The slur, recently directed at Ivanka Trump by the TBS comedian, is ‘particularly offensive because it reduces the woman to her sexual organ,’ one professor of linguistics told Moneyish
Some considered it a feckless choice of words.
Samantha Bee’s “feckless c–t” slur — heaved at Ivanka Trump last week for what Bee considered her silence on President Trump’s immigration policies — prompted widespread rebuke from the White House and beyond; support from fellow comedians like Jon Stewart and Michelle Wolf; and defection of advertisers Autotrader and State Farm from Bee’s TBS show, “Full Frontal.”
The “Daily Show” alum, who called her c-bomb “inappropriate and inexcusable” in the immediate aftermath, issued a lengthy on-air apology Wednesday night. “It is a word I have used on the show many times, hoping to reclaim it. This time, I used it as an insult. I crossed the line, I regret it, and I do apologize for that,” Bee said. “The problem is that many women have heard that word at the worst moments of their lives. A lot of them don’t want that word reclaimed. They want it gone, and I don’t blame them. I don’t want to inflict more pain on them. I want this show to be challenging and I want it to be honest, but I never intended it to hurt anyone — except Ted Cruz.” (“Many men were also offended by my use of the word,” she added. “I do not care about that.”)
Bee also expressed frustration that the controversy-driven news cycle had “distracted from more important issues” — and urged worrying “a little bit more about the niceness of our actions” instead of just “nice words.”
But the gendered slur didn’t always reek of violent misogyny. Its earliest-cited written use was around 800 years ago, when it was a biological term used to refer to female genitalia, said Benjamin Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the book “What the F.” It became tarred as taboo by the mid-18th century, he told Moneyish, as “both talking about sex and using words that described sexuality and sex-related things became less acceptable.”
The slur is also “particularly offensive because it reduces the woman to her sexual organ,” said Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University professor of linguistics and author of “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.” And while curses against men tend to insult them for being a certain type of man — e.g. “bastard” — calling women “c–ts” insults them for merely being a woman. “Words for women, like words for members of minority groups, (slur) them simply for being a member of that group,” she said.
Even when you insult a man by his genitalia, Bergen said, words like “d–k” or “c–k” land differently than “c–t” or “p—y.” “When we look at the words that people judge to be most offensive, they’re almost always offensive when they are directed at individuals or groups of individuals who are currently and historically disempowered (or) marginalized,” he said. “The reason for that is that using negative language about a group who also doesn’t have power is a kind of submission; it’s a way of reinforcing the power dynamic that already exists.” So the strongest words in the English language are currently terms that target not males, Caucasians or rich people, for example, but those who are less powerful and have been marginalized by their gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, Bergen said.
In today’s American English, computational linguist Chi Luu told Moneyish in an email, the c-word “is still one of the most derogatory and offensive ones that can be used, especially towards women.” “The American perspective tends to be a little more preoccupied with profane language than other countries perhaps,” she added. “It’s worth noting that in other English-speaking countries such as in Britain and Australia, ‘c–t’ has become somewhat diluted — it still is offensive, but is often found in other contexts where it isn’t offensive, though definitely vulgar.” In Australian English, for example, it’s common for males to use the word in a positive context like “He’s a lucky c–t,” Luu said.
“That doesn’t mean it no longer is misogynistic in those places, however, but that the offensiveness might be somewhat diluted by these more positive linguistic contexts,” she said. “Not everyone is going around saying the word in polite company, but neither is it so deeply horrifying as it is for Americans.”
As for the range of slurs used against women, says fiction writer and poker player Eileen Sutton, “there does seem to be a kind of profanity hierarchy.” “B—h seems not as bad as p—y, which doesn’t seem as bad as c–t,” she said. “There’s something for me just so violent about the word … Somehow, in my consciousness, that word is the a-bomb of swear words.” Sutton, a self-described swearing enthusiast and author of the in-progress memoir “Poker for Girls,” argued Bee’s remark went “too far” in a Daily News op-ed denouncing the word’s “degrading” nature. Though she admits having used the word herself a handful of times, she said, “it never makes me feel better.”
Context, intention, and the gender of the slur-slinger also matter, Sutton said, describing the shock she felt recently after a male poker player — who, ironically, had expressed displeasure with her swearing — called her a “b—h” as their dispute escalated. “The way he called me a b—h like that — it didn’t even have to be the c-word,” Sutton said. “His intention was laced with a tremendous contempt, and that’s where the line was for me … There was just a really, really emotionally violent contempt in his voice.”
Swearers are generally perceived as more honest and more intense, Bergen said, but also less educated and more out of control. A number of contextual factors feed into how they’re perceived, he added: their gender (men on average are judged more positively when they swear), whether the situation is judged to be one in which profanity is appropriate (e.g. a comedy club versus a supermarket), and what you already think about the person. “So if this person is someone who you judge to be a member of your group — someone who you are familiar with and already have positive beliefs about — then you’re more likely to increase your positive beliefs about them,” he said.
Caroline Heldman, an Occidental College associate professor of politics whose work examines gender and race, has given television appearances for 10 years — and says she has been branded a “whore,” “c–t” or “b—h” via social media, phone and email “more times than I can count.” Despite having grown desensitized to those attacks over time, Heldman calls herself “one of the rare people on the left who actually thinks that gender slurs are a really big problem,” as all slurs on their face derive their meaning from putting down a group. And sexism in American culture, she argued, tends to be more acceptable than racism, ableism or homophobia.
“We don’t seem to have the same concern for gender slurs, and I think it reflects how acceptable sexism is, as opposed to other forms of oppression,” she said. “I’m not advocating that any be acceptable; I’m just pointing out that the folks who are generally up in arms about racial oppression and ableism and LGBT (slurs) are not as upset about gender slurs … I think we should be critical of all of them.” Recent outrage over Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet targeting former Barack Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Heldman said, “reached a fever pitch on the left — but Samantha Bee’s use of a gender slur to refer to Ivanka was almost dismissed and even defended in some quarters.”
The taboo may very well fade again with time, said Bergen. “There’s no word that is and has always been taboo, nor is there a word that will always continue to be taboo that’s taboo now,” he said. “At this time (c–t) is worse, but it wasn’t always the case, and it won’t always be the case.”
And some, like “C–t: A Declaration of Independence” author Inga Muscio, have tried to reclaim the loaded c-word. “When viewed as a positive force in the language of women — as well as a reference to the anatomical jewel which unites us all — the negative power of ‘c–t’ falls in upon itself, and we are suddenly equipped with a word the describes all women,” Muscio wrote in her book. Actress Sally Field attempted as much following the Bee flap: “I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a c–t,” she tweeted. “C–ts are powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest.”
The word “b—h,” for its part, “rates far less offensive when you survey people than ‘c–t’ does,” Bergen noted. “Part of that history is … (that) there has been a process of intentional appropriation or co-opting of that word” over the past several decades. Some women have worn the label as a badge of honor: Tina Fey, for instance, memorably declared in a 2008 “Saturday Night Live” defense of Hillary Clinton that “b—h is the new black,” since “b—-es get stuff done.”
“Some feminists are trying to reclaim ‘c–t’ as a neutral word, in a similar way to ‘b—h’ and ‘queer,’ but this is kind of an uncertain, long-term process and not everyone necessarily agrees,” Luu said. “It’s difficult to police how society at large uses or receives strong language.”
While “we haven’t reclaimed b—h or c–t … the reclamation and modification of the n-word is a sign that we could,” Heldman added. “I’m not sure that’s a priority for feminists,” she said, “but maybe we could.”
This article was originally published June 5, 2018, and has been updated.
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