The C-Word: Its Manners, Customs and Many Varied Uses


Last week, a protestor crashed a stage with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and dropped the c-bomb. Intrepid New Matilda columnist Dr Liz Conor asks the age old question: Is using a female body part as a term of derision misogynistic? And a language warning… there’s quite a bit of it to follow.

Last month a group of protestors intercepted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as he fronted the Committee for Economic Development (CEDA) in Melbourne. They sought to publically shame him for the abuse of refugees in indefinite detention on Nauru and Manus Island.

Waving a placard, ‘FFS Close the Bloody Camps’, one of the protestors mounted the stage and hurled ‘Cunt’ through her teeth at a dumbfounded Turnbull.

When one of the group was later interviewed on The Project, Waleed Aly pointedly asked whether swearing at the Prime Minister was the most effective way to get their message across.

Samantha Castro, of WACA (Whistleblowers Activists and Citizens Alliance) replied their main message had indeed been communicated and the use of language was proportionate to the substantive issue to hand – the exposure of vulnerable asylum seekers, including children, to sexual and physical abuse in these negligently mismanaged tropical gulags.

Feelings ran high. The Nauru papers, detailing over 2,000 incident reports of abuse, including assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm between 2013 and 2015 (now the subject of a Senate inquiry) had been published by The Guardian. Adrenalin was pumping. Appalled, incensed and no doubt jittery, the intrepid interceptor spoke for many of us when she reached for The Very Worst Word to hand. That is Cunt.

It comes up a lot, Cunt: its appropriate uses, its acceptable invocations. Since half of us are literally hinged by this soft and slippery assemblage of intensely attuned tissue, it’s been a matter of feminist consternation that it’s the best worst descriptor for derision.

Given what a great source of pleasure it is for women (albeit periodically high maintenance) why should Cunt signify tyrant and tormentor, despot and bully, liar and narcissist, namely all the foulest, basest traits to which, I note mostly men, can be ascribed.

For is Cunt not Origin of the World, life-giving, incarnate sensuality, a circlet of steeped, clasping flesh, orgiastic rapture, ardent enclosure, we could go on and on… with so much to recommend it, you do gotta ask, why be so negative?

Because it is at the apex and core of human experience. No other body part brings forth life. Its capacity for pleasure and pleasure-giving has made it a focal site for commodification, medicalization, regulation, warfare, but also for destabilising heteronormativity and radical feminist reclamation.

It has been mythologised with teeth (Vagina Dentata), monologued, squatted over mirrors, plaster moulded, and Toys actually R US women, ‘fraid.

Because it is ineluctably the custody and experience of the feminine. It is ours, despite the zealous, at times fanatical attempts of patrio-nazis to take possession with regimes of virginity, monogamy, displaced orgasm, labioplasty, rape, and interventions too numerous to mention (also the cause of longstanding and unresolved debates within feminism).

It’s hardly surprising that Cunt is a semantic minefield, a solicitation of supreme ambivalence. The frisson also derives from collapsing imagined binaries: birth and petite mort, virgin and whore, lack and plenitude, penetration and engulfment, pleasure and danger, purity and filth, exposure and censorship, erotica and porn, commodity and corporeality.

It is euphemised in a thousand ways (which I’ve elsewhere itemised in relation to a previous, Tampon-Taxing Prime Minister – whassisname?) from Hairy Lasso to Ripped out Fireplace.

It is, I’m told, a term of endearment between older gen gay men – ‘Hello Cunty!’ Comedian Louis C.K associates Cunt with piccolos and butterflies and thinks Vags are too pretty for insults, unless, “it was a giant cunt and it was attacking a town, throwing buses around…”. And there are of course a variety of endearing variations, my fav being Funty Cuck.

In amongst this rather immoderate usage, Cunt-bearing people are left wondering what it can mean for us. Is it reclaimable after Malcolm Tucker (In the Loop) called his curse-averse US counterpart Linton Barwick an ‘F star star Cunt’? Undoubtedly we reference and avow misogyny, and we also reference all the crap that’s been heaped on female genitalia. But perversely we also credit its potency and command over a deeply gendered and conflicted human psyche.

What to do? Should we form a Cuntocracy? Host flower-spangled, oestrogen-scented, yogurt daubing Cunt Inductions for our menarchal daughters? A Cunt Walk would go down a treat, though may require trolleys with stirrups – which would make it a Cunt Trundle….

The bind for feminists who quite logically want to use it only as a compliment, or keep it for special sheet-rumpling occasions, is that by putting it out of reach of polite conversation, we bolster its transgressive brunt.

Call me essentialist but I do prefer Cunt as the preserve of people who have them. But when we declare Cunt unspeakable, we simply make it that irresistible and indispensable execrate that we all find ourselves reaching for in the traffic or in the photocopy room.

Or anyplace we need recourse to the very worst affront, like, say, up on a stage with a Prime Minister who espouses, enforces and defends an indefensible administration of abuse of the world’s most helpless, traumatised and beseeching people.

* Note: By blockading Wilson carparks WACA targeted Wilson Security, which provides guards to Nauru and Manus Island. Wilson have since announced they are withdrawing these services from Manus and Nauru when their contract expires ‘amid concerns to damage to their reputation’. Since their contract does not expire until October 2017, WACA are continuing to draw attention to their role in the abuse of asylum seekers through direct actions.

** Disclaimer. I have participated in Direct Actions with members of WACA.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.