4.18.2012

Dick, Pussy, Cunt, and "Die Cis Scum": Why Some Insults Are More Equal Than Others

I see this issue make the rounds occasionally, on tumblr, on twitter, on feminist blogs, and it bugs the crap out of me.  Usually because it's someone trying to discredit or deflect requests that people not use misogynist insults like "pussy" and "cunt" by saying "well if that's bad then why aren't you asking people to stop using "dick" as an insult, too?!?"  Which is manifest horseshit on several levels.

Firstly, many of the feminists/progressives I know actually *do* frown on all genitalia-related insults.  I know plenty of feminists who don't use pussy, cunt, or dick as insulting terms.  Quite often, the person at whom the "But what about dick?" (henceforth BWAD) argument is being directed falls into this category already, and the person trying to defend their use of misogynist slurs just hasn't bothered to ask before making arguments based on their assumption.  Moral of the story: ask before you base your whole argument on an assumption.

Secondly, context fucking matters.  When the use of insults based on genitalia is taking place in a culture that systematically values maleness and denigrates femaleness, using slurs based on the penis (which our culture associates exclusively with masculinity) does not have the same damaging impact that slurs based on the vulva (which our culture associates exclusively with femininity) do.  Using "dick" as an insult does not contribute to longstanding, systemic oppression of men, because such oppression simply does not exist.  For the same reason that naked dude pictures are not the same as naked lady pictures, "dick" as an insult doesn't do the same kind of cumulative cultural damage that "pussy" and "cunt" do as insults.

Thirdly, are you (where "you" = someone who has asked or is asking BWAD) seriously trying to say that "dick" as an insult is of the same level of severity and carries the same connotation as "pussy" and "cunt"?  Really?  I'm sorry, are you some kind of pandimensional being speaking to me from an alternate universe?  Because that's really the only explanation I can think of for trying to treat all three insults equally.

"Dick" as an insult ranges from mild to moderate intensity depending on the tone of the speaker, and simply means mean or rude, perhaps overly pushy or aggressive.  "Pussy" is also mild to moderate, but has a more specific connotation of cowardice and weakness, and going simply on personal observation, a man will be far more offended/upset if you call him a pussy than if you call him a dick.  Especially considering that masculinity is actually *supposed* to be aggressive and, to a point, abrasive in this culture, "dick" can be the sort of insult that signals you're doing something to be proud of, in a fucked-up sort of way.  "Dick" is still an insult, but it's the sort of insult that leaves one's all-important Masculinity Cred intact.  "Pussy", on the other hand, is deliberately calculated to cut deeper by undermining said Masculinity Cred.

And then, of course, there's "cunt".  One of the Big Bads of the insult dictionary.  Widely acknowledged as the worst thing you can call a woman - or, really, anyone.  One of the very few cuss words that is still unacceptable among most people, even people who regularly pepper their (our, cause I'm totally one of them, in case you couldn't tell) speech with "fuck".  The one you pull out when you really want to make your point that you have an epic amount of disdain and hate for someone - usually a woman.

One of these things is not like the other ones...

[TW: implied/verbal violence against trans* people]

This is actually an old draft that's been kicking around the Unfinished Thoughts black hole for awhile now, until this post on tumblr revived it the other day.  Because it basically expresses the same context-free viewpoint that makes the BWAD argument specious, and I just could not let it go without comment, especially given it dovetailed rather well with an already-mostly-written post.  Behold:
Two identical Venn diagrams stacked on top of each other, with blue and red circles and overlapping purple section.  Text used to read (it doesn't show up against this background, sorry) "If this is okay" over the first diagram, where the circles are labeled "cis" and "scum" and the overlap "cis scum", then "Then so is this" over the second, where the circles are labeled "trans" and "scum" and the overlap is "trans scum"
For those who don't know the "die cis scum" history, it's a phrase that many in the trans community on tumblr have taken to use as a rallying cry/pushback against ciscentric culture that literally kills a whole fucking lot of trans people.  I'm not going to lie, the phrase makes me mildly uncomfortable, but I absolutely understand where it's coming from and am not going to begrudge anyone their anger against a vastly more powerful group that stands a much-higher-than-is-comfortable chance of killing them, because it's not my place to police people's expressions of anger against oppression.  It was said in a moment of frustration and anger, got picked up by a lot of people, and became A Thing, with the inevitable result of a whole lot of cis people having very hurt fee-fees over it.  A backlash developed, with far too many cis people saying that Die Cis Scum makes the trans* people who use it "just as bad" as the cis people who murder and abuse trans* people.  (O rly?  Just as bad?  You have an...interesting morality scale.)  The response from many trans* people has been "It doesn't say "die cis people".  It says "die cis scum".  Are you cis, but not scum?  Then you're safe, now shut up."  Of course, backlashing cis people couldn't let it rest there.  Hence, this graphic.

Apparently, there are a whole lot of people in this world who have never heard of context before.

Following the same logic, and for the same reason, as the argument against comparing "dick" to "pussy" or "cunt" as insults, "die cis scum" and "die trans scum" are not insults that carry the same social weight.  One is an oppressed group basically shouting "fuck you" up at their oppressors, while both groups know full well they don't have the power to do much harm.  The other is the group in power, shouting "fuck you" back down the ladder as they continue to kick the people below them in the face.  They are not equivalent.  They are not equal.  Just because they use the same syntactic structure does not mean they are expressing the same kind of sentiment, because the power differential changes things.

Or, to quote an acquaintance of mine on tumblr: When we say "die cis scum", you have your feelings hurt.  When you say "die trans scum", we literally end up dead.

Not.
The.
Same.

2 comments:

Lucre said...

If I heard either die X phrase, I'd expect violence to ensue. It's an association in my mind. Mind you, if I were playing videogames with pals at the time, or surfing blogs and seen or heard it uttered, I'd be less aroused by it. Still, seeing or hearing that has an effect on me the same way "Fire!" or "Watch out!" would, only it degrades a party and is much more aggressive.

I think it's a little reckless really, to use such tactics to enliven without intention like that (I'm going by your venn diagram, and assuming it's only meant to be a rallying call against a certain type of scum, as opposed to all cis folk). It's pretty clear that it's scope of effectiveness goes beyond just certain kinds of scum and produces a gut reaction in "unintentional" targets. I can't say what the thinking is behind that, but I guess recklessness and excitement are a good way of putting things into the public consciousness, for better or worse. I suppose it's more of how it is dealt with from there.

I worry about movements that are so easily misinterpreted. I just wish Trans people had the same leeway and benefit of the doubt with their mistakes and impassioned moments as other groups have. It's so serious and dire, it must be suffocating.

1comment said...

Nice post! Context IS important, and the way people use words is not necessarily where they came from. But forgive the linguist in me. Both 'penis' and 'vagina' have an equal spread of offensiveness across the words for them. 'Vagina' and 'penis' themselves are Latin, so sound clinical and aren't intrinsically offensive when context is appropriate. 'Pussy' and 'cock' came about the last few hundred years, are equally offensive, and are both animal-references (well, 'pussy' sounds like it to English-speakers). 'Fanny' and 'dick' are slightly less offensive, both from around the late 19th c., and are originally people's names of the relevant gender. (Americans confused 'fanny' with another body part altogether, but the current British meaning is older!) Finally, 'cunt' is a pure Anglo-Saxon obscenity, and only 'fuck' and 'shit' - the other two most 'fundamental' obscenities in English - go back this far. They are the only 'pure' English words that mean what they mean. Rude words get ruder over time, so this is the main reason they are so offensive... But the Old-English for 'penis', 'pintel' (which was considered obscene too), died out some time over the last millennium. It's a stretch to say 'cunt' is more offensive simply because of patriarchy.

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