On Friday night, in lieu of my usual I.V. antics, I attended the UCSB Women’s Ensemble Theatre production of “The Vagina Monologues.” It was a great production, even better attended than I expected, which made me happy, as the proceeds were going to some worthy causes: the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Centre and the One Billion Rising movement.
As I sat in the majorly female audience, which I was happy to see wasn’t totally bereft of male attendees, I was particularly struck by one monologue in particular, entitled “Reclaiming Cunt.” In it, the performer was exercising a kind of Foucauldian “reverse discourse” whereby she attempted to bring the word “cunt” back into acceptable usage. The term, which refers to the female genitalia, has traditionally been used pejoratively and has contributed to the dominant discourse of the patriarchy that has systematically dehumanized and objectified women throughout history, in this case by reducing them to a body part. By attributing to the word a more positive subtext, she was able to convince the audience to chant it with her and detach from it its derogatory sense, repurposing it to empower, rather than to oppress, women.
This kind of reappropriation of traditionally pejorative and oppressive words contributes to a series of counter-hegemonic efforts by oppressed minorities that has included the repurposing of the words “queer” in the LGBTQ community and “nigger” in black culture. It made me think of all of the other words that we use by which women are implicitly subjugated. There are myriad ways to insult a woman, by calling her “bitch” or “slut” or “whore.” Meanwhile, many of the male-directed equivalents simply affix the word “man” to them (“man-slut,” for example), or invert the gender, such as by substituting “dick” for “pussy,” which doesn’t rid them of their pejorative subtext.
It made me think more critically about the way I use language and I realized that when I jokingly refer to my friends as my “bitches,” I have been unconsciously reappropriating that term in an attempt to rid it of its venom and render it harmless. I use the term “bitch” not as an insult, but rather to mean what feminist Jo Freeman defined it as: “A Bitch takes shit from no one.” Because the aim is not to rid the world of these words, but to recognize that meaning isn’t fixed and that we have the power to redirect it.
I find it truly upsetting that I still constantly hear terms like “slut” and “whore” being used among women to insult each other. By doing this, they are reinforcing the patriarchy and reversing the hard efforts of the feminist project to have men and women perceived as equals. I see this kind of internalized misogyny all over the place, as women perpetually slut-shame one another and dismiss rape as something that only happens to girls who were “asking for it” by the way they dressed, spoke or “led someone on.” They don’t seem to understand that by belittling their fellow women, they are only ensuring that men will continue to treat us as inferiors.
It is this way of thinking that makes me feel as if I can’t feel comfortable talking to men at parties, or accepting any offer on their part to buy me a drink — something which should be a perfectly normal, polite social opening, free of obligation, that instead has become some sort of sick social contract viewed as sufficient consent to sex. I am intensely frustrated by this sort of behavior and I find it difficult to respond to these things in the moment, because if I am emotional I know I will not be taken seriously and might even be accused of ‘hysteria’ — another one of those awfully loaded words. If I show my anger, people get defensive and dismiss me as a raging “man-hater,” the commonly misunderstood notion of what a feminist is.
Listen, I don’t hate men; I like them. What I hate is the patriarchal bullshit that tells me that I’m not worthy of being treated as a human being.
Naomi Rea will definitely see y’all at the Gloria Steinem talk tonight.