A furor erupted last week when Alaska Rep. Don Young referred to Latinos who had worked on his father’s farm as "wetbacks." Speaker of the House John Boehner decried the racial slur, as did Arizona Sen. John McCain and several other prominent Republicans.
Young apologized at the behest of fellow Republicans, but it was clear he didn’t understand what he’d done wrong; he had to apologize twice: The first time wasn’t good enough for anyone–not Republicans nor Latinos.
That’s the thing about people who use language that offends and demeans others: they don’t get it. If they did, it would never have occurred to them to use that language in the first place.
It’s easy to attribute this use of pejoratives to out-of-touch Republicans. But what about people who should know better, like our friends, colleagues and political allies?
Pejorative language isn’t just racial slurs, it’s also sexist slurs. Last year college student Sandra Fluke was catapulted into the national limelight when Rush Limbaugh called her a whore. And yet the discourse never went much beyond, bad Rush, what can you expect?
But it’s not just Limbaugh using this kind of language against women. We hear it within the LGBT community all the time. We hear it in popular music. We hear it on TV. Women hear it from strangers and friends alike. What’s more, when our friends use that language, they expect us to act like it’s not that big a deal. Because, you know, we’re friends. So it’s said as a joke. And we should just lighten up, already.
But just as Latinos might have hoped never to hear the word "wetback" again with all its ugly history, so too would I like to never be called "bitch," "whore," "slut," "skank," "twat" or "cunt," ever again.
It always shocks me when men hurl these pejoratives at me and think it’s okay. A gay man recently posted a comment on my political blog, calling me cunt and bitch because he didn’t like something I had written. What do we say to people who casually call us these oppressive names?
We say something.
I’m not sure when Americans started using the term, "the n word" rather than "nigger," but one day that word became–as it should always have been—a word that was off limits for decent people. Forever after, only people who were ignorant racists would use that word. Racial slurs became declasse. They were no longer part of common parlance.
But there’s a discourse we never have after incidents like Rep. Young’s remark or when anyone else important is "caught" using pejorative language, and that is: you have to think it to say it. They thought it, which is why they could say it. Young actually thinks of Latinos as wetbacks–that’s why the word just fell out of his mouth and why he had such a difficult time understanding what it was he was apologizing for.
That’s also why it’s never cute or funny when you call me bitch or cunt or whore. Because the fact that such language came into your head about me or any other woman means that’s how you think of us: as bitches and cunts and whores.
So not cool.
No doubt there will be people who will think this is an over-reaction, that it’s taking political correctness too far. That I should just lighten up already.
Those people would be wrong.
It’s deep, this pejorative usage in our culture. It’s so deep, it’s so ingrained, that it’s casual–like the use of the n word was for generations. While you can’t say nigger anymore on TV, you can say bitch and on cable, cunt. Congressmen who say wetback get pilloried. But when they called Nancy Pelosi a bitch or Hillary Clinton a cunt–silence.
During the 2008 primary, Roger Stone, a long-time Republican strategist created a 527 political action group called "Citizens United, Not Timid." (Note the acronym: CUNT.) He asserted the 527 was to "educate people about who Hillary Clinton really is." That is, a cunt. Not a woman whose politics he decried or a woman he didn’t think should be president, but a cunt.
The sum of her genitalia. Because to him and his allies, at least, that’s all women are.
During the most recent election cycle, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was called "The Crabby Cunt from the California Coast" and "Nancy the Crooked Whore" on Twitter by South Carolina Republican Party Executive Director Todd Kincannon. His only apology was "I wish I could walk back the ‘Nancy the Crooked Whore’ thing. It’s not alliterative." He also said, "I think a lot of people need to learn how to take a joke."
There were no calls for apologies from anyone in the Republican hierarchy.
It would be easier to categorize this language as just another appalling right-wing behavior if men on the other side of the aisle weren’t doing it as well. Bill Maher, who gave more than $1 million to the Obama re-election campaign, has repeatedly referred to Sarah Palin as a cunt and a dumb twat, defending the terms because "as a politician, Palin is fair game."
I agree that public figures—particularly political figures—are fair game for criticism of their actions. Call out Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Sarah Palin for their politics if you disagree with them. But call them out for their politics, not their femaleness. When you reduce one woman to nothing but her genitalia, you reduce all women to that.
We can’t pretend that these pejorative words don’t have painful, damaging history. Just as that hideous n word evokes images of slavery, lynching and the most violent aspects of racism, words like cunt, and bitch, whore, and twat are reductive terms that not only dismiss and demean women, but they are the language of rape and violence against women that is annihilating women all over the planet. These words repudiate female personhood. No one uses this language for someone they care about–either individually or collectively. They use it to punish women, they use it to humiliate and subjugate. You bitch, you whore, you cunt.
No one in America is ignorant of racism, even if they themselves are racists. We know racism is endemic in this country. But sexism is, as well. Women are second-class citizens in the U.S. (and globally), but we don’t talk about women’s reduced and demeaned social status the way we talk about racism, which is why the use of pejoratives against women pass under the radar and don’t receive the universal outrage Rep. Young’s reprehensible racist slur got.
Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, as a culture we follow our leadership: When it became unacceptable to use racial slurs among the political and social elite, it automatically marginalized anyone who continued to use those vile terms.
Yet in the highest levels of our society, on both sides of the political aisle, it’s still pretty much okay to use slurs against women. During the Oscars, for example, The Onion, the renowned news satire publication, sent out a tweet calling 9-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis a "cunt."
The Onion apologized later, saying their humor was over-the-top. But as with Rep. Young, someone on the staff thought it was funny to say this about a little girl on the most important night of her life. They didn’t call her the n word, even though she’s black, but they did call her the c word. Because one word is no longer acceptable even as satire, while the other–really still okay, even for a nine-year-old.
As deplorable as these public statements are, it’s the use of these words within our own communities that is most disturbing because it’s so much more personal. When rapper/mogul Jay-Z’s daughter was born, he allegedly said he wouldn’t call women "bitches" anymore. Apparently the other women in his life still deserved to be called bitches, but not little Blue Ivy.
The words bitch, whore, and cunt are used all over the music world where hip-hop in particular has turned women into nothing but bitches and whores. These words have also become entrenched in LGBT culture, with gay men using them with a constancy that ignores the fact that straight society reduces gay men to the same placement as women, thus the worst thing you can ever call a man is a "pussy" or a "cunt." So when gay men call women—especially their women friends—"bitches" and "whores," it reveals an inherent misogyny that is no different from that used by straight men against women or straight men against gay men. It’s still the language of violence against women, even if you don’t intend to physically harm us.
These words are meant to shame women, to make women realize how little value they have in male society. Women are expected to take the joke, lighten up already, stay silent, don’t reveal a shred of feminist outlier, just go along. Don’t be such a bitch, you fucking cunt. But the inculcating of these words into common parlance is the opposite of what happened with racial pejoratives. Those words became unacceptable in any context.
But these pejorative words against women have broadened in usage as well as context. They are now wholly part of popular culture, political discourse, literature, late-night comedy.
No one stands up to say that these words are hateful, misogynistic and violent, that they do damage, that they reinforce a culture in which women are perennially less than men.
Rep. Young talked about the workers on his father’s farm as "wetbacks." They weren’t people, they were wetbacks. When we allow women to be framed as bitches, whores, and cunts, we separate them from their personhood, their individuality. But this language has a deeper context: it foments and bolsters discrimination against women. That bitch doesn’t need a raise. Why should I give that cunt anything? Stupid whore.
It’s time to make these words anathema, just as we did racial and ethnic slurs. When we stopped saying them, we stopped thinking them. These words are the very language of oppression. And as such, they have no place in our discourse, public or private.