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You Can't Say That on Television: Jane Fonda and the C-Word

I don't want the only people who are "allowed" to say "dirty" words about women to be the people who are trying to hurt us.
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It was a nutty week for women's "down there" parts.

Then, Mark Halperin from Time magazine said that John Edwards thinks Barack Obama is a "pussy."

Then, Jane Fonda, while talking up The Vagina Monologues, alongside badass playwright Eve Ensler, dropped the c-word bomb on the Today show.

The record player screetched. Meredith Viera looked pissed and apologized. Bill O'Reilly bloviated. David Letterman joked that she probably picked up that sailor-speak from Ted Turner.

What was she thinking? It's one thing to say that word in a theater to a bunch of people who purchased tickets to hear you say it. But this, this was "polite company."

But amidst the apology, O'Reilly-ian anger, and the snickering, I noticed what was not happening. No one pointed out the context of what she was talking about. Sure, she used a word that's not appropriate for a TV program that's watched by children, who repeat all kinds of things in all kinds of situations. But lest we forget, Fonda used the c-word while talking about one of the Vagina Monologue's vignettes -- a lovely, revolutionary, hilarious vignette called "Reclaiming Cunt" (that's incredible to see live) about how the c-word rolls off the tongue (no pun intended.) It was positive, it was celebratory and it was about "reclaiming" a word that the last time -- no, the last 80 times -- I heard it was being used to trash a pushy, trouble-making, boat-rocking uppity woman. To quote the vignette:

"I call it cunt. I've reclaimed it, "cunt." I really like it. "Cunt." Listen to it. "Cunt."

Seriously, it's about time somebody shook things up with the c-word. It's just a word. I think we -- women -- can scrub "dirty" words from the English language, appropriate them and de-stigmatize them. That's exactly what Ensler, who has raised millions of dollars for women and girls who are survivors of sexual violence, is doing with her vagina play.

What is a "dirty" word, really? Well, it's probably about female anatomy. (I'm guessing the Today show and other mainstream media didn't say "vagina" too much until Ensler's play became so popular.) Female sexuality makes some people very nervous. Yet a man with chutzpah "has balls" or "cojones," and a man can be a dick, but sometimes that's a good thing when he's being funny, or making boatloads of money, while he's being a dick. Sure, sometimes you can get in trouble for talking about or depicting the male anatomy, but its not quite the same level of hyperventilations as if you pulled a Mark Halperin or a Jane Fonda. (I'm not the first feminist to ask why there are so many "bad words" for and about women, but it is a particular interest of mine.)

It's a stupid, unfortunate and sexist fact of life that a lot of women get called bitches, cunts, sluts, hos, and whores all the time as a way of threatening or humiliating us. We're harassed on the street, at school and sometimes even our jobs in the year 2-0-0-and-freaking-8. Of course we want to "take" those words and render them meaningless: there will always been women of the feminist persuasion who do the thing you tell us we cannot do and see what happens. But it's uncomfortable for people to deal with the other fact of life that we live in a place where women head companies, graduate from college at higher rates than men and run for president, yet hateful language about us is ubiquitous. We'll be denigrated, told that we're just trying to be titillating and trying to get attention; or we'll be told we're contributing to the coarsening of our culture and sex is more precious when private and18-and-up. But the reality is that feminists often hold a mirror up to our culture -- like Jane did, like Eve does -- at a personal risk. Just because Jane Fonda is a millionaire movie star does not mean she won't lose something from saying a word that you can't say on television.

America, a place that managed to produce both Joe Francis/Girls Gone Wild and "purity balls," is a confused country when it comes to lady parts in the public sphere. Or maybe its ladies in general? Our culture has un-done so much paternalism, sexism and injustice, and we've so carefully wallpapered over centuries of misogyny (or, "the remnants of sexism," as Hillary Clinton put it when someone yelled at her, "Iron my shirt!") that most of us are confused about what's okay anymore. It's certainly a confusing time to be a female. Who is supposed to pay on dates? Is makeup a tool of the patriarchy? What about high heels? Should I have voted for Clinton on Super Tuesday because I so badly want to see a woman president? Why am I pro-choice but abortion still makes me really nervous? Can I bring a guy home on the first date? Is it okay to breastfeed in Starbucks? And what's with this "reclaiming" bad words about women business?

Take "bitch," for example. I've been called a "bitch" -- almost exclusively by men who were angry at me -- since I was an adolescent. Its a loaded word that can bring me to tears if used as a weapon. But I also write for a magazine called Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture. It's a pop culture feminist magazine that I love to pieces and I consider it a source of pride that my WASP-y Republican parents go down to Borders and buy copies of it when I publish an article.

But while I was home over winter break, my mother showed one of my articles to her best friend -- a sweet lady, a 2nd-grade teacher -- and I could tell her friend really did not like the name of the magazine. She wasn't amused by it, and what should have been a proud moment for me suddenly became very awkward over tea in my parents' library. I'm taking a wild guess here but I'm guessing she probably thinks all these other words used to denigrate women and women's body parts are "inappropriate," too. (Some people simply just don't want us to, because then they won't have anything in their arsenal to call Hillary.)

Cunt will never not be a dirty word in my lifetime and I doubt women will ever agree if they want it to be as common slang as dick. But I just don't want the only people who are "allowed" to say dirty words about women to be the people who are trying to hurt us. I quote Ensler from the introduction to her play:

"I bet you're worried. I was worried. That's why I began this piece. I was worried about vaginas. I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don't think about them....There's so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them -- like the Bermuda Triangle."

It seems to me as long as women are getting screamed at for positively using the same words that are used to denigrate us, the other side is winning.

So thank you, Jane Fonda. And see you next Tuesday!

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