On "Bitch" and Other Misogynist Language

[Important Note to Feminist Noobs: This is a long post. It contains lots of different, though related, Feminist 101 kind of ideas about misogynist language. Please carefully read the whole post before commenting. If you don't understand one of the points that is made in the post, I highly recommend asking for clarification before issuing an opinion on it. If you make an argument in comments that has already been discredited within the post, be prepared to be thoroughly mocked.]

Andi Zeisler, co-founder (with Lisa Jervis) of Bitch magazine, wrote an interesting piece for the WaPo this weekend on "the B-word," its cultural connotation, and its reclamation:

Bitch is a word we use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. We use the term for a woman on the street who doesn't respond to men's catcalls or smile when they say, "Cheer up, baby, it can't be that bad." We use it for the woman who has a better job than a man and doesn't apologize for it. We use it for the woman who doesn't back down from a confrontation.

So let's not be disingenuous. Is it a bad word? Of course it is. As a culture, we've done everything possible to make sure of that, starting with a constantly perpetuated mindset that deems powerful women to be scary, angry and, of course, unfeminine -- and sees uncompromising speech by women as anathema to a tidy, well-run world.

…[Bitch magazine is] not about hating men but about elevating women. But too many people don't see the difference. And, at least in part, that's why the B-word is still such a problematic term.
Definitely read the whole thing.

I found it particularly compelling because of its pertinence not only to the sexism surrounding Hillary's campaign which we've been discussing around here recently, but also because in the last week, I had a really retro and disheartening conversation about sexist language—a really retro and disheartening conversation about sexist language that I've had dozens of times before.

It began in the comments section of another blog, when I objected to a contributor denouncing a male public figure he didn't like as an "all-around cunt." Naturally, I was mocked for pointing out that demeaning and marginalizing sexist language has the capacity to make women feel demeaned and marginalized. I don't have any relationship with the contributor who used the term, so I emailed another contributor whom I know better to inquire if using the n-word as an insult is considered appropriate at the blog, and if it would have been acceptable for the public figure to be deemed an "all-around faggot." I was told that anything was allowable "within reasonable limits." Racial slurs would not be tolerated or defended, but the use of sexist language was acceptable. Which, by my calculations, means that if you're lambasting a black male public figure, calling him a stupid n----r is out of bounds, but calling him a stupid cunt is totally cool.

I'd like to point out it's a trade-off which insulates other black men against collateral debasement, but just debases black women in a different way, along with their sisters of all colors. I'm sure that's just a coincidence. Ahem.

So, unlike the racial slurs that would not be neither tolerated nor defended, the misogynist slurs that would be both tolerated and defended were thusly justified:

1. The Brits use it.

2. I use it.

3. The guy who used it is "no misogynist." He was using this term for female genitalia to insult a man, after all, and his intent was not to be misogynistic.

4. Comparing cunt to the n-word isn't accurate and trivializes the n-word.

5. He can't "abide" the policing of their comments threads by the PC police (i.e. me).

Quite honestly, I've had almost this exact same conversation before with male, self-identified liberal/progressive bloggers at whose blogs I objected to the use of sexist language, which is why I'm not identifying the blogger with whom I had this conversation. It's far too typical for me to single him out. I was, however, particularly disappointed by the way this conversation went, because I had thought that the person with whom I was speaking would be receptive to hearing how alienating it is, if for no other reason than because it will necessarily limit their audience. I was evidently mistaken.

By which I shouldn't be surprised, given that, as I said, I've had this conversation before, and it always goes the same way. So let me just respond to this point-by-point, since they're the same responses I inevitably get in such exchanges, and all of them have been raised in the comments of Shakes on multiple occasions:

1. The Brits use it. Some segments of British society are indeed fond of using the word cunt a lot. There are pubs in London where three seconds doesn't go by without someone shouting "yeh feckin' cunt!" at his or her mate. And…that really has nothing to do with its use at an American blog about American politics.

It also, btw, has nothing to do with whether it's intrinsically sexist. There are also bars in America where not three seconds pass without one guy calling another guy a fag. The frequency of its use in specific regional areas doesn't make it not homophobic—in those areas, or anywhere else.

Relatedly, the attempt to rip misogynist slurs from their roots to try to redefine them doesn't fly. "I'm using it in the European way" is just a cynical ploy to justify the continued use of misogynistic language that feels good to use. "Asshole" just doesn't have the zing! of "cunt," which is why we get these tortured explanations about how "cunt" isn't being used in the misogynistic way, but in the British or European way, where the word's ubiquity is fallaciously used as evidence that the word has lost all its meaning.

Throwing around the word cunt as if it has no meaning anymore—or some "new" meaning separate from gender—is ignorant and lazy, and contributes, in spite of all protestations to the contrary, to a culture of inequality.

2. I use it. My using the word cunt to describe myself and a man using it to describe another man are fundamentally different contexts. To pretend that this difference is not patently fucking obvious is what August calls a fabricated belief. No one with two brain cells still knocking together honestly believes that white people using the n-word as an insult and black people using it for any reason are equivalent, nor that a gay man describing himself as a faggot is the same as Ann Coulter describing John Edwards as a faggot. And no one should have the slightest bit of trouble wrapping their heads around the idea that my (or other women) reclaiming the word cunt (or bitch, or other sexist euphemisms) to describe ourselves is not the same as a man using it as an insult.

I love the word cunt, and I'm all for reclaiming it—but reclaiming "cunt" is about a woman wearing it herself and wielding it ironically, which is necessarily as a compliment, not an insult. If I call my girlfriend "a beautiful cunt" for expertly handling a sexist wanker, that's got reappropriative power. If I call her "a dumb cunt" because she does something foolish, not so much.

There are ways to use words and there are ways to use words—and knowing the difference, rooting out the subversive context from that which simply perpetuates oppression, is not remotely difficult.

And no matter how often women use it in a reclaimative fashion, it doesn't give anyone (of either sex) permission to use it as an insult. The whole "you use it" justification strikes me as a rather pathetic bit of whining; why do you get to use it and I don't? As if that's some big coup for the girlz. Trust me—in the whole "undeserved privilege since birth" v. "getting to use cunt" cage match, you've got the better end of the bargain. So STFU.

3. The guy who used it is "no misogynist." He was using this term for female genitalia to insult a man, after all, and his intent was not to be misogynistic. Okay, first of all, let’s pull this apart into two pieces:

A. Intent: If you're turning part of a woman's body into a slur to insult someone, the implication is necessarily that cunts are bad, nasty, less than, in some way something that a person wouldn't want to be or be associated with. That's how insults work. When cunt is used as a slur, it is dependent on construing a woman's body part negatively—and it thusly misogynistic, because it inexorably insults women in the process. Specifically using a misogynistic slur against a man can't be anything but intentionally misogynistic. If you don't intend to demean women, then don't use misogynistic slurs. It's really as simple as that.

B. Not a Misogynist. How often does one have to use misogynistic language before one can be identified as a misogynist? Twenty times? A hundred? An infinite number of times, as long as he doesn't beat women? During the "cunt/whore" dust-up recounted here, Piny wrote a great post addressing this very question:

I wholeheartedly agree that there is a difference between someone who posts an ill-conceived blackface photoshop caricature and, say, Nathan Bedford Forrest. I will also happily concede that there is a difference between someone who openly identifies as feminist but casually uses misogynistic slurs and graphic misogynistic riffs to deride people–women in particular–and, say, John Knox.

This does not mean that it’s a good idea to restrict “a racist,” “a sexist,” and “a misogynist,” to the very worst of the worst. …[I]t reduces complaints about all of these words to matters of personal affront, such that “sexist” and “cunt” are equated. “Sexist” becomes not a criticism of someone’s demonstrated beliefs, a term like “reactionary,” but an epithet as crude as the slurs to which it responds. It’s mean and unfair to call someone a sexist.
Absolutely spot-on. Also see the except from Pam here, which talks about how reserving these terms for the extremes allows people to "rationalize away such incidents because a real racist burns a cross on someone's lawn, or ties a black man to the back of a truck and drags him until his limbs fall off." Reserving "misogynist" (or "sexist") for equivalent displays of contempt for women means that a guy who flippantly refers to another guy as a cunt (or a bitch, or a pussy, or a girl) can justify it with assertions that he isn't a misogynist, even if he uses the terms with regularity. Back to Piny:

Then, inevitably, it becomes impossible to describe behavior as repeated and typical, part of a pattern, because there will always be a John Knox whose lack of respect for women is more constant and more obvious. In fact, it arguably conflates extremism with consistency. If my bigotry does not reach a certain level, then it is a negligible component of my persona, even in discussions about bigotry that respond to demonstrations of bigotry.

…If someone cannot be called a sexist unless they either constantly treat women as though they hated them or engage in behavior that even Bill Napoli considers abominable, then little things like using a misogynist slur are automatically trivial. They’re so far from true sexism that they might as well be called feminist.

And the ultimate result of resisting being deemed a misogynist for the use of misogynistic language is that it's yet another way of giving oneself permission to resist self-examination. As I've said no fewer than a nonillion times before, all of us, failing extraordinary effort to examine the narratives of bias—with which we're all indoctrinated by our culture—in an attempt to extricate ourselves from their divisive grip, will hold prejudices. The only question is whether you allow your own to be unexamined prejudices. Responding to questions about the use of misogynist language with "I'm not a misogynist!" is a near-certain step to burying and making intractable the very prejudices that allows someone to engage in such behavior in the first place. There's more shame in denying being a misogynist when you patently, undeniably are than saying: "Yes, I'm a misogynist, but I don't want to be."

I'm reminded of an exchange I had with Bill soon after he started posting at Shakes. He used something (way less obvious than an overt slur) to which I objected in one of his posts, and I asked him to please remove it. Here's how he responded: He said, approximately, "Thanks. I don't always notice stuff like that, and I'm trying to be more sensitive to it, so I appreciate your letting me know." That's it. I can't even begin to tell you how much I respected him for that, how profoundly appreciative I was of his utter lack of defensiveness. And if you want to know what a swell dude he really is, he removed it from the post at his own blog, too. (In other words, he wasn't just blowing smoke up my ass.)

4. Comparing cunt to the n-word isn't accurate and trivializes the n-word. I've seen a lot of this "slur ranking" lately—JFH did it in comments here just this weekend, although, unlike my correspondent, he decided that the n-word and cunt are equivalent, but probably only because he was rejecting someone's having compared bitch and the n-word: "[C]omparing 'bitch' to '[the n word]' is not fair. The equivalent to 'bitch' is 'bastard' or 'asshole'. The equivalent to '[the n-word]' is 'cunt'."

The ludicrous thing about these examinations of equivalence is that when someone says, "Would you use the n-word in that way?" what they mean is, "Would you use racial slurs in that way?" Parsing whether cunt is the precise equivalent of the n-word is just a way of avoiding the underlying idea. Sexist language, like racist language, is marginalizing and demeaning. Full. Stop. And I shouldn't have to determine the exact racial equivalent of "cunt" before that point can be made. "It's not as bad as the n-word, but it's worse than darkie…" Yeesh.

The internal rankings are equally useless, i.e. "bitch isn't as bad as cunt." Women who are marginalized and demeaned by misogynist language take little comfort from the fact that the people who use it only mean to marginalize and demean us "this much" with "this word" and "that much" with "that word."

And if there are women who say, "I hate being called a cunt more than being called a bitch," I suspect it's merely indicative of our being inured to one word more than the other and/or having been given more cultural opportunities for reclamation. It means something that there's a Bitch magazine at your local newsstand and not a Cunt Quarterly. (Or if there is, it's a porno.)

5. He can't "abide" the policing of their comments threads by the PC police (i.e. me). Well, this is what it always boils down to in the end. I'm just too sensitive and I'm trying to censor someone and blah blah blah. In a word, no.

What I am is more sensitive to how misogynist language affects women, because I am one. People of color are more sensitive to racist language (particularly racist dog whistles, for example) than I am; that doesn't mean they're too sensitive. When a reader pointed out to me that my use of the word "lame" to mean "stupid" could be offensive to disabled Shakers, it wasn't that she was too sensitive; it was that I was not sensitive enough. It means that (duh) I still have shit to learn in this world.

Life is hard enough without my unexpectedly smacking people in the face who trust me not to be a jerk, and it's in that same spirit that I've tried to convey how misogynist language is uncool—hey, I don't want to get blindsided with shit like that from an ostensible ally. When I highlight the use of sexist language at a male-authored blog, it's because such language is alienating and demeaning and infuriating and I'm operating under the assumption that those bloggers don't want to alienate, demean, and infuriate their female readers.

But that, as it turns out, usually tends to be a faulty assumption.

Repeatedly, it comes down to this insistence that I'm trying to police their blogs, but they refuse to be censored, man! Which itself is bullshit. It's not about being censored, but about the refusal to self-censor to make their blogs non-misogynist, as if giving up the use of the word cunt is some kind of creative apocalypse. I've got news for you: If you feel like self-censoring to forego the use of misogynist language is a compromise of your integrity, you don't have much integrity to begin with.

I self-censor all the time. I'm not exactly proud to admit this, but it's not like the phrase "Bush is a fuckin' retard" has never entered my mind. But I don't use the slur—not because I'm oh-so-scared that the "PC police" will come after me, but because it's not a nice term. That's reason enough.

And I don't think I've exactly failed to convey my feelings about our less-than-brilliant president without using a word that would unnecessarily insult people I have no desire whatsoever to demean and alienate people who love them. It's not particularly challenging to expand one's vocabulary beyond cunt and retard.

But the attitude I routinely get for suggesting such a infinitesimal broadening of one's horizons is, essentially, "Deal with it or fuck off."

So "fuck off" it is.

I generally don't read (so as not to tacitly support) progressive blogs that use misogynist language, even if they're ideological allies in other ways, because sexism is deeply illiberal. There are plenty of progressive blogs, including exclusively male-authored blogs, that don't use misogynist language—so I don't need to read blogs that do.

Plenty of us have managed to figure out that refusing to use language which perpetuates oppression is not enslaving oneself to the language police. It's just doing the basic work required of someone who doesn't want to be a fucking asshole.

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