Friday, May 20, 2011

Reclaim the lexis? (continued from yesterday)

‘I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses’ (Lyrics by Jerry Herman)

The debate about SlutWalk’s use of the word ‘slut’ seems to be largely centred around ‘reclaiming’ words and whether it is possible to ‘reclaim’ the word ‘slut’. I think it is not possible. But let’s just think a little about how words are ‘reclaimed’ and why that is not a useful term for this particular action.

Language is fluid, and changing. Words that meant one thing fifty years ago (‘queen’, ‘fuck’, ‘housewife’) now are used in a completely different way. Language reflects the dominant discourse yet is constantly subject to reinterpretation, subjectivity and subversion. And semiology has shown us that while the word itself may remain constant, its meaning can change each time it is used, for different people, registers and contexts. Nonetheless, to use a word in its generally accepted way is to wield the power of that word’s meaning. Thus the word ‘immigrant’ currently carries negative connotations which reflect the power of anti-immigration politics and a racist media.

‘I am my own special creation’
So can words be reclaimed? Well, to reclaim something it has to once have been yours. A good example of this is the word ‘communism’, a word which many of SlutWalk’s critics wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Tainted by Stalinism and perceived as outdated since the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘communism’ has become a negative word for many. An acquaintance from Lithuania once scolded my friend for wearing a badge advocating communism, saying ‘If you grew up like I did, you wouldn’t want to advertise communism’. But communism is older than Marx and Engels, and has undergone many changes in meaning. Yes, it’s semantics, but the three main organisations still daring to use the word in the UK today differ largely in when they choose to cement the evolution of the word: at which point they feel its meaning was hijacked by ‘non-communists’. (An interesting subject about which I have no intention of blogging in the near future) It’s impossible to freeze the evolution of language, but it is possible to reclaim a word by defining it yourself against the dominant discourse. You also have to remember that our Lithuanian friend’s experience of the word and its meaning retains a certain validity, because what he experienced was called ‘communism’. The only way to prove him wrong is to not just reclaim but rebuild the meaning of communism. And I for one would like to see a revival of the word which takes into account that communism is not repression and mass-murder in Soviet Russia, just as Islam is not terrorism and savings are not cuts.

‘Feminism’ has undergone a still more complex process of reclamation, one where no immediate resolution seems likely, as it has become possible to identify politically as a feminist from positions across the whole political spectrum. How to solve this? Well, because of the constantly changing and layered nature of meaning in language there is no easy answer. Instead, we have to define our terms carefully, respect others even when they are wrong, and hope like hell to be able to use our word constructively before it becomes reabsorbed into the discourse by those same bastards who want to constrict women’s rights and silence their voices. Unfortunately, this means inevitable conflict with radical feminism, liberal feminism and most difficult of all, ‘choice’ feminism, a fascinating new way of removing all theory whatsoever from the meaning of the word feminism in order to let women (or at least, those wealthy and fortunate enough to do so) enjoy their choice to wear high-heels, to get married, to drink chardonnay and to diet. ‘Choice’ feminism is a great example of how a word can be politically neutralised.

‘It’s my world, that I want to have a little pride in’
So far so good: reclamation is possible, though loaded and risky. But it is not the same for all words: for example a word that never belonged to you in the first place. Yesterday I thought of ‘bitch’ and ‘nigger’, both words that historically described one group of people, became extremely derogatory, and have been used in different ways by the people they describe as a positive action towards changing the meaning. Let’s just think about ‘bitch’.
Q: What’s the difference between a ‘bitch’ and a ‘slut’?
A: You’re a bitch.
Offended? If you know me, you’re probably not. Because within my limited circle, the person who uses the last milk is a bitch. The person who jumps up to make their partner a cup of tea (male or female) is often jokingly called their bitch. Long, considerate conversations about our friend’s problems between my best friend and me were commented on by her mother: ‘Bitch, bitch, bitch. Don’t you girls have anything nice to talk about?’ I can see problems with the word bitch, but I use it frequently and I’d be a liar if I said otherwise.
Since yesterday, Woodscolt suggested:
I think a word like bitch is worth reclaiming because it's so often used by sexists to condemn positive, desirable qualities like being an angry woman or an outspoken woman.
I think she’s got a point, but I differ with her in one way: semantics again. We’re not reclaiming. We’re using the word in a number of satirical and subversive ways. On one hand we subvert it by mocking it, and by applying it equally to men and women. And on the other hand, even when we’re subverting it we are also reaffirming its dominant meaning, because we have to acknowledge that meaning in order to use it in a funny way. But as Woodscolt suggests, ‘bitch’ is loaded with good and bad things. If I criticise my man, I’m a bitch. If I speak up in a situation where women are supposed to be silent, I’m a bitch. If I’m a fighter, I’m a bitch. That’s great, and positive. But I don’t think you can reclaim something you never had, and don’t necessarily particularly want. Rather I would call this subversion, because it plays on the word’s established meaning in order to question it.

'Slut' does not carry this rebellious side. Rather, it’s often used in porn titles to convey a kind of highly sexualised submission. (I just googled porn and slut so you don’t have to: sample title ‘Watch Porn Slut Melanie Big Breasted Cocktease’.) At the same time, although I’ve heard lots of ‘slapper’ jokes, even about my own sexual behaviour - ‘Ask Francie, she’s a big fat slapper’ (I can’t recall finding that offensive, btw) – I only ever hear 'slut' about real people in an extremely derogatory or extremely sexual context. Woodscolt is right: there is no reason to ‘reclaim’ this deeply offensive word.

‘And so what if I love each sparkle and each spangle’
‘Slut’ (like slapper, slag, tart and many other similar words) also buys into the whore/virgin dichotomy (in brief: there are some girls you fuck and others you marry), which is at least as old as the three Marys in the New Testament. I reject this dichotomy as one of the most harmful to women in society, especially to their right to express their sexuality and to choose their family life not based on this. This harmful dichotomy is preserved by the policing of what women wear and how they act in public and private. And it’s this lie that leads idiots like the police officer who started this whole debate to say
“Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” 
For him, women are either dressed like sluts or not. They are either likely to be raped or not. They are either ‘whores’, essentially, or ‘virgins’.

So we need to reject the dichotomy entirely. Especially since it doesn’t allow a clear view or a reclamation of these words that are so bound up with it. We can’t take back ‘slut’; nor do we wish to. Even within the feminist criticism of SlutWalk, there’s difference of opinion about what it means and how we can relate it to ourselves. One person talks about sexuality:
I can’t be a slut because I sleep with women, not men, so I don’t have that relationship with sexualising my appearance according to heterosexual norms, 
and another connects it to how women dress and view their bodies:
I don’t identify with reclaiming the word ‘slut’ not because I am not sexual or believe that women should not have the space to express their sexuality, but instead, because, I have never been called a slut, nor would be perceived as one, because my body and sexuality is a ‘failure’ in these terms.
So even within the feminist debate, and with the reservation that we are discussing wrong external perceptions, there is an idea that it is possible to decide who would be a successful slut and who wouldn’t.

We can’t reclaim ‘slut’, but we can struggle for an end to this harmful division. Part of this means readdressing the way women perceive each other. Every day I become more and more certain that ‘choice feminism’ has caused harm by claiming there are no controls and no limits on feminist women’s appearance and social behaviour. We shouldn’t police each other. But we shouldn’t forget that our clothing choices, body image and social behaviour always carry meaning and messages, whether we like it or not. It is up to us to extract what parts of this are useful and affirming, and what are dangerous, socially imposed and dishonest. So I welcome more debate about these things, sometimes seen as no longer relevant within feminism: how much can we stop being judged by our social appearance and image? How much does it matter? Are there certain practices we should reject or criticise (I can’t think of any)? And how can we create an open space for women to debate how they look and what they do in their own language, not the language of ‘sluts and virgins’?

‘Why not try to see things from a different angle’
Nonetheless, I think the use of the word ‘slut’ for this demonstration was the right thing to do, and should continue to be used. Again, we are not reclaiming, but subverting, and subversion brings out the irony in the whole ‘Don’t dress like a slut/ don’t get raped’ paradox. It’s ridiculous! It’s nonsensical! It’s madness! And it has victims every day, not just in Toronto but everywhere. These are not just people who are raped, but people who are unfairly treated because they fall into either the ‘slut’ or the ‘virgin’ pigeonhole: or like my friend above, they are unfairly treated because they fall into neither. We can use this demonstration to call attention to the glaring injustice that props up the patriarchal system, and the name SlutWalk highlights the contradictory nature of this system.

In the student demonstrations of May ’68, the slogan ‘Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands’ (We are all German Jews) had a mixed reception. The post-war generation was insisting that they too were victims of the Holocaust. They had grown up twenty-five years later, in a world that refused to acknowledge it or accept guilt for having created it. They saw that nothing had fundamentally changed in the societies that allowed the Holocaust to happen.

And then certain rightwing critics said the students were dishonouring the six million Jews who were murdered. I say they weren’t: I say this was a striking means of demonstrating solidarity, and understanding that respect for victims is best expressed through struggle for change. Until we can get rid of ‘sluts’ (and virgins) let us shove ‘slut’ back in their faces until they too are filled with shame at the violence and spite contained within its meaning. Let’s shout it loud: ‘If we are sluts, that is because you perceive us as sluts. But we are going to change all of that soon, so don’t get too comfortable.'

Tomorrow: Open to all Comers: SlutWalk and Inclusion.


Frances Grahl said...

Oh yeah, when I said 'tomorrow' I meant Thursday. Have to do some revision at some point.

Anonymous said...

This is a truly excellent dissection of the issues, and I whole-heartedly agree. Thank you for taking the time to express some of my (more nascent) feelings on the matter.

Frances Grahl said...

Thank you!