A feminist comedian rethinks a four letter word.
By **Sarah Matthews**
Art by Alexandra Carter.
Recently, I made the mistake of calling a female comedian attractive. While sitting half-drunk in the audience of an improv comedy show at a black box theater in Queens, I yelled out that the featured woman performing that evening—a friend, mentor, and heroine of mine—was “pretty.” My slurred compliment landed during a lull in the hoots from the audience, and the two emcees blinked like two budgies on a very tiny branch. I had interrupted their staccato bio of Jane Vaughn—“Funny!” “Smart!” “Talented!”—with a verbal blight. In comedy, one of the worst things you can do to a female comedian is to remind everyone of her looks. It allows the crowd and other comedians to judge her based on her physical attributes, not her humor. The emcees shuffled imperceptibly. “And she’s pretty,” they said without smiling. Once her name was called, Jane hopped up on stage in her cut-off jean shorts and Chuck Taylors, turned to the audience, and booed while shaking a thumbs-down at the crowd. “Why are you booing?” the budgies tweeted. “Because of ‘pretty,’” she growled faintly, “That’s so lame. I’m not here because I’m pretty.”
I feared I’d lost major points with Jane. A big-time talent in the improv community, she creates huge, fearless characters and repartees with vaudevillian celerity. She’s coached my improv team, and I’ve watched her perform countless times. More than just her comedic chutzpah, though, she unabashedly zests her humor with feminism. During a rehearsal, she said to my female scene partner and me, “Don’t be afraid of doing scenes about being women. Otherwise, the boys will make it all about dicks.” It was liberating to filter my ladyhood through comedy because then I could deal with feminine taboos through humor and not shame or other negative associations.
Calling Jane “pretty” was an inebriated, moony impulse. As I reviewed my mental tape I concluded it was my marred attempt at trying to please a woman I admire. I wanted to add to the ode to her extraordinariness. But given the circumstances, I should have held my tongue. (This story is sponsored in part by Magic Hat Brewery!)
Afterwards, I tiptoed up to her to congratulate her on a good show.
“You bitch,” she said, half-jokingly.
“Shit,” I thought, “she probably really means it.” And to ease the tension behind her barb, I confessed, “Yes, I am a total bitch.”
She shot back, “Well, then, I’m a cunt.” Boom. C-bomb deployed.
Even though she applied the word to herself, Jane won our round of banter through one-upmanship. By volleying cunt, Jane heightened the comedic self-effacement to its zenith, but the word resonated with me after our exchange. Unequivocally, “cunt” trumps “bitch.” At least being called a bitch is becoming bearable; it teeters on complimentary. When a woman is perceived as bitchy, it’s because she’s trying to achieve something in the face of resistance or adversity. Regardless of whether the obstacle is sexist, classist, or creed-based, the necessity to intone bitch is the same: because she did not ask nicely or kowtow to being told “no,” a woman overstepped her bounds to pursue her goal and, therefore, is accused of behaving badly.
There are various standards to be met before one can even be considered a bitch. It implies having power, ambition, and shrewdness. A woman must be smart to achieve bitchiness. (Otherwise, she is called a “dumb bitch,” which might as well be an oxymoron.) There are high-ranking bitches, like Hillary Clinton and Madonna. In defense of Hillary during her 2008 presidential nomination campaign, Tina Fey took up the bitch mantle in the Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch “Bitch is the New Black” proclaiming that she herself was a bitch, and, “Bitches get stuff done.” Female teenagers and co-eds in pop culture slang and literature call each other “b” as a way of competitively jibing one another; it’s the Emily-Post-Ivy-League version of bitch.
But, the word has a long way to go to transcend its derogatory implications. Oprah banned bitch on her cable TV network because it “[tears] people down,” and, kids, it will probably cost a quarter in the swear jar. However, I think some women are making the slow progression to re-owning bitch for our empowerment and as a measurement of character. It’s an earned insult, and one I don’t mind donning or bequeathing to someone else.
But, cunt is a mind-blower. Cunt is a mushroom explosion at the end of an action flick, a Maserati crashing at top speed, and Mozart’s Requiem all rolled into one; it’s what it would feel like to be killed by an orgasm. By comparison, bitch is a soccer mom. In the scathing D12 song, “Bitch,” which might easily be the best example of musical misogyny I’ve ever encountered (I know you moca lotti mommys won’t get down on your knees/You want some money honey damn you must be outta your weave), the group is targeting women they believe are sexually promiscuous gold-diggers. But, even they don’t go so far as to use the c-word. Bitch is often invoked to vex or take revenge upon a woman, but cunt means to shut down an essential part of her womanhood: her femininity. Etymologist Bill Casselman writes, “When the word’s profane thunder hammers the tin of an English sentence, women hear the hateful and total dismissal of what Goethe called ‘the eternal feminine.’ Cunt is a sex word with the romantic cloak of mutuality and lovingness flung off.” Because the meaning of the word is linked to the female sexual being, cunt identifies a woman’s physical self, not her actions, as debased.
In the rankings of slanderous words, I’d put cunt below, but near, faggot. Faggot, for instance, is a relatively new, but intense, slur branded in American social consciousness. We can’t say it without wielding the heft of its historical and contemporary context. Nevertheless, it is spewed to express hateful bias. Westboro Baptist Church’s website is www.godhatesfags.com; they are self-proclaimed anti-homosexual propagandists. But, cunt is recognized foremost as an obscenity rather than a pejorative tool of oppression. There’s a reason it’s one of George Carlin’s seven “Filthy Words.” So, even though saying cunt can degrade women, society deems that it just shouldn’t be spoken, period.
As a lingual anathema, the c-word may have been protected from falling definitively in the category of a sexist smear. It was originally a way to describe woman’s private parts, not necessarily dirty or offensive. A ton of articles exist on the internet about the origin and sociological meaning of the cunt, most of which are blocked on the web browser on my work computer. Here is a brief recapitulation of my surfing: it is a very old word with traces of Egyptian etymology; it’s a dramatic word (Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is cavalier with her “queynte”; Hamlet flirtatiously says “country” to Ophelia; Bill Maher flat out labeled Sarah Palin one); it’s not quite as offensive in England and Australia as it is in the U.S.; it makes most people extremely uncomfortable.
He wanted me to either retaliate or curl up and die. Do I treasure being called a cunt? The answer is you bet I do.
Reaction to using the expletive falls more or less into three camps: pro-cunt, anti-cunt, and cunt-ology. Feminist author Inga Muscio, in her book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, exhorts women to reclaim the word because of the rage and power it exudes. Females should take up the semantic “c”-flag of our collective experience because it would unite us against sexism. Muscio writes:
“When viewed as a positive force in the language of women—as well as a reference to the power of the anatomical jewel which unites us all—the negative power of ‘cunt’ falls in upon itself, and we are suddenly equipped with a word that describes all women, regardless of race, age, class, religion or the degree of lesbianism we enjoy.”
The book encourages women to embrace the word and puts us in a dialectic half-nelson to examine our relationship with our vaginas. A line like, “When our cunts bleed, we are bleeding people,” (author’s emphasis) will have Sex and the City fans waking up in cold, Pinot Grigio sweats from a dose of third-wave feminism. It’s tough love and a lot to absorb. Not only does it combine a historical and cultural view of women, but it demands a personal reaction. My response can be interpreted as a reflection of how I identify with being a woman. It’s a double-swirl of the public and private feminine experience in a four-letter cone.
Jane, her mouth readied in the hard k-sound position to launch the word at my humiliated, concave shoulders, was not daunted by the invective. If anything, it was my use of the word “pretty” that caused the disturbance. Offstage, the compliment wouldn’t have been so jarring. It was degrading in the context of being included in her skills as a performer. It would be like Topps listing the names of the women Yankee’s shortstop and all-time hits leader Derek Jeter slept with on the back of his player’s card. Though it is an impressive coterie, it has nothing to do with his batting average
Also, “pretty” threatens to time-warp comedy back to the 1970s. The ratio of horny, sweaty guys and sensitive, hipster boys to women in the comedy community is unsurprisingly high. But, we’re all a little sexist, even the women. We use sexism to ironically poke fun at sexism (à la Tim Meadow’s Ladies’ Man character, Leon Phelps), but even in sending up prejudice, we’re acknowledging that it exists; it’s a paradox of comedy. As long as the subject is dealt with in an original and truthful way, anything is fair game. As an antidote, we ladies and gays and disabled mixed-minorities revel in and get-off on the stories of our idols sticking it to the that giant swinging dick of old-boys’-club-masculinity that occasionally surfaces in male-dominated environments.
My personal favorite moment like this, as recounted by Tina Fey in Bossypants, is Amy Poehler’s first day in the SNL writing room when Jimmy Fallon asked her to stop making a crude joke because he didn’t like it. “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’ Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.” You could say Poehler was being a bitch, but her point was made: this is what I think of as funny, and you’re not going to tell me otherwise.
It was an interesting feminist kerfuffle in which Jane and I were momentarily caught. By calling her pretty, I’d opened the door to her being publicly judged based on her sex. By calling herself a cunt in the presence of the person who’d sentenced her to that judgment, she diffused the source of the objectification by removing the target: her femininity. She face-melted my naive, sexist comment. Also, if cunt invites me to hold the mirror up to myself in self-examination, our tête-à-tête tested the strength of my identification with being a woman. Lastly, I learned self-degradation can work to a woman’s advantage, especially if she wants to set an example for another woman in a male-centric arena like comedy. In other words, put yourself down before anyone else does it for you because it shows the breadth of your humor: what’s a more humble characteristic than making fun of yourself?
It took stepping on the feminist ego of a friend and role model to enlighten me, but it was necessary in order to reconcile the voicemail I received last year from a male improviser with whom I had “creative differences,” as Variety would put it:
“Hey, Sarah. This is Nick *****. Um, I just wanted to call you and tell you what a stupid cunt you are. Uh, you know, you’re not very good at improv and all. You should probably quit, um, now as opposed to later ‘cuz every time you perform, you just embarrass yourself more. Um, I saw you today, and I wanted to punch you in your fucking mouth. So, um, yeah, I mean, I just wanted to call and tell you how useless you are. Alright, have a nice day. Bye.
[November 7, 2010 1:19AM]”
When I first received that voicemail, I played it for every improviser I encountered. I wanted them to know who he was, what he said, and why he said it. Many encouraged me to take it to the theatre where most of us perform and train to get it on the record that this guy was toxic. What if I ended up in an eight-week class with him? What if we had to perform together? What if he called me a cunt on stage?
There was a less-than-sixty-second amount of time when I thought about letting his words affect me personally. When a comedian worries or, God forbid, is told she is not funny, it feels as though diaphanous, evil ghouls are eating her life away. It’s the kind of doubt that leads me to abyssal, lost-weekends of self-pity. But, I knew enough about this guy to assure myself that his stank voicemail had way more to do with him than it did with me. He wanted me to either retaliate or curl up and die. Do I treasure being called a cunt?
The answer is you bet I do.
This antagonizer may have taken away the opportunity for me to degrade myself first, but once I was branded, I shared it with the community, practically showing it off. It meant that I had walked through a serious verbal firing squad and still had the proverbial balls to get on stage. That’s the great thing about being named a cunt: the slander is so busy attacking the complexity and meaning of my vagina that it doesn’t notice I’m making fun of it.
A friend of mine and I like to jokingly argue like sorority girls: “No, you’re pretty.” “No, you’re pretty!” “NO, you are the pretty one.” “No, YOU.” We think it’s the funniest thing in the world because neither of us cares if we’re judged as pretty; and, more so, we love the idea of other women, who really worry about being pretty, bashing each other with the ego they wish they possessed. Rather than mocking that desire to be “pretty,” perhaps we ought to invert the banter to stoke the fire where our egos really burn: “No, you’re the cunty one.” “No, you are. You are the biggest cunt.” “No, YOU ”
Sarah Mathews is an improviser and actor living in New York City since 2005. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she has worked in theatres up and down the East Coast and as far West as Iowa. Her improv team, Uncle Fingers, performs monthly in New York City.