the word quite often (French romance cycles anyone?) and have always been really curious about the etymology of the word, and why it became such an insult instead of simply a way to say vagina without saying vagina.
I guess the whole point of this is that the only thing we can really do is use the word in situations where it's appropriate and even to the line of being inappropriate, but don't say it in front of your grandma.


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