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Dropping the C-Word

Why is there still so much taboo around the word *unt? Perhaps culturally we still think of it as a curse word, an insult to all women, and a vulgar obscenity. But consider how much a woman’s body has often been deemed obscene historically. Why must an insult remain one? If we’re not ready to use the C-word, can we at least consider the context in which the word is used before we cower and apologize for it?

The networks are not ready to embrace the C-word—even when it’s used in context; they apparently can’t tell the difference. Jane Fonda was asked by Today Show host Meredith Vieira about her involvement with The Vagina Monologues, an award-winning play by Eve Ensler, which celebrates women’s bodies. Fonda responded: “It wasn’t that I wasn’t a big fan of the play. I hadn’t seen the play. I live in Georgia, okay, I was asked to do a monologue called ‘The Cunt’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so. I’ve got enough problems.’” NBC was quick to apologize to the world, claiming that it was a “slip!” Fonda did not use the word in a hostile or insulting way; she simply referred to the name of the monologue.

Given the popularity of The Vagina Monologues this will pass. What worries me is that Americans are still terribly uncomfortable with their bodies—especially women’s bodies.

What is it about our cultural discomfort with the female body that the language we use to describe it becomes degraded? Women’s body parts are deemed disgusting (and routinely slashed, beaten, murdered, and cut up in television and film), and to prove toughness or masculinity (men and women alike), we use terms from the female body to insult someone: If you can’t compete, you’re a “pussy.” If you get bossed around by your wife, girlfriend, or partner, you’re “pussy-whipped.”

And if you’re a powerful woman in the public eye, watch out. The issues you espouse as well as your career experience, education, and know-how will all be tossed to the side. Don’t think you’re going to get away with anything or be too powerful; we don’t like bitches. At a campaign event in South Carolina, a female McCain backer asked the senator, “How do we beat the bitch?” to which he responded, “That’s an excellent question.” It would have been a perfect opportunity for him to handle it with grace and rise above this woman’s idiocy, but he failed. Chris Matthews claimed that Hillary Clinton’s career as a senator was tied to the fact that Bill had cheated: “The reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around.” Only after public outcry from groups like the National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority, and the National Women’s Political Caucus did he finally apologize. David Shuster also lashed out at the Clintons, claiming they were pimping out Chelsea. (Of course Bush’s children Barbara and Jenna campaigned for him years earlier, which some commentators have rightfully jumped in to argue.) A conservative group against Hillary Clinton came out with a non-clever campaign of calling her the C-word. Meanwhile in malls across the country, you can buy a t-shirt by this conservative group who further degrades Hillary—and all women. Despite who we ultimately choose to vote or work for, the rules for powerful women continue to be different.

When will we stop tolerating all this fear and hatred of women, this unending analysis, parsing and cutting up of women’s personalities and bodies? Whether you agree with the use of the C-word or not, it’s clear that our culture is deeply afraid of women’s power. The irony of it all is that The Vagina Monologues was written so that women could reclaim and love their bodies. But Jane Fonda’s slip of the C-word has taken center stage.

Ensler wrote the monologues based on interviews with hundreds of women who told personal stories of their vaginas. Ensler describes all the names this female body part has been given: including vagina, coochie snorcher, and many others. (And yes, one of her monologues reclaims the word cunt. So what! It’s not that revolutionary anymore.) Just as important, this year is the ten-year anniversary of the first benefit performance of Ensler’s play to spread awareness about violence against women and girls. This point was also lost on the media hype! Every year V-Day works with women from different parts of the world to fight this problem. This year V-Day is focused on women in the Gulf South.

The C-word will never replace all the other terms we give it. Here are a few worth mentioning: beaver, camel toes, down there, fern, Garden of Eden, honeypot, joy hole, love purse, mount joy, snatch, whisker biscuit, and vagina! (Admittedly there are more slang terms for breasts, though.) Vagina is still not an acceptable word to use for many women and men, except by our gynecologists. It was renamed “vajayjay” in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, made popular by Oprah shortly afterward, followed by an article in the New York Times. In “What’s Up Down There,” an episode of The Tyra Banks Show, Tyra talks candidly with guests about their vaginas. Ideally “vagina” would have been in the title, but judging that it took her three years to convince her producers to even run what they considered a “controversial” show, it’s something. In her blog she wrote: “Honestly, I don’t know why women are so uncomfortable talking about their vagina. I have women on my show who have NEVER gone to the gynecologist. With STDs, ovarian cancer, and so many health issues involving your vagina, you’ve got to take control and put your health first.”

Although I’m not opposed to any of these pet names necessarily (I love language), I can’t help asking why must women’s bodies continue to be sanitized? Are we afraid of our own sexuality?

Perhaps reclaiming some of these words on our own terms will strip away some of the taboo. But unlike the F-word and even “bitch” to some extent, the C-word remains just too offensive for most. In an interview with the London Independent in 2006, Germaine Greer, who had been an advocate of taking back the C-word in the 1970s, reversed her position somewhat: “I don’t think now that I want the C-word to be tamed. I love the idea that this word is still so sacred that you can use it like a torpedo, that you can hole people below the waterline. You can make strong men go pale. This word for our female ‘sex’ is an extraordinarily powerful reminder of who we are and where we came from. It’s a word of immense power—to be used sparingly.”

At what point will we stop apologizing—and truly embrace the beauty and power of all women?

Related Stories: Do You Use the B-Word?