Can We Reclaim the Word ‘Cunt’? This Book Thinks So.

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Culture & Conversation Politics

Can We Reclaim the Word ‘Cunt’? This Book Thinks So.

Eleanor J. Bader

I don't agree. First published in 1998, Inga Muscio's provocative book still makes an unconvincing case and also repeats troubling anti-choice rhetoric. But it has valuable insights about confronting sexual violence and learning trans inclusivity.

“Oh my God,” I thought to myself when Rewire.News asked me to review the new, updated edition of writer Inga Muscio’s 1998 polemic about feminism, gender, and rebellion, Cunt. “Will I be able to immerse myself in a book with that title when I’m on buses and in subways? Will people interrupt me to ask about it or indignantly berate me?”

Turns out my worries were for naught. I heard no snickers or snide comments, and if my fellow strap-hangers noticed the title, they kept their reactions to themselves. Nonetheless, I was still uncomfortable. “Cunt” is a word I loathe and never, ever use. And that’s not because I am prissy or genteel. No, I can and do hurl expletives like a champ. Just not “cunt,” a word I find reductive, vulgar, and patriarchal in its framing of female anatomy as a slur. Reading Cunt, a manifesto calling for full-scale embrace of the word for liberation’s sake, failed to change my mind, though the book does have moments that resonate in this #MeToo era.

Muscio argues—as she did in the book’s inaugural edition—that reclaiming the word will reconnect womankind to a lost history, including venerable Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, and Roman societies that reverentially called female priestesses and witches by their own linguistic spins on this particular word. She plumbs Barbara G. Walker’s controversial 1,136-page opus, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, for fodder about ancient cultures that had very different notions of bodily power. “Cunts were anathema to forefather types,” Muscio writes. “Literally and metaphorically, the word and anatomical jewel presided at the very root of many earlier religions, impeding phallic power worship. In Western civilization, forefather types practiced savior-centered religions, such as Catholicism. Springing forth from a very real, very fiscal [sic] fear of women and our power, and eventually evolving into sexual retardation and womb envy, a philosophy and social system based on destruction was called to thriving life.”

This idea, of course, has been frequently articulated by feminist scholars who have meticulously charted patriarchy’s development and the ways in which culture, religion, and brute force have colluded to wrest power from women for the benefit of men. “Negative reactions to cunt emanate from a learned fear of ancient yet contemporary, inherent yet lost, reviled yet redemptive cuntpower,” Muscio writes.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Still, I bristle, unconvinced that calling ourselves “cunts” will lead to liberation, power, or enhanced respect for women. Indeed, other reclaimed terms—among them, “faggot,” “nigger,” “kike,” and “crone”—have done little to nothing to eradicate homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, or ageism. Why should “cunt” be any different? Words, of course, matter, and can help launch or support movements. But the social change needed to free women and create the egalitarian society we want will take far more than language reclamation. It will take vigorous organizing, coalition building, and vision.

This, though, is but one of my gripes with the book.

Equally unsettling, Muscio presents abortion and birth control as a way for males to reign over female bodies, and although she purports to support reproductive justice, this claim is specious. To wit: “I’d be hard-pressed to come up with more systematic and refined forms of chemically induced oppression than synthetic hormonal birth control products,” she writes. “The pill diminishes sexual desire, causes undue weight gain through laboratory-generated manipulation of the hormones; obstructs the natural menstrual cycle and flow; represses ovulation; causes heart problems, irritability, and migraines; has been linked, unlinked, and relinked to cancer; and synthetically dictates one’s entire physical agenda .… Depo-Provera and Norplant are simply newer products of an industry that profits from control over women’s lives.”

The anti-abortion and anti-birth control Right could not have said it better. Like them, Muscio neglects to mention that the pill has been linked to a lowered risk of endometrial, colorectal, and ovarian cancers, but why let a few pesky facts derail an otherwise hysterical argument?

Worse, her descriptions of her own surgical abortions—there were two of them—by icy-cold technicians and callous doctors read like something from an anti-abortion playbook. Though her experience is hers to describe as she wishes, did no one she knows have an abortion in a facility run by kind, nurturing, feminist staff people?

To say that her presentation seems one-sided is to state the obvious.

These critiques aside, I did find some redemptive material in the book. For one, a chapter entitled “Rape Not Cunts” provides a searing account of a sexual assault experienced by Muscio’s mom. It’s gripping, and Muscio’s rage over the attack—and her assessment of its long-term impact on her and her sister—is powerfully expressed.

In addition, when she turns to rape and sexual assault more generally, her response is provocative. She calls it CPR, “Cuntlovin’ Public Retaliation,” and it involves an orchestrated confrontation between groups of women and a perceived assailant. “In a climate of cuntlove,” she writes, “if a woman in the community is raped, other women react. The idea is to publicly humiliate rapists by confronting them in public, attention-demanding ways …. A group of 200 women walking into a place of employment of a known rapist would have an effect,” she concludes. While this may veer a bit too close to vigilante justice for some of us, the way #MeToo has evolved tweaks this concept—using media rather than workplace showdowns—and would have been pertinent to the updated book. Unfortunately, Muscio does not mention this burgeoning movement or the work it is doing to unmask male aggressors and abusers.

This brings me to another quibble with Cunt. Muscio both wallows in essentialism—urging us to support women as women no matter what—and simultaneously makes clear that distinctions between women predicated on race, sexual preference, gender identity, and class serve to limit solidarity efforts and societal advancement. She chides herself for her own complicity in promoting these distinctions, noting that in its original form, Cunt assumed that despite our many differences, one of womanhood’s unifying features was that “we all have cunts.” She was later schooled by the trans community and to her credit, chronicles her own evolution on trans inclusivity. In addition, she takes pains to emphasize the need for white women to address racism and for cisgender people to address transphobia. Her plea is compelling and heartfelt. Furthermore, by including a 20-page reading list and selected bibliography, Cunt offers numerous tools for self-education and personal growth so we have no excuse for not delving more deeply into these matters.

Still, these imperatives—as important as they are to building a strong, vibrant, creative, united, and powerful social justice movement—left me with mixed feelings about Cunt. On one hand, the text is inconsistent and politically problematic. On the other, it is often lively, quirky, and provocative. Among its many messages is one that I find compelling: That by telling stories about our experiences as women, people of color, gender-queers, and the economically marginalized, we can change the world. Nevertheless, you won’t find me saying the word “cunt” aloud anytime soon.