The Dallas Voice‘s Arnold Wayne Jones is enamored of Bill Maher’s recent appearance at Dallas’ Winspear Opera House, wherein the comedian’s “fearlessness” came out in most notably in the very brave stance he took with regard to Sarah Palin. During his show, Maher (fearlessly? one presumes.) called the conservative icon a “cunt.”
“There’s just no other word for her,” Jones reports Maher saying.
Actually, there are some other words for her. Liar. Jerk. Willfully ignorant hypocrite. Self-righteous mouthpiece. Wholly unqualified former occupant of an important political office. Narcissist. Of course, those words all have to do with Palin’s thoughts and actions, and not with her anatomy, so that is a problem if the main idea you’re trying to get across is that you’re a man, and therefore important, and she’s a woman, and therefore, well, a cunt.
If you’re a privileged white dude who wants to exert figurative power over a female without doing any intellectual heavy lifting and relying entirely on sadly timeless narratives about gendered behavior, violence and assault, I guess, there really is no other word for Palin than “cunt.” Because what the word “cunt” does is remind the audience that mostly, Palin is female, and that mostly, Maher is the powerful kind of man who can put her in her place with a single word. Cunt. (I’m talking specifically about American use, here–I believe the word works somewhat differently in British English.)
Cunt is a gendered insult. Perhaps that’s obvious. Perhaps it’s less obvious that when an angry, American white male comedian chooses that word, he’s not a joker hilariously cracking on the politician Sarah Palin. He’s a man of power and privilege–performing for an audience of hundreds in the city’s newest, most beautiful performance space–calling on an ages-old story that reinforces his status and denigrates hers, not because she’s a crappy politician, but because she is female. When privileged white men call women cunts–especially when they play it off as easily as “there’s just no other word for her”–the audience hears this: those women may think they’ve got power, but with one word, I can remind them of generations, of hundreds of years, of violence perpetrated against women by men. The audience hears this: Bill Maher is so powerful and edgy awesome, he can use violently gendered insults against historically marginalized groups because again, powerfuledgyawesome. The audience hears this: Sarah Palin is not even a woman, she is a part of a woman that can and should belong to men who know better if they feel like they want it or deserve it.
In a man like Bill Maher’s mouth, “cunt” isn’t a joke. It’s not even an insult. It’s a threat. I believe most Americans know that on some level, and I believe that’s why we don’t use the word casually. It’s why we default to the still threatening, but less-so, “bitch,” when we think the situation calls for it. But Bill Maher knows about language, and he knows “bitch” doesn’t quite get at what he wanted to say. It’s just not quite violent enough.
So you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t see his use of the word as “fearless.” I see it as cowardly. Bill Maher doesn’t work in a historical vacuum, and he knows it. There’s nothing fearless about being a rich white dude saying whatever he wants in front of a bunch of people who love him so much they’ll pay to hear him insult a woman for being a woman. And no doubt there are those who will defend him by saying people like me just don’t understand what he was doing with the joke. And to those people, I say, no: if you’re not a little bit horrified by the usage, you have no idea what the word “cunt” means.