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I Am Woman, Hear Me Growl: Can ‘Pussy’ Be Grabbed Back?

As millions of people flooded city streets in the women’s marches around the world last weekend, the signs they carried ranged from flippant (‘Free Melania’) to hopeful (‘Love Trumps Hate’) to incredulous (‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this sh*t’).

Many placards voiced variations around the theme of “Pussy Fights Back”—slogans like ‘Hell Hath No Fury Like a Pussy Grabbed’ and ‘My Body/My Choice/My Pussy/My Voice’. Scores of women donned the bright pink ‘pussyhats’, hand-knit by volunteers in a grassroots movement to harness handicraft to create a visual protest. Judging by the aerial shots of the Capitol—a sea of pink—it was the knitting needle heard around the world.

Male marchers showed their solidarity by wearing pussyhats of their own and brandishing signs reading ‘Real men don’t grab pussy’. In London—where I joined the march’s historic trajectory from the American embassy to Trafalgar Square—a tiny terrier ran to keep up with the crowd, wearing a sign on its back proclaiming ‘Even I don’t grab pussies’.

Pussy’s claws were coming out, of course, in reference to the comments now-President Donald J. Trump had made in the pre-game banter before a 2005 Access Hollywood appearance, in which he bragged about unsolicited ‘pussy-grabbing’ and called host Billy Bush a ‘pussy’, ostensibly for not following suit. Mr. Trump infamously dismissed the comments as ‘locker-room’ talk — words intended for one audience rather unfortunately disseminated to another.

While he managed to secure 42% of the female vote despite these and other sexist sentiments, the protests demonstrated that the rest of us were not prepared to shrug it off as mere talk, knowing full well that the locker room becomes the board room, or now the Oval Office.

Turning the tables by using someone’s own words against them is a technique called ‘mirroring’. As linguist Daniel Midgley explains, “It’s a refusal to accept that someone or something owns a lexicon”. In the 2016 New York Times bestseller Pussy: A Reclamation, Regena Thomashauer, founder of Mama Gena’s School of the Womanly Arts, urged women to reclaim the controversial term by repeating it aloud:

When we are speaking the word, the weighty reverb swings toward us, rather than against us.

Ms. Thomashauer credits Mr. Trump’s comments with accelerating her cause, to reclaim “that which has been defiled” and “elevate pussy to be the highest compliment.” Women wielding the word en masse as they marched in the capital and elsewhere was an attempt to do just that. The Pussyhat Project’s website states,“We chose this loaded word for our project because we want to reclaim the term as a means of empowerment.”

(In the interest of research, I had a go at adopting pussy as a mantra myself. While it did not provoke the promised fits of giggles, or unlock a door to a secret sisterhood or delightful inner knowing, the repetition of the sibilant ‘S’ did take some of the sting out of the word.)

Puss and its diminutive pussy have been used as synonyms for cat—like the fairy-tale favorite Puss in Boots—since the 16th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, its usage as slang for female genitalia dates back to the eighteenth century. It was also employed as term of endearment for girls and women (think pussycat), as seen in works by authors including Agatha Christie, E. Nesbit and Harriet Beecher Stowe, until the sexual connotation took over. The double entendre was well in play by the 1964 film release of the James Bond film Goldfinger, which featured Honor Blackman in the role of Pussy Galore (the second-most popular Bond Girl of all time, just behind Ursula Andress’s Honey Ryder).

While female genitalia are associated with the feline in the slang of other languages— including French, German and Dutch—it’s only in English that we find pussy used as an insult to mean ‘coward’ or ‘wimp’, as employed by Mr. Trump to provoke Billy Bush. While it’s primarily heard in the American vernacular, the globalization of pop culture means it reverberates around the world. Etymologists differ on the genesis of this usage, but it would seem to originate from pussy as a pet name for women, falling into a category of primarily male-to-male slights that call masculinity into question (among groups that define masculinity as the rejection of all things feminine).

The metonymic extension of pussy as a stand-in for sex itself (as in “I’m gonna get me some…”), which didn’t appear until the twentieth century, reinforces a model of heterosexual relations in which it’s the man doing the getting, with the woman as an object rather than a participant in the act. One can’t help but feel that after a leap forward with the sexual revolution, we have taken two steps back, to a troubling world in which many young people consider the standard porn-script denouement of a man’s ejaculation as the only goal of sex.

It is, of course, the illicit nature of expletives that elicits the frisson in the first place, the ‘fearful thrill’ in seeing, doing, or speaking the forbidden,” as linguist Allen Walker Read described it in his seminal 1934 treatise on the F-word. It is exactly what makes talking dirty exciting, even if it evokes gender inequality that we would balk at outside of the bedroom. But what happens behind closed doors between consenting adults speaks nothing of what’s appropriate to pronounce in public. We can be fine with profanity in one context, but not with the connotations of racism, homophobia or misogyny implied by the same words when used elsewhere.

Given its history, even if Thomashauer and other commandos of the cult of the clitoris succeed in convincing women to adopt the word—as many seemed to be doing in their cute cat ears—it may take a while before it is appropriate in the mouths of men (as it were). When a group ‘reclaims’ a slur, it tends to stay off-limits for the historically offending party. Gwyneth Paltrow learned this the hard way with backlash after having made a reference to the title of a Jay-Z and Kanye West song, ‘Ni**as in Paris’ (asterisks hers) in a tweet from a concert in Paris in 2012. A residual emotional charge can cling to words for a long time, even if it sports a spiffy new suffix. As cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker explains, to hear a slur “is to try on, however briefly, the thought that there is something contemptible about [the group in question], and thus to be complicit in a community that standardized that judgment by putting it into a word.”

Words matter. Our language contains an implicit model of sex, including conceptions of power and fairness, says Pinker. In one survey, nearly half of teenage girls said Mr. Trump’s comments about women had affected how they think about their bodies. Language not only forms the basis of how we communicate our ideas and values to one another, but contributes to shaping those ideas and values themselves. As George Orwell warned in 1946,

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

Like many women, I was pulled to the streets to protest not from a rational consideration—the populace had cast its vote—but from a visceral call to be seen, to be heard, and to be among others who shared my disbelief as we watched a man who has called abortion rights into question, repeatedly insulted women, and boasted about making unwanted sexual advances take office. While pussy did not grab back at the poll booth, there was a hope that the sea of pink would show that, as a group, women are not to be dismissed.

We shall overcomb indeed.

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