I was just directed to this article at Nerve by Hugh Ryan, called By Any Other Name: How My LGBT Students Taught Me to Love a Forbidden Word. You should know, before heading over and/or reading further here, that it’s about the C-word. A word that a lot of us as women, and as feminists, have problems with. And for good reason.
I’ll say up front that unlike the author, I did not like the Inga Muscio’s book Cunt. Well, honestly, I never finished it, and I hardly ever put a book down. But once I got past the indication that menstrual cramps are all in our minds (excuse me?) and the declaration that women who use hormonal birth control — women like me — don’t really know their bodies, suffice it to say that I was done. It was a shame, because I was hoping to be able to “reclaim” a word that has often felt painful to me. And I know that some people really do like the book, and that’s fine. But it sure as hell was not the avenue for me.
And I’m also skeptical of this article on many levels, too.
The writer is seemingly a cisgender male writing about how his trans female students taught him to love a word that is usually used in misogynistic ways. That’s not to say that he can’t possibly write with intelligence on feminist issues — I’ve seen numerous men do exactly that — but that even as he has lived in a society where “cunt” is a grave insult and means something disgusting, as a man he has never been forced to absorb the full impact and meaning of that on his own personhood. And that makes me uncomfortable, when at the end of the piece he describes now casually using the word among friends. Reclaiming a word has always struck me as something that ought to entirely be the domain of the people who the word has been used to oppress.
And though I’m far less qualified to say, I’d at least like to believe that it’s possible for cis people to write with intelligence on trans issues. But I also see some significant problems with how he presents his trans students in the article. First, I think there’s an issue throughout the piece with equating “trans girl/woman” with “desperately pining for a vagina,” which is demonstrably untrue.
And I felt that there was some serious objectification of his trans female protagonist, Diamond, going on in the very first paragraph, with the sentence:
Her breasts she’d also gotten on the cheap — hormones from shady doctors or birth-control pills stolen from female relatives — but she knew how to work all those fakes into a real package
First of all, what’s it matter where she “got” her boobs? As a cis woman, no one’s ever talked about where I “got” mine. Secondly, who the hell is to say that they’re “fake,” like the fake Louis Vuitton purse he just finished describing? Who gets to decide “real”? I can’t be the only one who finds it highly offensive to compare another person’s body to a cheap, knock-off accessory. And third, what the fuck is the “she knew how to work it” bullshit? She’s a high school girl, and his fucking student. And why the hell wouldn’t she know how to make her own body look good? Most importantly of all, why the assumption that he has a right to talk about her breasts at all? I find all of that to be wildly presumptuous, objectifying and inappropriate.
But. I’d be lying if I said that by the time I got to the end of this essay, I didn’t quite appreciate the overarching conclusion. And despite the serious and notable flaws in this piece of writing, I found myself quite taken with the knowledge that the word could and sometimes is used as a supreme compliment, and especially the line “I wish I lived in a world where cunt only meant beautiful.”
So do I. What a radically different world I have to believe it’d be. I’m sad we don’t live there, and I’m extremely in love with the idea that the place might exist somewhere.
The more I think about the article, the more I find to dislike. But I still can’t help but love the conclusion, and the event that got him to it.
So, what do you think — both about this highly imperfect piece, and “the word” itself?
[Note: transphobia will obviously (I hope) be a topic of discussion in this thread, but comments which are actually transphobic will be deleted. That includes those which might claim that the misogyny surrounding the word “cunt” does not impact trans women. And yes, I’m sad that I felt obligated to write this note.]
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