Monday, July 9, 2012

On "Pussies" and Public Meltdowns

"Doesn't it get tiring?" my sister asked, in one of our ongoing quasi-hostile debates about sexism and heterosexism and how much or how little one should talk about it. "To be policing people all the time?"

Igniting this particular version of the debate was a comment our brother's girlfriend, C, had made. C jokingly referred to herself as a "pussy" because she was tentative about doing something. I gave my usual response, "What's wrong with pussies?" And went on to explain that vaginas are actually pretty powerful and resilient, and if we're going to use any genitalia as a synonym for weak and easily hurt, I would like to nominate the penis instead.

Sometimes it's hard for me to tell if I am being enlightening or insufferable.

And the answer to her question is yes, it does get tiring. And yes, it is sometimes scary to know I am entering a field extremely personal to me. In addition to campus-wide education, the centerpiece of my job will be supporting female and LGBTQ college students in their quest to understand themselves, be happy, and recognize which limitations are real and which are imposed by others and societal norms. Which is essentially what I am trying to figure out for myself every day.

Gender and sexuality social justice work is not work you can turn off, laying it to rest at the end of the day. For example, while in a luggage shop searching for a handsome leather briefcase, I was asked by a staff person why a woman was looking at the "old man bags" and soon after all three staff members gathered together at the front window to make fun of a man with a pink mohawk. If you can't conform, you are a freak, these salespeople were telling me. A simple errand became infuriating and depressing.

What saves me from rants in public places and daily feelings of hopelessness is my belief in the ripple effect. While I am all for grand gestures like civil disobedience and media campaigns and the like, I believe that small respectful exchanges are the way to lasting change and equality. Even at the risk of some people finding you insufferable.

C told me later that my pussy comment made her think. And it may just be that the next time she needs a word to describe weakness, she might say "weakness" and leave gender out of it. And it may just be that the next time someone uses "pussy" in a derogatory way, she doesn't laugh. And perhaps two years from now, she'll let her friends know that she only ever wants hear "pussy" when talking about a cat from the 1920s or as a synonym for "awesome."


  1. Thanks very much for this, Judy. I've been thinking about how to incorporate feminism into teaching, especially during class discussions, and am trying to confront my own hesitance in the face of adolescent eye-rolls, attitude, and "What's the big deal?" confrontations. Talking openly about the influence of language -- and demonstrating respectful ways of questioning sexist vocabulary -- has a unique impact on students; just as much, I think, as teaching them about, say, suffrage or second-wave feminism. I'll be keeping your post in mind this year. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you for your note Catherine, and I definitely agree that historical and contemporary uses of language are important to delve into, or at the very least, not ignore. And I would love to hear what you find to be effective in engaging teenagers on these topics this year...keep me posted!

  2. Hey Judy! I was wondering, have you seen "Beasts of the Southern Wild" yet? ( It's a beautiful film starring an impeccably strong 6 year old girl learning to survive, but they use the word "Pussies" and "Pussy" all the time! If you ever get a chance to see it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

    1. Hey Tiff! I haven't seen the film but the trailer is amazing, I will definitely have to check it out, especially in light of this discussion, should be interesting!