Recently, I spiced up a blog (2/2/2017) with a little alphabet profanity: WTF. A couple of readers chuckled and seemed surprised that I either knew or would use the expression. I may have been a school teacher at one time, but life in the Labor movement and in politics gave me a rich vocabulary. I do know, however, that too many cuss words desensitize the eyes and ears. Such words should be used judiciously, as salt to flavor to plain language.
For most of our literary history, swear words, like hairy chests, have been the province of men. A woman who crossed into that territory was vulnerable to charges impropriety. As Elaine Showalter chronicles in a recent essay, female writers have been subject to censorship for decades. Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had to change her line, “shut your fuckin’ trap,” to “shut your lousy trap,” for example. Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, A Garden of Earthly Delight was heavily edited for expletives. She was able to restore the text, later, when it appeared in a new edition of Modern Library. (“Figures of Speech,” by Elaine Showalter, Town&Country, March 2017, pg. 216.) Malcolm Cowley, writer and literary critic, touched upon this double standard in his testimony during the US obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Profanity, he said, was the “secret language of men.. which no woman is supposed to know…unless she has been… utterly degraded.” (Ibid pg. 216)
There can be no wickedness without purity, I suppose, which may be why women writers have been held to a different standard than their male counterparts. No sniggering pleasure can exist if, as Norman Mailer remarked, there was no “secret language of men.” Locker room banter, we are led to believe, is the glue of male bonding.
The joke is on men, of course. Women have shared this secret language for ages. Creep into any college dormitory where girls gather for a midnight glass of wine, and you will hear that “secret language” flow freely, like water down a gutter. Every knows improper words. I did as a child. How could I not? My father was a sailor.
Donald Trump’s locker room tape didn’t upend his election because everyone is aware this talk exists. Perhaps the time has come to be rid of the double standard. If everyone is privy to the language, let us rid ourselves of the illusion it is secret. Men, women and yes, even children, are capable of wallowing in glorious mud. ( Mud Song, Click)
(Originally published 2/15/17)