The Vagina

A Literary and Cultural History

by Emma L. E. Rees

13 September 2013


The Power in the Devil’s Triangle

Another ‘torpedo’ word is, as I have already mentioned, ‘nigger’. In his Nigger: the Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Randall Kennedy quotes Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: ‘a word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged [but is] the skin of a living thought [that] may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used’. ‘Nigger’, writes Kennedy, ‘is fascinating precisely because it has been put to a variety of uses and can radiate a wide array of meanings’. Kennedy’s exploration of the power of language as indicator of social class or as ‘a tool of demagoguery’ has much in common with the debates that circulate around the word ‘cunt’; he claims for ‘nigger’ the status of ‘superlative racial epithet – the most hurtful, the most fearsome, the most dangerous’. Such weighty dysphemistic baggage makes any attempt at reclamation exceptionally fraught, and, as Kennedy argues, ‘necessarily involves comparing oppressions and prioritizing victim status’.

Can the words ‘cunt’ and ‘nigger’, regarded by so many as so despicable, ever enter common linguistic currency? Sticks and stones do break bones – of women, of people of colour – but words hurt them, too. If you’re being beaten up, does it really make any difference what your attackers are calling you? Can some words ‘hurt’ more than others? I think they can. Precisely because a word can ‘radiate a wide array of meanings’, its specific, situational usage really does matter. Both ‘nigger’ and ‘cunt’ are ‘rhetorical boomerangs’: at some stage thrown out, but returning to the lexicon, having amassed altered meanings along the way. What Kennedy identifies as having happened is that beleaguered minorities have ‘thrown the slur right back in their oppressors’ faces’. Is it the case that either word can connote positivity, depending on setting and speaker? Are some words ‘owned’ by specific people, but are off limits for others? If the speaker of the word ‘nigger’ is white, or the speaker of the word ‘cunt’ identifies as male, do the words automatically assume a new potency and impact? However, if language is an agreed, culturally shared system of communication, it is problematic to place so much emphasis on the specifics of context and speaker: that self-same specificity denies the possibility of universal ‘ownership’ of language. As Allan and Burridge write, ‘offensiveness is never an intrinsic quality of a word, and the choice between alternative expressions will always depend on context’. I’m extremely fond of the word ‘fuck’ because of its multivalence – it can be a noun, verb or adjective – and most of its meanings have shaken the signifier free from its originary signified. Similarly, someone might profess to love the word ‘nigger’. Kennedy quotes the musician Ice-T on how reclamation of the word was, for him, about reclaiming a history and identity: ‘I’m a nigger not a colored man or a black or a Negro or an Afro-American.’ How far might we draw a parallel between this ‘boomerang’ moment and that of the word ‘cunt’? On one crucial level, we can’t. When Ice-T embraces the word ‘nigger’, he’s adopting an entire identity; for a woman similarly to reclaim ‘cunt’ is to describe only (although ‘only’ seems inappropriate given its magnitude) her embodied sexual identity. While an individual may be a ‘nigger’, to call a woman a ‘cunt’ is to take us straight back into the perilous and essentialist inaccuracies of the dysphemistic realm.

The ‘indecent’ nature of ‘cunt’ was completely established by the nineteenth century. And, as the cultural historian Lisa Sigel argues, it was then that ‘the application of labels such as pornography, obscenity, and indecency hinged upon access. It was presumed that certain people could look at representations with limited emotional, social, and legal consequences while others could not. Objects became indecent through the act of viewing or reading’. So, while I may use ‘cunt’ and am doing so from an informed perspective, you may not. The problem is that ‘access’ to the word cannot be controlled. Is the word obscene, then? Or the thing itself? Or is it – again – the context which is key? What does it mean for a woman not to be able to use the only word that can accurately denote her genitalia? How has that word become ‘socially unacceptable’? What does it mean that in many cultures, the most terrible insult is the word for a woman’s sexual organs? What makes bad language ‘bad’ anyway? The plethora of slang terms for female genitals can be seen as an attempt to divert attention away from the reality of women’s lived sexual experiences. We don’t ‘look’ at the ‘cunt’ itself; slang offers a convenient distraction. The ‘c-word’ is unseen, ob/seen, and, to borrow Freudian terminology, is both totem and taboo (Sheela, as I’ve shown, was in a sacred space, literally elevated). In an important way it’s this dilemma that’s the focus of this book. If ‘she’ does have a ‘cunt’, is she actually entirely at odds with a culture that sees only obscenity in a word, rather than anatomical accuracy? Is it the case that, no matter how much a woman endeavours to reclaim the word, the boomerang comes back too swiftly, so that it knocks her over, shattering her identity? The answer from the writers and filmmakers and artists I consider in The Vagina seems to be ‘yes’. Each of them tries, in their own way, to make the woman’s body whole again: to identify, and to some extent pacify and assimilate, the autonomous cunt. That’s a key similarity between the different texts I consider in this book: in each of them, in one way or another, the ‘cunt’ has become separated from the ‘woman’. In some cases, this separation is violently literalized. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Numerous alternatives, slang epithets, have been dreamt up for the vagina, not least because of the pervasively pejorative tenor of the word ‘cunt’. As Mark Morton puts it, ‘calling a woman a cunt is far more taboo than talking about her cunt’. But Morton somewhat misses the point here. It is precisely because the term has become an insult that the actual cunt has to be talked around: replacement terms, euphemisms (‘the product of a human mind confronting the problem of how to talk about something for which there is a dispreferred expression they wish to avoid’) or crude slang, conjure up ‘cunt’, but it is rarely heard about positively. The paradox of the signifier ‘cunt’ becoming so freighted that it gets in the way of the woman’s signified body was noted in the early 1970s by the American artist Carolee Schneemann. In her London letters, mock-outraged pieces ostensibly from ‘Cuntalee Snowball, London NW3’, Schneemann writes that: ‘Some men are discussing another man who has betrayed them, they detest him and sum up his character as “An utter cunt.” My questions: is a “cunt” something that makes men angry? Or afraid? [...] Do English men who say “You cunt,” caress, stroke, kiss, put their fingers on and in a real cunt?’ A decade later, Kathy Acker expressed a very similar sentiment in Algeria: A Series of Invocations Because Nothing Else Works, when she argued that men ‘who say they want cunt find real CUNTS frustrating’. More recently, the British artist Cosey Fanni Tutti has said: ‘I hate the word “cunt”. It has too many negative connotations. I prefer the less prissy and unapologetic term of “Devil’s triangle”. It suggests power, control and “otherness”.’

Does what Kennedy fears might be the internalization of ‘white racism’ in the appropriation of ‘nigger’ have a corollary in an internalization of misogyny in the appropriation of ‘cunt’? Can self-hatred, a ‘tendency towards racial self-abnegation’ really be the motivation behind any such potent act of linguistic reclamation? Language thus becomes central to a ‘counterstrategy’ that seeks to ‘seed black cultural expression with gestures that are widely viewed as being off-limit to whites’. Is ‘cunt’, by this logic, only acceptable when spoken by a woman? In terms of representation, how would we reconcile this idea with the idea that the ‘author’ is ‘dead’? Is all artistic output the product of a specific, individuated consciousness? Will ‘cunt’ always be ensnared in a cultural history of nastiness and aggression when uttered by a man, no matter how well-meaning his intentions? I’m thinking here, for example, of Stewart Home’s thoroughly unpleasant novel, Cunt, which deploys the term in both an anatomical and a colloquial way, and Inga Muscio’s magnificent feminist treatise, also called Cunt, which uses the word quite differently. Spike Lee’s anger at Quentin Tarantino’s use of ‘nigger’ in his films highlights this problem: what if we didn’t know Lee is black and Tarantino white? Would we watch the films differently? Free of bias or expectation? Would we be better off in a world where the ‘eradicationists’ had their way? In short, is Muscio’s title less offensive than Home’s, because of what she then goes on to write about and because she is a woman?

Crimes and Ms Demeanours

Might ‘nigger’ always be a more powerful word than ‘cunt’, since it’s ‘not merely a symptom of prejudice but a carrier of the disease’, a sometimes fatal contaminator? Possibly. But the associations with disease are perhaps even more literalized in the case of ‘cunt’. Sigel has argued that ‘Cunt in the eighteenth century had far more bawdy and ribald connotations than it does today’ and ‘in the context of the late nineteenth century [the word ‘cunt’ implied] the linguistic pollution of the vaginal area for the sake of men’s pleasure. Cunt brings that connotation to women’s bodies, whereas all other terms seem to conceal it’. Kennedy writes that:

There is nothing necessarily wrong with a white person saying ‘nigger’, just as there is nothing necessarily wrong with a black person saying it. What should matter is the context in which the word is spoken – the speaker’s aims, effects, alternatives. To condemn whites who use the N-word without regard to context is simply to make a fetish of nigger.

And so we’re brought back to the errant twins of context and intent. In 1942, the US Supreme Court ‘established the fighting-words doctrine’ which identified words which ‘by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace’. Again Kennedy cites ‘ideological baggage’ as crucial in understanding the specific resonances of ‘nigger’. Does ‘cunt’ have the same baggage? If a US citizen is denied the right, as happened in 1992, to change his name by deed poll to ‘Mister Nigger’, would a UK citizen be denied the same right? Might one, should one so choose, legally become ‘Ms Cunt’? What if a man wanted to be ‘Mr Cunt’? In short, who has a right to a word?

There’s no direct comparison in the law of England and Wales to the fighting-words doctrine, but there are other laws, such as those around breaches of the peace, which can be invoked when certain words are used. However, the rulings relating to such laws are strongly context-dependent. I might attract little attention at a football match were I to call the referee a ‘cunt’, and I would almost certainly not be arrested. I could argue in court that, in the heat of the match, such emotion-laden words spontaneously overflowed from my mouth. Consider the long-standing debate over fans of North London’s Tottenham Hotspur Football Club calling themselves ‘Yids’, or ‘the Yid Army’. Some prominent figures, most notably the British Jewish author and comedian David Baddiel, have been vociferous in their criticism of this particular act of linguistic reappropriation. Others, however, argue that the adoption of the name by supporters (importantly, not by rivals) of a club whose roots lie in London’s Jewish community is a tribute to a proud history. To return to that fictitious football match: were I to call the referee or one of the players a ‘nigger’, no matter – and this is crucial – no matter what my intention, I would probably be prosecuted under those laws which limit free speech on the grounds of discrimination (i.e. racism, incitement or others). Were I to shout either ‘cunt’ or ‘nigger’ in a different context, at a primary school, for example, or in a supermarket, the context would be deemed entirely inappropriate and the police would be called. Were I to call someone a ‘cunt’ or a ‘nigger’ in my own home, a ‘dwelling’ as defined by the Public Order Act (1986), Section 8, however, then ‘no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used [...] by a person inside a dwelling and the other person is also inside that or another dwelling’. In the United States, federal courts use three ‘tests’ (based on the gender of both speaker and hearer; on the utterance’s sexual content; and on whether the words were specifically directed at an individual) to determine whether or not a speech act should ‘amount to actionable conduct’. To return to ‘Ms Cunt’, it is the case that a name change is not permissible under English law if the name is ‘vulgar, offensive or blasphemous’. But what if I don’t deem the word ‘cunt’ to be ‘vulgar, offensive or blasphemous’? What if I could demonstrate to the Deed Poll Service that the word had a specific denotative meaning? My suspicion – and it’s going to take a braver woman than I to test it – is that the definition would not influence the Service’s decision, because it’s simply too implicated in the messiness of connotative language.

Ultimately, Kennedy argues, in the case of ‘nigger’ we are ‘taming, civilizing and transmuting’ the word so that it may be converted ‘from a negative into a positive appellation’. If one uses a taboo word, be that ‘cunt’ or ‘nigger’, one has to understand that in the moment of utterance or writing, the word leaves us. How it is heard or read by another person is beyond one’s control. This is a major drawback in attempting to reclaim the word ‘cunt’: one woman’s linguistic salvage is another woman’s ‘vulgar, offensive or blasphemous’ poison. When we use the word ‘cunt’, or even when we use its euphemistic ‘C-word’ synonym, there’s no escaping the fact that we are conjuring up not only an anatomical truth but, in fact, centuries of misogyny, hatred and ugliness. The British journalist and author Peter Silverton writes movingly of the impact on him of a powerful scene in the 1997 film Nil By Mouth, as a man beats up a woman: ‘With each kick, he shouts-spits-screams “cunt!” The rhythm is brutally sickening: cunt-kick, cunt-kick [...] This is hatred. For his wife. For her femaleness. For his desire for her femaleness. For his knowledge that he came from such femaleness [...] That’s cunt for him.’ It is a word banished to the linguistic hinterlands, returning only in various covert manifestations, or as a literalizing of its own dubious metaphoric inheritance: as an autonomous, somehow separate entity, occupying a space that both is and is not part of a woman and putting women into an almost impossible position as a result. Such contradictions provide creative possibilities for the writers, performers and artists whose work is the focus of this book.

Emma Reese is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Chester. Her first book, Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Genre, Exile, was published in 2004 and since then she has had many other publications in the field of gender and representation.

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