“Don’t ever call a woman that,” she warned, her finger in my face. “It means you hate women. Only idiots use that word.”
I panicked and thought Wait, I don’t hate women!
Her signature door-slammer, “idiot,” was always effective too. As in, “If you stick a needle in your arm – you’re an idiot.”
And my mom’s lesson had legs: I soon learned it also applied to the other words boys around me were using to describe women and their parts.
Pussy, the gateway-word to objectification. For most boys, “development” demands indoctrination into a largely bullying culture where this early groupthink standard serves as the definition of weakness and fear.
Of course “pussy” –the whole psycho-linguistic package– makes it an uphill climb for boys to relate to girls despite offering expediency within their own gender. This is the essence of so-called “locker room talk,” which some defend as harmless and others, like me, associate with difficult-to-avoid roasting of girls. High school locker rooms can be meat grinders, as we know, which makes locker room talk apologists and back-peddlers that much more ignorant.
When young boys gather, they become their own little life raft floating atop approaching waves of adolescence and the world’s countless uncertainties. They trade boasts about pussy and assure each other of fantastic, pussy-related things. Girls, on the other hand, are groomed to be on the receiving end of emotions neither sex yet comprehends, and they’re expected to process their own changes at the same time (after all, girls “mature faster”). The resulting anxiety forces girls to act tougher, i.e. more masculine.
You’ve gotta get ’em early if you want to help boys understand that, although use of such vulgarities may be exciting and directing such words at male peers seems harmless – it reinforces a devaluation of girl/womanhood.
Whether the raw material of leaders and followers can be traced back to childhood, it’s early on that the risk-averse discover safety in mimicry. In a group of men or boys, the copycats always cackle the loudest, while the curious look outside the circle and the noble question the bossy. That‘s a pattern you can count on.
My gut has always told me to avoid guys standing around talking about pussy, but I wasn’t born knowing that none of us is as dumb as all of us. When it comes to my own, mostly discerning application of the word, I’m a rationalizing hypocrite with no excuses to offer. Nor am I exempt from the saying, when we argue for our limitations, we get to keep ’em.
Cunt appropriately rhymes with blunt and is a next-stage sorta deal for latent and blatant misogynists. “Cunt” is aggressive objectification. (For me it also carries a connotation of bad luck. I can’t say why; it just does.)
Uncouth American men usually bumble its delivery, making it come off as hostile and pea-brained. Yes, it’s colloquial in England and they can get away with it. So what? Let ’em have it and their kidney pudding. For the Brits, “cunt” is informal. For us, it’s informative.
Faggot is another prize of boys and young men. “Faggot” lent my mom’s warning some perspective, too, since it was shouted at me from passing cars and growled into my face when I got cornered by jocks at school. This was back when open hostility toward kids in torn jeans, colored hair, Converse All-Stars, safety pins, and studded wristbands was an accepted defense of family values. What’s my point? Privilege. It didn’t matter that I’m straight: desensitization to the word was so pervasive that those of us not peering out at the world from a closet had the luxury of taking “faggot” as a challenge to fight, rather than letting the word isolate and torment us.
The first time I heard the word dyke I understood it to be a loser’s impotent venom, ’cause it always seemed to be spat at girls who declined a guy’s advances. If it’s also used by women who dig other women, I’ve never heard any of them punch each with it across a bar. Plus, here on the west coast, I’m pretty sure the slur fell out of favor somewhere in the 80s. Maybe it’s still popular to accuse an aloof woman of being a lesbian by way of “dyke” in some regions: I freely admit to being out of the lexicon loop on verbal assault in the suburbs of Buffalo and Ft Lauderdale.
Tomboy didn’t seem to be intended as an insult when I was a kid, but it’s arguably “dyke junior” in retrospect. I usually liked girls described this way: assertive girls who weren’t handcuffed to what the other girls were into, Hell yeah.
Linda Daniels, an eighth-grade hero of mine and still a friend , met this criteria. She skateboarded to school and happened to sport blue hair, barbed bracelets, big boots, and Black Flag bars. Outside the gymnasium one day, I was surrounded by some boys targeting me for my own attire. Linda came out of nowhere and jumped in front of me, swinging her skateboard back ‘n forth, yelling for them to leave us alone. “You wanna get slapped around, bitch?” demanded the lead dummy, but it was he and his friends who backed off. This has nothing to do with “tomboy” or mannish qualities, but everything to do with mistaking female for frail.
Mexican was personal ’cause my dad is white and my mom isn’t; I’d committed to making my attitude and appearance louder than my heritage in order to compensate for the mixed bag of messages. At St. Bernardine’s Catholic School, I heard “beaner” and “Frito Bandito,” but my brothers and I were #blessed. From what must’ve been kindergarten on, our acquaintances were subject to my mom’s observations and opinions, and it’s clear she enjoyed suggesting who among our classmates and neighbors may have been idiots.
I never personally heard adults using Jew in a derogatory manner. In our neighborhood, Jewish kids ran around with the rest of us fortunate enough to live in a diverse LA suburb. I remember very clearly, however, what I felt or pieced together as a five-year-old, and every once in a while the conversational tones of some adults would drop when certain moms and dads were referenced. On each occasion it seemed harder to dismiss. As a family, we attended a dozen bar and bat mitzvahs, and I can still picture who, from our community, wasn’t there. Some children may not be good at math, but a lot of us excelled at social calculus.
I hate the word nigger because it whispers its right to be among us, forcing users to make excuses for it. It’s a chunk of broken cement that has, for too many people, disguised itself as a Fabergé egg. No need to guess how often the word was thrown around at our family dinner table. Instead, here’s a previous post, which describes what it feels like to hear that word 300 times a day, morning noon and night, for years.
Nowadays, everyone likes to call everyone douchebag, and I just can’t do it. The word pronounces weird. (I don’t trust it either, in the same way “cunt” feels cursed.) And there are so many variances! Douche-wad, Douche-burp, Douche-knuckle, Douche-hole, Douche-nugget, Douche-kabob, Douche-waffle, Douche-pocalypse, and so on. To each and every one of ’em, all I can say is “Eew.”
I do use dick-bag occasionally instead, though it’s not without flaws. Why you’d refer to a person as an actual bag of dicks, I don’t know. It only makes sense if they’re such a dick that you need multiple and varying sized dicks to represent how much of a dick they are.
One word that I can’t seem to shake is retard. Retard can be hurtful and I recognize that, but of God’s many insult-options, (John 1:1:3) this is the most applicable to, “If the shoe fits…” I know we’re not supposed to use it anymore, and I need to check my privilege here, but if ever there was a word beaten into my brain growing up, it’s “retard.” It’s nearly impossible to be a good example to my young nephews and choose the “higher road” when faced with the opportunity of tell their father his sons are retarded. And while I finally know for sure that Tommy, my friend of 42 years, isn’t technically mentally disabled, just last week he was being totally retarded and I was forced to tell him so. We’re not currently speaking, and I think the simple fool unfriended me, so next time I’ll just mail him some literature on helping those we love who are afflicted with mental retardation. But in the meantime:
…are ones the world needs us to understand better, to navigate more intelligently, and to bring to the attention of children immediately. Sometimes I listen as parent friends justify delaying an explanation of where lines involving others’ dignity should be drawn. You know, like claiming it’s too soon for little Graydon to be exposed to stress or “village anxiety.” When that comes back to haunt ’em, an excuse way too frequently used is “It’s just words…”
Now that’s idiotic.
This has been Notes from a Non-parent #11
Tags: adolescence, American, Black Flag, boys, Converse All-Stars, desensitization, dignity, family values, Frito Bandito, Ft Lauderdale, girls, Homophobia, locker room talk, men, misogynist, Notes from a Non-Parent, objectification, pussy, sexism, Southern California, transphobia, women, words