CULTURE & ARTS
04/14/2017 01:09 pm ET

Are We All Chill With The Word 'Pussy' Now?

Some women have embraced the word, claiming it for the feminist movement.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

Remember this time last year, when checking the news rarely meant hearing the word “pussy”? You know, outside of that one band from Russia?

Then came the tape.

The Washington Post, breaking news of Donald Trump’s now infamously vulgar “Access Hollywood” comments in early October, didn’t put the most outrageous word in its headline, writing instead the rather bland “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation About Women In 2005.” As news organizations reflect the linguistic conventions of their audiences, the paper was considering its readers who weren’t comfortable with the slang for “vagina.” Others reporting on the tape, including The Huffington Post, and also avoided using it in their headlines, emphasizing instead the inappropriate nature of the remarks.

On TV, where perhaps our highest standards of decent language are meant to live, “pussy” was bleeped. In the aftermath, more headlines began appearing with the offending word partially present: “p***y.”

But then U.S. voters cast ballots and, through the ancient magic of the Electoral College, it was determined that the candidate who once bragged about sexual assault against women would become president. And the word began cropping up again ― in a different way.

“Women Knit Thousands Of ‘Pussy Power Hats’ To Support The Women’s March On Washington,” The New York Times reported in January, as women knitted in part against Trump’s vulgar remark about their bodies. The Huffington Post also let the word fly free, uncensored, while other organizations referred to the “pussy hats” not by name but rather their iconic pinkness. As people began talking about “pussy hats,” knitting them and wearing them, the word “pussy” seemed increasingly normalized. Case in point: pussy hats are ending up in museums around the world to represent our present cultural moment.

A moment when we said “pussy” and it wasn’t offensive or embarrassingly porny, but powerful and unifying for regular women.

It’s too soon to tell whether women have truly reclaimed the word, in the aftermath of a contentious election marked by criticism over a sexist candidate. Thanks to repeated references in the news and pop culture, “pussy” feels neutered, part of the natural fabric of our language. Does it still have the power to shock? Maybe not as much.

Pussy hats, though, might be merely the more ubiquitous version of Pussy Riot ― the all-female Russian punk group. Seemingly another pop-culture lifetime ago, in 2012, Pussy Riot was getting in trouble for their protest performances, thrusting the word “pussy” into the media in a quieter version of recent events. “’Pussy’ Is Having A Moment,” declared Slate. ‘Can We Reclaim And Redefine ‘Pussy’? Sure, Why Not,” said Jezebel. The former reminded us about the effort to re-contextualize words offensive against women, including “pussy,” kicked off by riot grrrls way back in the ‘90s. Slate’s Lindsay Zoladz also brought up the examples of musicians Iggy Azaela, with her song “PU$$Y,” and Grimes, who introduced a line of rings (”pussy rings”) shaped like vaginas. Women ― a few, at least ― have embraced the word, claiming it for the feminist movement.

With their constant syntactic companions, maybe “pussy hat” and “Pussy Riot” allowed women the chance to warm up to the word by diluting it ever so slightly. Seeing it on its own, then, as on a “pussy grabs back” T-shirt, becomes more of a ho-hum affair, whether we feel empowered or simply desensitized.

As always, context is everything. From the mouth of a man, the term can retain its cruelty when intended as a crass reference to a woman’s genitals, and its hostility when used to criticize another’s masculinity. “Grab ‘em by the pussy” still makes for a grotesquely sexist string of words.

Women could begin saying “pussy” as casually and freely as the LGBTQ community reclaimed “queer,” gradually pushing out those who would use it to demean them as a mere part of their whole selves ― perhaps gradually turning it into a word we would have a hard time reading with malice. Language can be that way: like the society that uses it, it evolves.

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Read more here.

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