Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Womanly virtues Wednesday: That difficult word

UPDATE: Glen Reynolds notes this comment at the Althouse site and designates it blog comment of the day:
Women are strong!
Except they wilt when they are called names!

Tough and enduring, save for when harsh words fly.

Steadfast and unyielding, until they wilt or shatter from the mean things people say.

Feminists are Greek columns made of styrofoam; a Potemkin village of bicycled fish.
Which difficult word? Well, there are a whole bunch of them but let's stick with "slut" since it is in the news right now.

I was Googling around about a book that I'd never heard of before yesterday and accidentally landed on the Huffington Post columnist Dr. Logan Levkoff. She had an interesting anecdote to tell about an appearance she had made on the Today Show with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. And she brought up the range of sexual fantasies that women have and got this response.
"Are  they [these women] slutty?" Hoda asked.

Kathie Lee answered, "Total sluts." 
You remember the outrage? Of course not, there wasn't any.

Levkoff wasn't happy with the way the word when it came up because, as she says, "... if you've read any of my work, you know that I have a visceral reaction to the word".

But the visceral reaction is the whole point for having such words in the first place. Human languages always have boundary-bursting words that cause visceral reactions because we always need such words. But why do these words have such potency?

They all start as insults but only some insults gain enough potency to produce visceral reaction in others. And a good way to get a grip on what is happening is to look at what is currently the most potent of such words, a word so potent that it has been more or less outlawed. The word I mean is "nigger". But it's potency, as Elijah Wald notes, is the thing that keeps it hanging around despite all attempts to make it go away.
There are reasons that the word "nigger" has survived in American speech, while "coon" and "darky" now sound archaic, and one is that, nasty as the former word is, it fits with the idea of African Americans—black men in particular—as tough and threatening, which remains a potent image in popular culture. By contrast, although the black characters in minstrel shows and coon songs were sometimes portrayed as wielding razors in alley crap games, even the biggest and the angriest were buffoons, counterparts of the Irish country bumpkins who were a staple of English theater. (How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll, Chapter 2*)
And thus the mixed response the word evokes. Although universally condemned by "all right-thinking people", not only did rap artists reclaim the word for their own but a significant number of white boys buy rap because it gives them a power thrill to hear the word they wouldn't dare say themselves.

And its telling that Kathie Lee Gifford—a woman whose entire career is built on being bland and one-dimensional—would trot out "Total sluts" to describe women who are openly sexual. What's a woman like Kathie Lee Gifford, and we all know women like her, like in bed? None of our business maybe but it is somebody's business and what is the word you want to use to describe it if you are one of the persons whose business it is and she's really good you want a word to describe how she is really good, what are you going to use? A lot would depend on context.

(If you want to see the reverse side of it, watch old Hollywood movies portraying "vamps", they all seem like buffoons now—they have lost the sexual potency they once had. Mae West and Barbara Stanwyck are still funny but nobody is scared of their potency anymore. The parts they play are campy now and more associated with female impersonators or even the Muppet's Miss Piggy than a woman who might appear in any sexual fantasy.)

"Slut", a word that originally meant lazy,  has come to mean a woman who is tough and threatening in her approach to sex. That is both something to be feared and something to be desired and often the same woman will desire and fear it in herself and the same man will both fear and desire it in a  woman.

Nobody wants to be labelled by others, of course, but, as I have written before, a role that can be adopted without actually sticking to us is something that appeals to all of us. It's a commonplace of popular culture: think of Zorro who, while not in costume must play the role of the effeminate fop, or the Green Hornet, or Batman, or Superman or any one of dozens of others. We are aware of the constraints that others' image of us requires and like to pretend that there is some place where we can go on holiday and let the repressed side of ourselves loose.

BUT, at the same time, we want to be able to come safely home and leave all that behind. We wouldn't want any of that other personality to stick to us. Give us the chance to slip into another role with no consequences and then return to our normal standing and have nothing we did while assuming that other role held against us and most of us will jump at it.

When I was sailing competitively back in the 1980s, a number of women I knew confessed that they had lived out one of their fantasies by slipping away from competitions in France and going to nearby topless beaches. It was a thrill to have hundreds of men they didn't know looking at their naked breasts but they would have been mortified if a photograph had been distributed among men they actually knew from the sailing circuit.

Like it or hate it, the word "slut" signifies power, sexual power, and it will always be with us as long as it has that power. Some women and some men would like to have it effectively outlawed the same way "nigger" has been but I think that example should give us pause for the attempt to outlaw has probably done more to maintain its power than anything else.

Even if it could be made to go away, something else would spring up to take its place.

* I have this as an e-book so I can't give the page number.

1 comment:

  1. I always thought of "slut" as someone who would sleep with anyone, or almost anyone, but maybe that was my misperception. As James Spader asked a witness who was suing for sexual harrassment in an episode of "The Practice" a few years ago, "isn't the only thing worse than being considered a sex object NOT being considered a sex object?" Why can't we come to terms with sex?!