What to Do With Pussy (the Word, That Is) After Trump's Election

Alessandra DeCristofaro

Now that it has been plastered in headlines and debated on CNN, should women reclaim the vulgar term? Female humor writers prognosticate — and curse "the brief and terrible reign of 'vajayjay.'"

On Oct. 7, 2016, I sat slack-jawed, staring at the front page of The New York Times. That's how powerful the paper's international coverage of the crisis in … no, no. Just kidding. That was the day the headlines were dominated by those infamous audio tapes featuring then-GOP candidate Donald Trump as he detailed his unusually aggressive approach to flirtation. It also was the first time, to my knowledge, that the front page of the nation's most venerable news source printed two of George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words without asterisks: f— and tits! And those were just bread crumbs leading to everyone's favorite piece of witch's gingerbread house: paragraph five, containing the now immortal quote: "Grab 'em by the pussy."

As our nation sets out in search of a way to integrate the frequently coarse verbal tendencies of Mr. Trump into the traditionally polished category of "presidential" speech, it seems like a good time to confront another thorny question: Whither "pussy"?

Though it's no longer trending, by now every journalist and commenter over the age of 6 has used the word publicly. So has it joined the pantheon of formerly taboo terms — like dick and ballsack — that have been neutered by pop culture references and comedy punchlines? Or has it been lifted, by virtue of being our president-elect's preferred term for vagina, to a kind of nouveau elegance? Might women now want to reclaim the word from its previously smutty context for their own exclusionary use, the way some black Americans have reclaimed the N-word and LGBTQs have reclaimed queer? I decided to check in with a group of my fellow feminist humor writers to see where we, as a touchy and generally pissed-off group, are politically with pussy these days.

The very definition makes it a difficult word to embrace. Merriam-Webster gives its first meaning as "cat" and its second as "(vulgar) vulva"; the remaining two meanings are "full of pus" and "a wimp, a weak man."

Regarding the definition in focus here, "I'd always assumed the etymology was that a man mistook a cat for a vagina and raped it," says raconteur Sarah Thyre, co-host of the Crybabies podcast. Writer Caissie St. Onge believes pussy's anatomical meaning more likely "came about as a comparison between one warm, furry (independent, untrustworthy) thing and another."

Julieanne Smolinski, a writer and philanthropist who is on record as hating "the brief and terrible reign of 'vajayjay' as much as the next person," says she doesn't like using the word. "And I don't really know any women who do, even from a 'reclaim it' sense. Even when women use it in porn, they sound tentative and remorseful. It's just straight-up bad-sounding, both reminiscent of 'pus' and uncomfortably juvenile. It sort of lets men communicate that they like heterosexual sex but don't necessarily like women."

Stand-up comedian Eliza Skinner cautiously embraces the word, at least in her act. "I guess it feels like a scary, disruptive term, and if dudes are going to use it, I am definitely going to use it when I have a mic," she says. "I don't want to make my female audience uncomfortable, but I totally want to make my male audience uncomfortable. It seems like a novel experience for them." She keeps it to the stage, however: "I only use it theoretically, not personally, and not casually. I'm never going to tell my pals I'm going to the doctor to get my pussy checked."

Kera Bolonik, executive editor of Dame magazine, agrees that "it really does depend on context. [The word] almost always takes on a very different tone when a man is using it in public and can feel like a betrayal and worse." Comedian/producer Sue Kolinsky (Top Chef, Last Comic Standing) sums it up tidily. "Not a fan," she says. "I'm more of a hoo-ha kind of a girl."

Of course, the results of my extremely unofficial poll are not necessarily representative of the population at large. Though it remains to be seen whether the president-elect's favorite terminology now will make its way into the mainstream, it's probably safe to predict that its usage as an insult will endure — particularly in light of Mr. Trump's continuing complaints about his portrayal on Saturday Night Live, which offer Merriam-Webster the opportunity to print a picture of the 45th president of the United States next to the fourth dictionary definition of the word "pussy" as a legendary example.

St. Onge has another word for Trump. "I think he's a taint," she says. "Tender. Peculiarly haired. Not good for much."

This story first appeared in the 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

 

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