Taking Television at Its Word: Vagina Schmagina

Republican lawmakers in Michigan don't watch enough television. The ruckus about the use of the word vagina in the statehouse there proves it.

The brouhaha over vagina started when a female lawmaker in Michigan said she was barred from speaking in the statehouse after she uttered the v-word when debating anti-abortion legislation. This led to a performance of The Vagina Monologues at the Capitol. Michigan Republicans said it wasn't the use of the word vagina they objected to but that the lawmaker, Democratic State Representative Lisa Brown, compared the legislation to rape and that violated the rules of decorum.

Here's what Brown said: "I'm flattered you're all so concerned about my vagina, but no means no."

Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues told the Associated Press by phone,

If we ever knew deep in our hearts that the issue about abortion... was not really about fetuses and babies, but really men's terror of women's sexuality and power, I think it's fully evidenced here.

Ensler is hardly the first person to politicize a word. The late comedian George Carlin took on the "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" in 1972. He performed that routine at Summerfest in Milwaukee and was arrested for disturbing the peace. The broadcast of his monologue by radio station WBAI-FM led to a battle with the FCC that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court sided with the FCC and this established the first (but certainly not the last -- think Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction) indecency regulation for American broadcasters.

In 2001 the television show South Park took on one of Carlin's words, "shit," and won. In an episode titled "It Hits the Fan," written by co-creator Trey Parker, the word shit or shitty is said, uncensored, 162 times. Groundbreaking at the time, the word is not common on television now but not verboten either.

With the 500-channel universe, other words on Carlin's list became fodder for television and even words most people would have added to the list then are now prominent. We have a network show titled Don't Trust The B--- in Apt. 23. And one from the same network titled GCB, which is named after the book titled Good Christian Bitches. According to Cindy Casares, a columnist for The Texas Observer, bitch went from being used on 103 primetime episodes in 1998 to being used on 685 shows in 2007.

As a feminist and a fan of TV, I am waiting for the day when we have equal opportunity offensive TV show titles such as The Bastard in the Apt Next Door or The Dick Down the Hall. Or maybe the various testicle festivals that run around the country each year can be televised (yes, Montana, Minnesota, D.C. and Illinois have them, and they are centered on eating, usually fried, animal testicles).

Of course there are some words that should never be broadcast -- the c-word and the n-word will always be offensive.

But lawmakers or anyone else who wants to gauge public tolerance for politically incorrect language just needs to turn on their television. It's all there in living, colorful language.