Months ago, I got taken to task by a commenter for cussing in a post. I wrote a response explaining how I felt about “obscene” language–in this case, she objected to my use of the f-word–and why I sometimes use it. That commenter said that I “denigrated myself” by swearing. I’m reasonably sure she would not have said that to a male blogger. After all, it’s a woman’s job to be a civilizing influence and make the world a nicer place. If we start cussing and ranting like men, it’ll be the downfall of society, right?
Nearly every patriarchial society–which is to say, just about every human society–buys into this. For example, there’s a saying in Russia that “when a woman speaks mat“–a unique, extremely profane Russian slang–“Christ’s wounds open.” Even Shakespeare got in on the act; his King Lear praised the faithful, much-abused Cordelia by saying “Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in a woman,” a line that may give some insight into why his other daughters, Regan and Goneril, hated Lear so much.
I got this message early. Growing up, anytime I said something snarky, negative or–God forbid–profane, I’d be chided by my father, usually with a heavy sigh and “Becky, you’re too much,” or “Why can’t you be nicer?” It was the Love Song of J.Daddy Sharper. (MamaSharper did not do this, but my parents had separate households and very separate beliefs on how daughters should be raised.) His three sons were WAY nastier, cuss-ier and more argumentative than me, but, of course, boys will be boys, so they were never scolded the way I was.
That childhood experience was an early initiation into the double standard that governs how women should speak versus how men should speak. And that same double standard was part of the reason we named our website the “Pursuit of Harpyness”; we wanted to give the anti-feminists out there a kick in the balls and reclaim the word “harpy,” the same way our feminist sisters at Bitch Magazine reclaimed that word. There’s such a pervasive, pernicious social pressure for women to NOT be harpies. Don’t be shrill. Don’t be nasty. Don’t question authority. Be nice. Be sweet. Don’t be angry, or at least don’t sound angry.
Well, fuck that.
Men get to be as loud, or angry, or crass as they want. That’s their privilege, and often, they don’t even recognize it as such. They are usually also blind to many, many ways in which women are denied this privilege, and–often unconsciously–take it upon themselves to keep enforcing the sexist status quo.
Case in point: last week I was having an IM conversation with a male friend. I treat him like all my friends–i.e. I talk with him the same way I do on this site. I’m not a Sunday-school teacher and he knows it. Now, this dude claims to like having a female friend with whom he can talk openly about things like sex and relationships. But several times in the past few months, when my words been as graphic as his, he’ll say “You know, I really hate the way you talk about sex.” That is, he wants to initiate the topic, but I have to keep my responses ladylike and non-threatening. He works in the sports world and we’ve had some pretty raunchy conversations, so I’m not buying that he has delicate sensibilities–he just wants me to have them. When he pulled this on me for the umpteenth time, I lost my temper. A heated confrontation ensued, with him saying I was “coarse” and the way I talked “just didn’t work” for him. I got up on my soapbox and delivered the Feminist Lecture Series about the double standard, finally telling him that if he didn’t like it, he was welcome to stop talking to me. A few minutes later, fuming, I was staring at my Facebook page. Then did something I’d never done before: I decided to BE A BITCH in my status update.
I wrote: Becky Sharper is tired of being scolded for the way I talk. You dudes can go fuck yourself with your double standards.
Classy? No. But it hit a nerve with a lot of people. I was absolutely shocked by how many responses I got to that status update–more than 20–and how vehemently people felt about it A sampling:
From high school friend Nicole: I have been told recently by a male “superior” that all 5’3 120 pounds of me is scary and offensive yet I have never raised my voice,engaged in an argument or cursed-only been professional & to the point. I guess in some (weirdo environments) if you are intelligent & take your work seriously and are not acting silly, constantly laughing & acting ignorant that is somehow threatening? Being “sweet as pie” did not get me where I am today &certainly doesn’t get the job done…I think I’ll keep my “tone” and am with you on them “fucking themselves”
From writer friend Leslie: Talk however the fuck you want to! I swear like a longshoreman and my husband is always trying to mollify my epithets. I say screw it!
From high school (male) friend Matt: People always want smiles and cheer, and I think women are subjected to this standard much more than men.
From New York friend Abby: What IS the deal with this? I have also been told that I am intimidating. Why? Because I don’t talk like a little girl? Being direct is still supposed to be a man thing
From college friend Susan: But I bet they never apologize when they swear in front of you. (No, Susan, they don’t! Good point!)
There’s (a lot) more, but you get the picture. So many of my female friends–of all races, ages and backgrounds–piled on about how often we face this kind of sexist speech/behavior policing, and how deeply angry we are about it.
Now, I don’t think you should go nuclear in your next office meeting–there’s a proper time and a place for everything, including being a bitch. But the next time someone tries to silence your inner harpy, it’s okay to call them on the double standard. I think so many men–and women–have absorbed this “women must be nice” message that they often reinforce it without thinking. If the language police come for you, let them Get Told once in a while. It’ll be good for them, and for you.