These days, “shit,” “fuck,” “tits,” and even the strangest of all curse words, “motherfucker,” have become commonplace in American lexicon. That’s thanks in part to the emergence of internet humor, which relies heavily on shock value for a laugh. But in the U.S., “cunt” lives on in a category of its own. Simply calling someone a “cunt” can cause a room to either burst out in laughter or drop into a dead silence, depending on who you’re with.
Which is all the more reason why women should call each other “cunts.”
“Cunt” is back in the national spotlight thanks to Samantha Bee’s use of the word, which has sparked a larger and messier discussion about women, comedy, and politics. During a Wednesday night episode for her show Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, she criticized President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump for her failure to challenge the White House’s policy on separating undocumented children from their families. Focusing on a particularly tone-deaf photo of Ivanka holding her child on Instagram, Bee called the president’s daughter a “feckless cunt,” which spiraled into a conservative backlash that led to Bee apologizing on Twitter.
“It was inappropriate and inexcusable,” Bee tweeted on Thursday. “I crossed a line, and I deeply regret it.”
I would like to sincerely apologize to Ivanka Trump and to my viewers for using an expletive on my show to describe her last night. It was inappropriate and inexcusable. I crossed a line, and I deeply regret it.— Samantha Bee (@iamsambee) May 31, 2018
While European countries are generally much more lax on its usage, calling someone a “cunt” in the U.S. is considered a grave insult because of its misogynistic undertones. Feminist writer Katrina Majkut considers the word to be “the queen of all insults” aimed at women, one that puts “shame on a woman’s sexuality or body as a means of insult.” Of course, “cunt” refers to a cis woman’s vagina, and in some ways, it could be compared to “bossy,” which has come under criticism in recent years for disparaging women who assert themselves in the workplace. Only cunts speak up. Only cunts draw attention to the ways in which they were wronged.
“Women get called cunts when they reject sexual advances and assert themselves in the workplace; in other words, when they don’t play nice,” journalist Katie Baker wrote for Jezebel in 2013. “Why do we let ‘cunt’ retain so much negative power? The only possible explanation is because so many people still think the worst crime a woman can commit is to be unapologetically sexual.”
Like Majkut pointed out, there’s an endless list of slurs aimed at women in the U.S., but most of these aren’t just about shaming women for their sexuality or their bodies. They specifically target women who have agency in the world and hold it over men. Victorians were obsessed with the word “slut” and used it against women who loved having sex and had plenty of it, as women were expected to be cold and stoic during sexual intercourse. Vice’s Arielle Pardes points out that after women were given the right to vote in the U.S., “bitch” was used much more frequently—mostly by men—before it took on a feminist undertone during second-wave feminism in the ’60s and ’70s.
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“Bitch” is certainly still derogatory when it’s used to single out women and make them feel uncomfortable. But when women use the word “bitch,” they bring a different context to it. Strong women are bad bitches. Women that betray other women are also bitches. Being a bitch can be a good or bad thing, but in feminism, women, not men, define who is and isn’t a bitch when they use it. And even the worst bitches are still powerful figures that deserve respect. To that end, “bitch” has lost its edge, and women call each other bitches freely and openly, sometimes to praise each other, and sometimes not so much.
The only difference between “bitch,” “cunt,” and “slut” is whether those three words have been reclaimed. In the misogynistic curse word hierarchy, there really isn’t a reason to keep “cunt” from becoming a feminist word. And now more than ever, it’s time to reclaim it, because conservative men love calling women cunts when the opportunity arises. In 1994, conservative rockstar Ted Nugent called Hillary Clinton a “toxic cunt” and said she was a “two-bit whore for Fidel Castro.” Meanwhile, Texas’ Republican Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller once called Clinton a “cunt” on Twitter, too, days before the 2016 presidential election.
Even President Trump himself seems to have an affinity for calling women “cunts.” In Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, he claims Trump once described former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates as “such a cunt,” and former Philadelphia Inquirer financial reporter Jennifer Lin says Trump called her a “cunt” in 1988 over a report, too.
Bee is a liberal woman and she understands that “cunt” has a loaded message. She didn’t call Ivanka Trump a cunt because she’s a bossy woman who needs to be put in her place. Rather, Bee described Trump as a “feckless cunt” because the president’s daughter is a rich white woman who has an enormous amount of influence over the American presidency and does nothing with it.
And that, my fellow cunts, is what makes her a fucking cunt.