Last week Jane Fonda made headlines for using the word "cunt" on the Today show. She was discussing The Vagina Monologues along with playscribe and antiviolence activist Eve Ensler, and it came up that the first monologue Fonda was ever asked to perform was called "Cunt," or more accurately, "Reclaiming Cunt," as my vintage '98 edition of the Monologues informs me.
The world being what it is, Fonda's name immediately became fodder, splashed every which way with an absurd variety of euphemisms for the diction Fonda so breezily uttered. We got "c**t," "the C-word," "the C-bomb," a "vulgar slang term," a "four-letter word for female genitalia," a "see-you-next-Tuesday slip," "the mother of all cuss words," a "naughty bad word" and, according to the Parents Television Council, "one of the most patently offensive words in the English language"--though I can certainly think of several that are more offensive: e.g., "Wife" and "Swap," or "Pussycat" and "Dolls."
NBC censored Fonda's interview during the West Coast screening, and Today anchor Meredith Vieira, once she unclenched her jaw, issued an on-screen apology, promising the show would never do anything to intentionally offend its audience.
Most folks, I imagine, are indeed offended by the word. They see "cunt" as vulgar and as just as degrading and reprehensible as the "N-word" or a swastika. However, such taboo language and symbols are not always, well, equally offensive.
There's a difference between hate speech and reclamation. And it's a shame Fonda was reprimanded for embracing the very outlook The Vagina Monologues, in all its pro-woman honesty and truth-seeking, rightly advances.
Fonda, ever the rad lady (we'll let Georgia Rule slide), told Us Magazine she thinks the hullabaloo is "silly," and she's right. It's not that "cunt" is a silly word; quite the opposite. Its power is awesome, liberating. If Atonement taught us anything other than how sexy James McAvoy is when dying of sepsis, it's that "cunt" can change lives, for better or worse. Much like its sibling "queer," "cunt" can be shocking. But channeled by the right person in the right context, it can feel like freedom.
What's silly is that Fonda can't say cunt on air in reference to repossessing a body part and a word that so long has been denied to women (the monologue itself incites audiences to chant "cunt" together, to feel the way it rolls off the tongue, and how potent and pleasurable its verbal and tactile experience can be). It's even sillier that "cunt" in this context is censored, while television is ripe with "sluts" and "bitches," strippers and hookers, mothers traded like hired help and 24-year-old "spinsters" competing for a chance at lifelong domesticity.
What's sad more than silly, though, is that all this salacious clamor around "cunt" has eclipsed what's really at stake with the Monologues and its accompanying V-Day campaign: eliminating violence against women and girls. With rape, incest, battery, female genital mutilation and sexual slavery going on, Fonda slipping "cunt" onto network TV should be the least of our concerns. Or maybe it's the beginning.