Pussy Is Having a Moment

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 28 2012 8:45 AM

Pussy Is Having a Moment

YouTube sensations reclaim the word, while stodgy old papers like the New York Times actually print it.  

Pussy Riot.
Pussy Riot is the Russian feminist punk-rock group based in Moscow who staged an illegal performance, described as a “punk prayer”

Igor Mukhin via wikiamedia.org

Say what you will about all of the media attention that the incarcerated Russian punk collective Pussy Riot has generated in the West. Whether you think they’re martyrs, hooligans, or just savvy performance artists with a meme-ready message, one thing is certain: They got a lot of people saying the word pussy.

To censor or not to censor? That’s one question that the much-publicized trial of three members of the feminist collective, Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, forced American media outlets to grapple with. In some cases, as Amanda Holpunch points out in the Guardian, the flip-flop was speedy and visible: In July, the L.A. Times referred to the women as “members of a feminist punk group with a profane name,” but by August they were printing “Pussy Riot.” The New York Times, arguably the old guard when it comes to newspaper standards, should have been counted on to print some well-deployed asterisks, but they instead put the band’s full name on the front page. Network TV has been a little more cautious. A segment on NBC’s Today referred to the group as “the punk rock girl band, whose name we can't say on morning television.” More often than not, though, the word has showed up uncensored. When I saw that my local ABC affiliate in D.C. was photographing an Aug. 10 Pussy Riot solidarity concert across from the Russian Embassy, I wondered what sort of euphemistic contortions might appear in the likely conservative coverage. But actually, WJLA just called it like they saw it: “Pussy Riot.”

So the stodgy old news outlets turned out to be less stodgy than expected. Now a follow-up question: Is this sudden cultural acceptance of a word that has never had many positive connotations for women empowering?

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“What’s funny is that I really hate the word pussy. I hate it!” Shawna Potter, the frontwoman of Baltimore hardcore band War on Women told me a few days after her band headlined the aforementioned Pussy Riot solidarity concert. “And I hate it because it means something weak.”

True, that unparalleled barometer of modern usage, Urban Dictionary, paints a bleak picture of pussy: It’s defined either as a term for a “cowardly” male (“He didn’t jump, he [was] too much of a pussy!”) or a rather dehumanizing word that reduces women to faceless herds of sexy cattle (“Dude, we are totally gonna get some pussy tonight!”). Like most slang terms for female genitalia (see also: cunt), though, pussy used to be a neutrally connoted synonym for “woman” or “girl.” The English writer Phillip Stubbs noted in his 1583 treatise on manners, The Anatomie of Abuses, that "the word pussie is now used of a woman,” and an entry in the 1913 edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines it as “an endearing name for a girl.” The “cowardly man” meaning is derived from another source entirely, the Latin pusillanimous. Over time, these words must have bled into one another, and the multiple definitions of pussy became yet another linguistic suggestion of feminine weakness.

One of the revolutionary projects of the riot grrrl movement of the early ’90s was to reclaim diminutive and derogatory words. From adding a string of growling consonants to the petite epithet girl to confronting the connotations of the word slut, riot grrrls pioneered a frenzy of linguistic salvage jobs that remains controversial today. Leading this charge was the band Bikini Kill, whose frontwoman Kathleen Hanna famously used to perform with the word SLUT scrawled across her stomach, and which christened its 1993 debut album with a provocative title: Pussy Whipped.

Post-riot grrrl, efforts to recontextualize pussy have dwindled—until this year. And while Pussy Riot may have been the force that drove this over the edge, there have been several other—if less widely publicized—instances in 2012 of female musicians asking listeners to confront and rethink the word.

First there was divisive rapper/viral sensation Iggy Azaela (2 million views and rising), who dropped a single called “PU$$Y” back in January. The 22-year-old Australian emcee has said she’s out to “make people question and redefine old ideals,” and no matter what you think of her highly stylized, in-your-face aesthetic, it’s hard to deny that “PU$$Y” does just that. The hook is all about reclamation through repetition, a male automaton voice sputtering “Pussy/ pussy/ pussy,” until the word passes through that phase where it ceases to mean anything and then perhaps means something entirely new.

Then there’s the Montreal-based electro artist Grimes, the one-woman project of 24-year-old Claire Boucher. Her new video “Genesis” has racked up a million and a half views since it premiered last week, and it features—among many other wonderfully bizarre images—Boucher brandishing a sword while sporting a trucker hat that says “PUSSY.” It’s an image of feminine strength, but also a bit of self-branding: This year, Boucher launched a line of vagina-shaped jewelry called—what else?—Pussy Rings.

“I feel like vaginas don’t need to be scary, and they don’t need to be a curse word,” Boucher recently told MTV Hive when asked about the line. “Every dressing room I’m ever in has penises drawn on the walls, and touring is so dick-dominated that I just want to be like, ‘Here’s a fucking vagina.’ It’s also a very sexual object that’s removed from a person so [on the ring] it’s kind of desexualized and emphasizes the beauty of the organism in the biological and abstract and presents it as art.”

Of course, Azalea’s and Boucher’s messages aren’t directly connected to Pussy Riot, but they, along with rappers like Azaelia Banks, who’s leading a charge to rethink the word cunt, still feel all of a piece. Harbingers of a generation of young female artists ready to co-opt language that in the past has been used to objectify, weaken, and dehumanize all things feminine.

This aim is what has the somewhat reluctant Potter on board. “If anyone in America will somehow start to associate a little more strength with the word pussy because of [Pussy Riot],” she told me, “then I’d be fine with that word.”

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