Feminism in Action: Concrete Tip #3 (The Non-Pejorative Pussy)

If you are new to this series, please check out the first post which explains the origin, the background and has a couple ground rules: Feminism in Action: Concrete Tip #1

CONCRETE TIP #3:
Stop using the word “pussy” pejoratively, to mean weak or cowardly.

Why?
There’s no shortage of misogynistic language out there. It’s so insidious that many of you have probably stopped noticing it. In the realm of oppression, using it falls under the umbrella of microagression. What’s microaggression?

Coined by Chester Pierce in 1970, microaggression is a theory that hypothesizes that specific interactions between those of different races, cultures, genders or sexual orientation can be interpreted as small acts of mostly non-physical aggression. Micro-inequities and microaffirmations were additionally named by Mary Rowe in 1973; in her work she also describes micro-aggressions inclusive of sex and gender. Microaggressions can also be described as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people.” [Edited and excerpted from the Wikipedia entry on microaggression.]

 One of the best way to understand the power of something small like microaggressions is to check out The Microaggressions Project;. It’s a collection of succinct first-hand stories of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of microaggressions.

Classic examples of microaggression include: white sales clerks following customers of color, Alex Trebek expressing over-astonishment that a woman answered a difficult question correctly, Pat Sajak holding the hands of women (but not men) when walking over to the final round of Wheel of Fortune, someone handing the check to the only Asian person in the party to figure out the tip and per person cost. It’s not violent, it’s not confrontational but it is a continuous reminder of where you stand in the hierarchy of social power.

So yes, there are lots of *other* words and expressions you should probably stop using (“throw like a girl,” “man up,” “that’s so gay,” for starters) but I’m picking my battles. Women’s genitalia has been subject to more scrutiny, more harm, more shame than just about any other body part so it’s important to me that we stop it. Not just in big ways (advocating against non-consensual genital mutilation) but in small ways too. The small ways add up; that’s sort of the whole point of microaggressions.

But! Censorship is bad! PC is tyrannical!
Yes, censorship IS bad. This isn’t censorship. This is asking you to consider the power and weight of words (Did you watch the Jonah Hill video in which he says that words have weight and meaning?) and choose your words carefully so that your actions match your intentions. Let’s say you just missed your bus by 0.08 seconds, what do you yell? I yell, “FUCK!” I don’t yell “DANG IT!” because I believe a) in honesty of emotional expression b) that so-called curse words do not single out any particular marginalized group. But, if there’s a small child around, maybe I yell nothing at all. That’s not censorship; it’s me recognizing the power and weight of words and making a choice. It’s no good intending to be a non-sexist person if you insist on using sexist language. Good intentions are not action.

And now for the part where I’m a bit of an asshole to you: think of all the shit women deal with daily as a result of institutionalized sexism  (that’s a link to a list in case you can’t think of anything) and weigh that against my asking you to not say “don’t be a pussy.” Is that really so hard? Do you feel put-upon by being asked to change your behavior? THAT’S MALE PRIVILEGE. Usually invisible to you, its erosion seems burdensome as you become more conscious of it. It’s asking you to be aware of sexism and do something about it in a society/culture that does everything possible to make the benefits of sexism invisible and seamless to you. I will validate that you may feel put-upon and annoyed but also I will challenge you to a) consider where that feeling comes from b) why you feel defensive c) do work you don’t really feel like doing because it’s important and the right thing to to. Remember, I told you that you were going to have to do some work. Not-ignoring sexism is work.

Throwing up “political correctness is too hard/dumb/stultifying” is a way to excuse yourself from the work and from having to think critically about language. It’s like a “get out jail free” card. Often “political correctness” gets branded as an ever-changing list of “banned words.”  It’s not about banning words; it’s about recognizing the weight and power of words and choosing words intentionally to re-enforce non-sexist ideals.

You might think something along the lines of, “stop being so sensitive, it’s just a word, everyone does it.” Think back to a time when someone really hurt you with words. Maybe it was a childhood bully, or maybe it was a recent heart-wrenching break-up, or maybe it was a callous and cruel boss. Whatever the situation, the words really hurt you and probably affected your ability to get through the day (or the week, or the year). That’s a macro-aggression – a major assault on your emotional well-being. But remember that microaggressions add up, cutting people down daily and wreaking havoc over the long haul – do you really want to be cutting others down daily?

It all boils down to this:
duke_dbap

Extra Credit:
Right now: think of a zippy call-out for a friend or bro using the word “pussy” in a pejorative way. This will help de-paralyze you when your teachable moment comes (and it will). I’ll give you mine for free but you know your audience better than I do and you should tailor to those you want to educate.

When I’m in a situation and someone says, “don’t be a pussy” my go-to response is this: “by pussy do you mean incredibly strong, durable and flexible?” When the person makes a goggled expression, I tack on, “because I’ve seen a lot of pussy in my day and most of ’em can really take a beating.” Now, you’ll (rightly) argue that my use of “take a beating” invokes violent imagery and pussies shouldn’t be subjected to beatings (nor should any body part) nor should our zippy call-outs invoke/inspire the beating of pussies but I’m generally saying this to dudebros (more on dudebros later in this series) and it works well for me. I often combine this with a hand gesture that looks something like me making a fist and making an in-out motion with it. Being visibly queer, most of my audience gets my not-so-subtle suggestion right away. The humor is diffusing and helps make the call-out less accusatory/confrontational and more reflective. There’s often wincing, if not a moment to reflect and think, “yeah, if an entire fist can fit in a pussy, it must not be that weak.” If it doesn’t work for you, change it. Like I said, tailor it to your audience.

It’s also good to have an alternative word ready. Again, tailor this to your audience. Here are some alternatives I’ve used to complete the phrase “don’t be a …” where the gist is to ask someone to not be weak or cowardly: Rush Limbaugh, generic brand diaper, a vat of mild hot sauce, a wimp, a Southern California day. You get the idea. The more clever you are with your metaphor, the more it speaks to an existing group in-joke, the more likely it is to catch on and be as appealing as “don’t be a pussy.”

And for the love of Pete, please stop saying “don’t be a bitch” and “don’t cry like a little girl.” Assholery and douchebaggery are gender-neutral and screeching little kids of all genders hurt adult ears equally. Plus, side note: “little girls” (and this includes all little kids) grow at an astonishing rate, both cognitively and physically. Their bodies, and capacity to think through problems, and their environment literally change every day. Imagine having to get used to/move around in a new body and figure out what the hell is going on every fucking day. It would be like when Tom Hanks first wakes up in “Big” only you’d have to keep figuring it out. Each and every day a fresh new hell of not knowing what the fuck is going on or how to get anything done. All that and I think a little screeching might seem reasonable now and then. I mean, how would YOU deal with it?

Further Reading:

The Microagressions Project: http://www.microaggressions.com/

All about pussies and pussy-related parts: http://www.scarleteen.com/article/bodies/anatomy_pink_parts_female_sexual_anatomy

Duke’s “You Don’t Say” campaign: http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/17212/

TEDx Talk by Jackson Katz, Violence Against Women — It’s a Men’s Issue: 

And a critique/additional thoughts on his talk (because his talk isn’t without problems): http://www.btchflcks.com/2013/05/problematic-patriarchy-in-jackson-katzs-violence-and-silence-ted-talk.html#.U5X1LvmwJ6M

 

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