At Least When It’s Uttered with Love
A friend’s middle school daughter wore a hat to school the other day. You know the one: pink, hand-knit, with two points resembling cat ears. An adult at her school asked her to remove it because she found it “offensive.” Later in the day this person, most likely encouraged by administrators, apologized to the girl half-heartedly, adding as she walked away, “You have no idea what that hat means.”
Yes. She does.
I am a girl who deserves respect. I believe my voice deserves to be heard just as much as boys’ voices. When I’m an adult, I should be paid the same that men are for the same job if we’re equally skilled and effective at it. I deserve to make my own choices about my body, even if they’re not the same choices you would make. I should be able to love whomever I want, without fear of discrimination — even if you don’t approve on religious grounds. Comprehensive sex education should be available to me, no matter where I live. I should have access to affordable birth control if/when I need it. I shouldn’t be afraid to walk down the street alone and I should never be sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped — even if I ever get drunk. In two words, this hat means “girl power.” I am proud to be a girl. And I’m proud to fight like one, too!
But, of course, this now-iconic pink hat can mean something else, too:
You know it, I know it, and this middle schooler knows it.
President Donald J. Trump acquainted every American — young and old alike — with this word when he admitted, whiled mic’ed, that he uses sexual assault as a pick-up technique. Shall we review for the thousandth time? “I just start kissing them,” he said behind the scenes on Access Hollywood in 2005. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything: Grab ’em by the pussy.”
For a long time that word has been dragged through the mud of misogyny, used derogatorily as either a vulgarity or an insult or both (like Trump did). Even when it’s used in an erotic context, it can still be a subtle verbal tool of subjugation or humiliation; otherwise, it’s an easy (some might even say lazy) way to be sexy, since taboo-busting is the fire that fuels many a sexual tryst. But for most of the unenlightened, “pussy” is merely sex, specifically intercourse, gotten or taken or stolen from nameless, faceless, brainless, female bodies otherwise known as bitches and sluts — a conquest by alpha-men. And when it’s not used as a primarily sexualized word, “pussy” as an insult of the weak and spineless (i.e. “don’t be a pussy”) is still gendered: girls are cute but catty, with little physical or real-world power, so why would you want to be like them? Or worse: vaginas are receptive, submissive holes that get used and abused, so why would you want to be like one? These are two questions which pose a real existential crisis for half the population at some point in their lives.
Save for the sheltered, the homeschooled and the truly unplugged, there isn’t a middle-schooler in America who hasn’t heard — or worse, used — this term in a negative way (no doubt we can thank Trump for a good percentage of that). But to paraphrase one of my favorite signs from the Women’s March: when you serve us a lemon, we’ll make lemonade!
Some elite sign action here today. pic.twitter.com/w8n6KMMrWh
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) January 21, 2017
There’s a long tradition of originally demeaning and dehumanizing words being reclaimed by their targets as badges of honor — the N-word, “queer,” even “the deplorables” (which is not to say these are all qualitatively equitable). Just as Trump’s “nasty woman” insult-burp during the final debate launched a cottage industry of t-shirts and mugs, it was not surprising — indeed, it was practically inevitable — that “pussy” would become the rallying cry and saucy symbol of women around the globe who were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Whether it’s the Pussy Hat Project or Samantha Bee’s “Thunder Cunt” t-shirts (a slogan lovingly borrowed from one of her Twitter trolls), progressives are taking all the misogynistic slurs and slights, wrapping them up in nice pink bows, and lobbing them back into the crowds of sexists as a million cute little grenades of daily action, inspiration, resistance and empowerment.
If Juliet wished Romeo to doff his name but retain his identity, we can inversely retain the word “pussy” but doff its old, antiquated, hateful meanings!
After the historic Women’s March, 19-year-old Nina Mariah Donovan’s powerful poem recited shamelessly by Ashley Judd , and Republican(!) strategist Ana Navarro’s legendary takedown of a hypocritical Trump surrogate during the campaign — all glorious examples of women taking back the word — “pussy” has undergone a transformation. It now means girl power and/or women’s rights and/or the female reproductive system and/or a soft, warm, lovely thing…like a hat! (And that linguistic expansiveness and fluidity can certainly encompass trans women.) It’s our word now. And as Mary Norris reminded us in The New Yorker recently by paraphrasing lexicographer Noah Webster, “there is no fighting common usage.”
Speaking of Webster: one specific definition we can all agree on, for the children, is the one listed first in Merriam-Webster’s and all other dictionaries (except for maybe Urban Dictionary): CAT. Plain and simple, uncontroversial and positive. While picking out some of my favorite signs from the marches, I came across one of two little girls, dressed in what appear to be big stuffed cat hats, tutus, and signs on their backs which read “Don’t touch the pussy!”*
I was so amused by it, I didn’t even notice that the person tweeting it was criticizing the image, appalled that parents would do this to their children, as if teaching kids about respecting boundaries and standing up for their right to bodily integrity and autonomy was somehow scandalous. Kids see pink pointed hats and this word on “parade” signs and think “Yay, kittens!” This was clear from those kids’ kitty costumes and all the smiling daughters with their mothers that day at the marches. It is always the repressed, often religious, controlling conservatives that project nefarious sexuality onto fairly benign situations and scenarios; it is they who see dirty, nasty, offensive sexuality first and foremost, which betrays their own inherent, often subconscious sexism and sexual hangups. Sometimes a pussy is just a pussycat.
And frankly, once that Access Hollywood video came to light last October, any Trump supporters’ right to be offended by the word “pussy” vanished — poof!
But at this point in time — now that the cat is out of the bag (ba dum ching!) — would it really be so bad if kids knew that “pussy” could also generally refer to women’s reproductive systems; if they heard the word initially as a positive rather than a negative; if common usage guaranteed its positivity? Guess what: most little girls have legs that run, and eyes that see, and urethras that pee, and noses that smell, and hands that clap, and anuses that poop, and mouths that eat, and uteruses that will probably menstruate soon and maybe even grow a fetus into a baby some day. Body and sexuality shaming is an insidious form of psychological oppression. We would do well to teach girls about their bodies, with a dedication to anatomically correct details and terminology, along with the occasional slang term of endearment, so they like and value their bodies enough to feed them well, enjoy them on their own terms, and protect them from STDs, unplanned pregnancies, and unwanted advances. We would do well to teach boys about girls bodies, too: that they aren’t a collection of parts to be made fun of; aren’t mysterious entities that have secret shameful bits that balloon simply for straight male pleasure or bleed simply to gross guys out; aren’t their playthings once they pass puberty.
The parents of the girl who went to school in a pink hat have encouraged their adult friends to let their own like-minded kids go to school in the same pink hats (which — according to their school handbook, many of this student’s very supportive teachers, her principal, AND the 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District — is totally kosher). The motivation is to prove to this hat critic and our community in general, via free speech, that plenty of thoughtful, conscientious middle schoolers — many on the cusp of physical maturity, developing their own moral compasses while vulnerable to the perils of social media negativity and now bully-pulpit bullying — do indeed condemn sexual harassment and support human rights. That’s what these pink hats mean to them.
Shame on anyone who assumes otherwise.