Strong language ahead!
I actually really like the word ‘cunt.’ Unlike most words for female genitalia, it sounds strong and earthy and unsentimental, which is how I like to think of my vagina. It’s long been my favorite genital slang word for either sex (I don’t really like any of the slang for “penis.”)
Beyond my personal preference, I’m generally all in favor of word reclamation: a word is only an insult if you let it be. So I’d like to see “cunt” brought to the same level of acceptability that “pussy” holds. Which means I had a weird cognitive clash the other night when I read about Penn Jillette calling a female humor writer a “fucking cunt” just for writing an article he found unfunny.
I’m really not interested in excoriating Jillette: this is not the first thing he’s done that made me think I wouldn’t like him as a person, and there are plenty of other people calling him out anyway. What I’m interested in is how strongly I reacted to seeing “cunt” used that way. It evoked a feeling of threat, of violent hostility, directed not toward a particular personality but toward womanhood — which meant that the threat was vaguely aimed at me as well.
This is pretty much how I always feel when seeing someone referred to as a “cunt” in a way that’s clearly hostile. I know it’s not always meant that way, and that in English-speaking countries other than the US the word is much more mild in connotation. But to me, unique among gender-based insults, “cunt” sounds to me like the speaker is about two steps from brandishing a knife, and lashing out not only at the person who evoked their wrath, but at anyone else who bears the same genitalia.
I freely use words like “dick” and “tool” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically masculine unpleasantness, and “bitch” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically feminine unpleasantness. I don’t have a problem with my own or other people’s uses of those words. But “cunt,” to me, is different, and I’m not sure why. Is it because “bitch” seems aimed at female behavior, and “cunt” seems aimed at femaleness itself? But then why am I okay with “dick” and “tool”?
My theory, and it’s pretty off-the-cuff, is that there is not nearly the level of culturally-engrained loathing of the penis as there is of the vagina. (In all the ensuing discussions of culture, I’m talking about the segment of modern US culture I inhabit.) Penis-having is seen as a pretty positive thing; we expect men with penises to be proud of them, and we treat penis-related indiscretions with the kind of indulgent scolding we’d give to a puppy who knocked over a cookie jar. Oblique references to the penis are constant and pervasive in our culture, and most of them are positive.
The cultural view of the vagina is much more ambivalent: there are a lot of people, both male and female, who see the vagina as dirty, disgusting, and treacherous. We talk less about vaginas, we joke less about them, we don’t pat ourselves or anybody else on the back just for having one. While phallic imagery is usually met with a giggle, vaginal imagery is often met with a vague feeling of discomfort. The mainstream cultural voices never seriously think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a penis; sometimes they do think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a vagina. “Cunt,” as an insult, draws on a whole deep well of hatred and revulsion that’s just not present, in our culture, for penis-based insults.
I find it interesting that “pussy” is only an insult when it’s directed at a man, which possibly sheds light on another subtext of “cunt.” Pussy is a soft word, in both sound and meaning: it’s gentle and cute and unthreatening. Cunt, as I said at the beginning, is powerful: it’s just as direct and plosive as cock. Women are never insulted by being called pussies: gentle, cute, and unthreatening is what women are supposed to be. Daring to be powerful while having a vagina is what gets women in trouble.