Every year on Fourth of July the neighbors around our lake have a fantastic fireworks competition. They begin lighting off whoozles and hoolyboppers long before sunset and goad each other by shouting jovial insults across the water. The friendly rivalry results in a lovely display for those of us too cheap or law-abiding to provide our own pyrotechnics.
This year as R navigated our boat through the dark water, jockeying for the best out-of-danger view, I held my hands over Buckaroo’s boom-sensitive ears, and tried to concentrate on the beauty above me but was continually distracted by the ribaldry happening on the shore. In particular I found myself resisting a growing annoyance with one tipsy and jocular man who referred to his young, male rivals as, “ladies,” as in “Is that all you’ve got, ladies?!” and “You ladies better hold on to your panties for this next round.”
It’s not something I’d normally notice, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of the word pussy as an insult among men, which has always bothered me, originally for its vulgarity and later for the inherent suggestion that if a man is a pussy he is feminine and femininity is the equivalent of weakness. Another, perhaps less vulgar epithet is girl, as in “You run/throw/squeal like a girl.”
A few days ago my mom related a bit part from a Survivor-type reality TV show where one man tells another, “If you’re going to make it out here, you better leave your skirt on the porch.”
I have to admit that I laughed. Then wondered why that insult didn’t offend me the way the others do.
Maybe because ladies, girl, and skirt are words that suggest not just the feminine, but the prissy, the froo froo, the pampered princess—femininity taken to a whole new level, but even that stereotype isn’t necessarily accurate. I’ve known some froo froo women who possessed an inner strength I envied, and I’ve also known a few brutish men who-- well, didn’t.
But disregarding any of that for now, why pussy? According to Wikipedia, the word has a few possible derivations, all of which are unrelated to female genitalia, and for a moment I felt hopeful that I was overreacting, that people weren’t actually insulting each other with misogynistic slang, but were calling each other purses and kittens, but then I realized that although the word’s original definition may have been kitten, that’s not today’s intended use; if it were, the word would come up more often in polite conversation, which, obviously, it doesn’t.
Here’s why I don’t understand its use: The female reproductive system is so much more powerful than a man’s. Yes, a man has the ability to penetrate, but a woman not only creates life, she bears down and brings another human being into the world through her pussy. As a former birthworker I’ve attended a birth or two and if a laboring woman isn’t an example of strength then I don’t know what. So I could maybe understand the epithet among men in the days when men were rarely allowed to attend a birth, but these days partners, fathers, brothers, uncles, and male friends are witness to women’s miraculous ability. So, is it womb envy? A skewed version of sour grapes?
My one hope is that folks insulting each other with the word pussy are using it mindlessly, not really considering its meaning, the same way we rarely think of dogs when we say bitch—again with the female! There must be a word that means male dog?— but is turning a blind eye toward misogynistic insults akin to allowing ignorance as a reasonable excuse for the use of racial epithets?
Here are a few more words to ponder:
Cunt: There’s no connotation of weakness here, and I’ve never heard anyone insult a man with this word. So why the difference? Is it just the sharper, harsher, angry sound, unlike the soft Pu and child-like y in its counterpart (I’m thinking of words like piggy, puppy, pony, as well as an assortment of nicknames).
Dick: Possibly the male counterpart to cunt. Again, no connotation of weakness, and the word is generally not applied to a woman, but I can think of no masculine word that connotes weakness. Can you? Maybe we should create one? Ball sack, for example, seems like a perfectly vulnerable body part. But then, why spread the negativity?
Asshole: Well, everybody’s got one, but this word is usually only used to describe men. What’s up with that?
I mulled all of this over for quite a while before I realized that no one ever uses the word women as an insult. I’ve never heard a coach call out to an all-male team, “Come on, women, you can move faster than that!” in real life or in fiction. Are women respected while ladies and girls are not? Meanwhile, “The Man,” the patriarchy, the powerful system that holds people (men and women) down, is a menace everywhere.
Sometimes I get all worked up about this, and then I tell myself I’m just being too uptight, too persnickety. Maybe it’s no big deal. Then again, as a writer I know the power of words, how they shape our ideas and beliefs, how our use of them represents our culture, and I don’t want to be part of a culture that mindlessly demeans half of the population, myself and my daughter included, with its inappropriate use of language.
So I’m trying to think of a funny, polite-ish, non-bitter way to respond when someone like my neighbor spews a feminine word as an insult, so I can focus on the good stuff (sparklers, for instance) but I haven’t come up with anything yet. Maybe you’ve got an idea?
Meanwhile, if you’ve ever known a strong woman (girl, lady) you know what I’m going to ask of you.