I’ll Be a Dirty Word


This article that I discussed in an earlier post touches on a subject I thought might be worth another post, which is that of Penn Jillette referring to women as “cunts” on social media.

I generally like Penn, but I can’t help but find it bizarre that his Bullshit! was dedicated to exposing scams, but then he and Teller did an episode about how the nation could get by without income taxes.

I get that that’s more a matter of opinion than whether reflexology has any scientific basis (SPOILER: it doesn’t), but it does seem that he has his own rational blind spots.

In general, I’m all for free speech and against censorship. I don’t think any word should necessarily be off limits, but there’s a bit of a paradox here in that people who think blue language should be used freely also take into account that there’s a certain amount of taboo associated with them. Otherwise saying “fuck you” is no more hurtful than saying “darn you.” So what about the word “cunt” is so bad? Obviously not the technical meaning, especially when it’s a heterosexual man using it. There IS something about that particular combination of letters that sounds particularly curt and harsh. The main issue is, however, that it’s a word specifically associated with a specific group that’s frequently marginalized in society. The thing is, there are a lot of slurs of this variety that I would say are likely much more hurtful than run-of-the-mill stuff like “piss” or “shit,” but that don’t always have the same limitations. The first time I saw the movie Blazing Saddles, it was on a network broadcast where they kept in every instance of the N-word, but edited out the word “ass.” Granted, you wouldn’t have much of a movie without that word, and a satirical usage is quite different than a casual one, but it still makes me question the network standards to some extent. I don’t think “cunt” has quite the same history of being used oppressively (although maybe it does; I haven’t really looked into it), but there’s a similarity there.


I’m also thinking back to another entertainer who was called out for using the same word, Bill Maher, who called Sarah Palin a cunt during a 2011 stand-up routine. Now, I think this is mostly a non-issue, and we’d probably never have even known about it if the right-wing media didn’t take every possible opportunity to denounce left-wing personalities. It was a frequent right-wing talking point at the time to say, basically, “Democrats think they’re so pro-women, but what about their attacks on Sarah Palin?” Never mind that they were primarily making fun of Palin for being totally unfit for the position for which she was running, something that’s done to men all the time. But when you use such gender-specific language, doesn’t that make it at least a bit misogynistic, hence kind of giving Fox News what they wanted? Maybe Maher was aware of this and did it just to rile up his critics, but I think it would have had much the same effect and gone against the usual expectations if he’d just said, “Sarah Palin is a dick.” I’m not about to tell professional jokers how to do humor, just wondering whether there might not have been better word choices in these particular cases. After all, isn’t the whole point that you think these people are terrible in ways totally unrelated to their gender? Or is there something that makes a woman who writes a comedy piece that doesn’t work worse than a man who does the same thing?

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This entry was posted in Gender, Humor, Language, Politics, Prejudice, Television and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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