It’s Okay When Bo Says It

| February 25, 2014 | 5 Comments

I really, really do not like the word “pussy,” and I’ve mentioned this before. I think it’s crass and infantilizing and it makes me really uncomfortable. When I hear it used, I immediately think less of the person who said it.

Friends of mine know that it’s a triggering word for me, and the considerate ones reevaluate their language. I no longer consider the inconsiderate ones friends: thoughtless usage of the word (and the anti-woman subtext that frequently accompanies it) is a dealbreaker for me.

So why is it that I still like Bo Burnham? I’ve enjoyed his work for many years, and was excited that his latest standup show what? is on YouTube. It’s a bit of a departure from his previous work, and questionable words are sprinkled throughout it, but I still laughed a lot and really enjoyed it. Why?

The answer is probably, at least in part, “I am a hypocrite,” but I think it also has to do with intention, at least as I perceive it. In most instances, Bo’s usage was satirical, meant to (I think) poke at people who unthinkingly use problematic language. When he said ”pussy,” it was intended very differently  than when comedian Daniel

My grandmother also used the word "pussy," but she was referring to her pet cat. | photo credit: Sean Molin Photography via photopin cc

My grandmother also used the word “pussy,” but she was referring to her pet cat. | photo credit: Sean Molin Photography via photopin cc

Tosh uses it. I know there is a difference here because Bo does not make me want to punch my television screen, and Tosh does.

Last week, I also encountered someone who used this word-I-do-not-like-very-much, and I barely even batted an eyelash. I was at “Get Wet,” a sex-positive SHS-sponsored workshop led by Megan Andelloux, a sex educator/badass activist who runs Rhode Island’s Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health (where I would love to one day be employed, ahem). She spoke about sex and contraception and porn and body parts, and her presentation was full of diagrams and sex toys and velvet vulva models and slang—lots and lots of slang. In her introduction, she explained that she bounces back and forth between using neutral medical terms and the kind of words you’re more likely to hear from bros in the dining hall, but coming from her they didn’t bother me one bit. Somehow, “pussy” stings less when I know the person saying it can identify, explain, and exalt the clitoris.

I guess it makes sense that context and attention to sensitivity make a big difference. I do believe that you should be able to call your body parts whatever you want, and Eve Ensler taught me the value of word reclamation. But I still believe that words equal power, and that we should consciously avoid hurting others, and that if someone’s vocabulary makes my stomach drop, I have every right to call them out on it or avoid being exposed to them and their hurtful behavior in the future.

So I guess I’m still confused. Is my language policing any different than, say, body policing? Can black-and-white personal values be situationally dependent? What do you think, readers?

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Category: featured, Poetry, Prose and Comedy, The (Sex)es

Rhiannon Pabich

About the Author ()

Rhiannon was once asked to write a "bland, professional bio" and she failed miserably. She is, however, good at some things, which include yelling in hockey arenas, explaining the importance of comprehensive sex ed, and pursuing adventures. The journalism major hails from the deep south and, on a good day, enjoys scintillating conversation and copious amounts of caffeine. On a bad day, she enjoys sarcasm-laden conversation and obscene amounts of caffeine (but really, isn't every day a good one?). She likes playing with paint, crying happy tears, red balloons, and you.

Comments (5)

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  1. A reader says:

    There is an over sensitivity that is rampant in our culture and this article is a great example of it. Pussy is a vulgar word. As is snatch, dick, cock, clam, etc. Pussy has been used to objectify women. As has dick for men.

    But freedom is what you do with what has been done to you. Who cares about words? Pussy is a slang term. It flows off the lips much better than vagina. Most people use it as a reference. I’ve heard it more from women than I have from men.

    I guess the moral of my comment is please consider your sensitivity. Words are wind. They can sting, as rough winds do, but they don’t leave any scars. Bad things happen to us. Terrible things that leave real scars. We can be reminded by words, but we mustn’t let them define us, own us. We can’t let every word we hate lead us to hate or dislike others. It’s a cycle that has to end with us. Or else the hate continues.

    • Rhiannon Pabich Rhiannon Pabich says:

      Thank you so much for reading an for leaving such a thoughtful comment. By no means do I intend to equate offense with triggering of trauma, but I think it’s dangerous to suggest that language is “just wind.” Language can trigger deeply hurtful emotional pain that is equally valid and, moreover, language hints at larger societal trends. By normalizing degrading language, we normalize the attitudes and behavior that it represents/helps construct.
      I’m also wary of deeming someone else’s emotional reactions as “oversensitivity,” because what one person deems acceptable doesn’t necessary apply across the board.

      • Rhiannon Pabich Rhiannon Pabich says:

        Typing on a phone so forgive the typos and two-part response! I just also wanted to mention that I think it’s unfair to put the onus on the “over sensitive” types. I agree completely that the cycle needs to end, but I think it’s far more important to find middle ground, instead of just excusing questionable behavior.

  2. Meera W says:

    A friend of mine posted this on facebook, glad I read it. I totally feel you on Bo. He does say A LOT of things that can be taken offensively, but I watched ‘what.’ TWO TIMES. I though it was hilarious and thoughtful. I think there’s some attraction in his type of comedy. If someone can take words you hate and make them worth something, you kind of respect that. I think it might be a concern later on, if he “crosses the line” by using such language for different reasons. Right now, I’m still a supporter, and I hope he coontinues his comedy in the direction of making change. Awesome post!

  3. Sheridan Aspinwall Sheridan Aspinwall says:

    How is it that, every time I see an article that I can completely and wholly relate to, it ends up being Rhiannon’s? Sorcery. Must be sorcery.
    In any case, this is wonderful as always. Yay for Bo and word reclamation!

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