Samantha Bee, Ivanka Trump and the C word: Why is it so taboo?

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Samantha Bee has ignited a firestorm over her use of the C word. (Photo: Getty Images)

As if the country weren’t divided enough already, this past week a new pair of camps emerged: one that is pro-c*** and one that is con.

In case you missed it, the controversy over the derogatory word arose on Wednesday, when Samantha Bee, host of the provocative show Full Frontal, called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c***” as part of her opening monologue. Her words fired up a heated debate, with Bee apologizing, President Trump calling for Bee’s firing, and a slew of folks taking to social media with their own take on the slur.

On the left: Kathy Griffin, Sally Field, Paula Vogel, Minnie Driver, Celeste Ng, Rebecca Traister, and countless noncelebs, sympathetic to Bee while also attempting to reclaim the word.

Some in this camp have also pointed out the hypocrisy of the other camp, posting photos of Trump supporters wearing T-shirts with pictures of Hillary Clinton that say, “She’s a c***, vote for Trump…”

…and also pointing out the many times Trump has used the C word (as opposed to the P one) himself over the past three decades. Others have noted that Ted Nugent had also used the same word to refer to HRC, and was then invited to visit the White House.

And then, on the right: POTUS, Roseanne Barr, Sarah Palin, Megyn Kelly, Jeanine Pirro, and Trish Regan of Fox Business.

What is so particularly unnerving about this word — one that’s been deemed so terrible it must be written in this publication as “c***,” and one in which this writer and her many Yahoo Lifestyle colleagues have long known to be one of the most forbidden profanities in existence?

At least that’s the general opinion of the word in this country, while it’s much tamer and easily tossed about in places including the U.K., so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary added “c***y,” “c***ish,” “c***ed,” and “c***ing” to its heralded pages in 2014. Noted the Guardian (U.K.) on Saturday, “Another reason Americans are so uneasy with the word may be that it is more gendered in the U.S. than elsewhere. In the U.K. and Australia, the term is unisex. See for example, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: ‘He really is a c*** ay the first order.’ Or Samuel Beckett’s novel Malone Dies: “They think they can confuse me … Proper c***s whoever they are.”

The word is also used, lovingly, within U.S. drag culture, thanks to the many queens who have embraced the term, including RuPaul and longtime club star Kevin Aviance, who released the popular single “C***y (The Feeling)” back in 2006.

According to Melissa Mohr, author of Holy S***: A Brief History of Swearing, one of the reasons the word is seen as so offensive range is thanks to plain ol’ sexism.

“Where misogyny comes in is when you see that words like‘ ‘f***’ and ‘prick’ have largely lost the power they once had,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “And that’s because it’s worse to be called a vagina than it is to be called a penis, basically.”

The “worst” words, Mohr adds, are largely a reflection of what’s most taboo in a society, and she notes that early Latin had a specific curse word for clitoris — “landica,” which was a testament to the fact that, “for Romans, the clitoris was this huge taboo,” while today it doesn’t even specifically figure in to profane language.”

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, agrees that, because of misogyny, curse words referring to male anatomy do not carry with them as much contempt as the C word, or even “pussy.” Words like “dick” blame their targets for being particular types of men; in a patriarchal culture, being any type of women can be seen as a negative.

“C***” has taken on the ugliness of associations with the female organ, which associations with the male organ don’t have,” she explains.

Sally Field is a Samantha Bee fan who very cleverly criticized her use of the C word. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tannen also speculates that the sound of the word plays a role: its single syllable and hard “c” sound feel like a blow, unlike the two-syllable softness of a word like “pussy.”

According to the popular blog Whores of Yore of British writer Kate Lister, who has 167,000 Twitter followers, the etymology of “c***” is a bit of a mystery. “C*** is old. It’s so old that its exact origins are lost in the folds of time and etymologists continue to debate where in the c*** c*** comes from. It’s several thousand years old at least, and can be traced to the old Norse ‘kunta’ and proto-Germanic ‘kuntō’; but before that c*** proves quite elusive.”

But, she continues, “here is what we do know; it is the oldest word for female genitals in the English language (possibly the oldest in Europe). … Plus, c*** means the whole glorious goodie bag; inside and outside. C*** is the whole damn shebang. There’s no need to split pubic hairs when it comes to c***. Words like ‘vulva’ and ‘vagina’ are linguistic efforts to offer sanitized, medicalized alternatives to c***.”

Those are just some of the reasons that some women have made feminist arguments for reclaiming the C word — including, perhaps most poetically, playwright and activist Eve Ensler, whose famed theater piece The Vagina Monologues includes a character whose monologue begins, “I call it ‘c***.’ I’ve reclaimed it,” before going on to present a sexy verbal love letter to the term.

Inga Muscio, in the late ’90s, wrote an entire book on the history of the word and why it should be reclaimed. Nearly a decade ago, Laurie Penny wrote in the New Statesman, “There are no other truly empowering words for the female genitalia. Several years ago, Jezebel wondered, “Why do we let ‘cunt’ retain so much negative power? The only possible explanation is because so many people still think the worst crime a woman can commit is to be unapologetically sexual.”

On Friday, Katy Waldman wrote in the New Yorker along the same lines as Field’s famed (and largely lambasted) tweet: “‘C***’ makes of womanhood something repugnant,” she wrote, “and so does Ivanka, who embraces the shine and the softness of femininity at the same time that she rejects its bravery, love, and power.”

Which camp will win? Stay tuned.

Additional reporting by Cindy Arboleda.

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