Thursday, May 12, 2011

Taking It Back?

Most everyone with an internet subscription has probably heard of SlutWalk by now.

It all began in January of this year, when a Toronto policeman told a group of ten young women that “I've been told I'm not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised."

Biggest "Police Fail" since Kill Bill.

The women were so (understandably) outraged at this betrayal of misogyny by those appointed to protect them, that they held a protest in Toronto on April 3, publicly condemning attitudes which blame and shame victims of sexual violence. They named it SlutWalk. Founders justified this decision in their online manifesto;

"Historically, the term ‘slut’ has carried a predominantly negative connotation. Aimed at those who are sexually promiscuous, be it for work or pleasure, it has primarily been women who have suffered under the burden of this label. And whether dished out as a serious indictment of one’s character or merely as a flippant insult, the intent behind the word is always to wound, so we’re taking it back. 'Slut' is being re-appropriated."

Change the word "slut" for the word "bitch", and you're left with a pretty reasonable explanation for the title of this blog. In naming it, and myself, Clever Bitch, I had hoped (perhaps naively) to preempt the most obvious epithet used to criticise opinionated females taking the wind out of its sails and the sting out of its tail. Yes, the writer of this blog is a Bitch. She's takin' it back.

Yet, while I thought of this move as empowering, an entire subsection of women resent the move to re-claim misogynist language. Not all participants in SlutWalk are advocates of reclaiming the word for our own use. Some march in outright hatred of the word, and refusal to accept that their dress or behaviour should warrant such a label. For them, reclamation of hate-speech is dangerously close to self-hate.

"Why stoop to their level?", asked a friend. "What can we have to gain in taking on the language that has been used to oppress us? If we start to normalise and identify with words like 'slut' or 'skank', in the end we just devalue ourselves."

She may have a point. Indeed, it can be argued that our reclamation of hate-language can work to feed, rather than undermine its legitimacy. Society may have been largely rid of the sickening racial epithet "nigger" by now, were it not for the African American community "taking it back". Despite the way the word is thrown around self-referentially by rappers, it doesn't appear to have lost any of its sting in an inter-racial context. Vis a vis, the world of shit that rained down upon comedian Michael Richards when he taunted a largely-black audience with the 'N' word.

"Taking it back" doesn't always work.

There is, however, a definite potential for the reclamation of hate speech. Take the word "queer", originally an adjective, which in a few short decades has morphed into the proud adjectival noun, "Queer". If the gay community can do it, can women do it too?

I have a dream...

Slutwalk will be held in Newtown, Sydney on 13 June.

Do you think that hate-speech can be effectively reclaimed and re-purposed by women? Or are we selling ourselves out?

1 comment:

  1. I personally ascribe to the group that doubts the any "re-claiming" movements to truly succeed. Has anyone ever truly succeeded at this? Meanings of words usually evolve; when someone tries to make a leap forward (I'm thinking of the beginning of the first X-Men movie now), it only makes the public think of the actual/primary meaning even more and the small-minded people who use it as an insult to apply their meaning even more. The attempt to re-claim can become a thing to ridicule, like Gretchen in Mean Girls who tried to make "fetch" happen. It also opens very problematic gray areas. Can an biracial or light-skinned black person say "nigger" without consequence? How about a male feminist calling a woman "slut"? Can men complain when they are called a "dickhead" since it's an insult that can only be applied to men in most instances?

    The only rational thing that my religion teacher in high school said is, "The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love and hate is apathy." To truly rob a word of its power, be it misogynist, racist, or homophobic, is to not care if you're called it. The best way to disappoint people who want to shock is to look their way and shrug disinterestedly when they do their outrageous thing. The words themselves have no power, they only bring up the painful histories that they are part of: "nigger" brings up slavery, Jim Crow, segregation; "queer" brings up religious rhetoric, sodomy laws, homosexuality as a medical/psychiatric illness; "slut" brings up the long history of controlling women by regulating their sexuality by moral/religious/legal means.

    While queer has been successfully claimed by academia and is itself a designation on the sexuality continuum, it's still an insult to many people, especially when applied to people who don't self-identify as queer. Furthermore, by many definitions of "queer", it is an identity that is exactly what accusers mean when they use it. When some bigot calls a person queer, they mean deviant or immoral, to which the queer person replies, "Yeah, isn't it great?" Queer is embracing Otherness, which makes it unique compared to other insulting words. If one was to reclaim "slut" or "nigger" what would the new words look like, what would they mean in comparison to their predecessors?