Bill Maher Plays The Privilege Card When He Calls Palin That Word That Rhymes With Runt But Starts With C.

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.

About andrea grimes

Andrea is a journalist living in Austin, TX. She has a master's degree in anthropology and did her thesis work on gender and stand-up comedy. Seriously. Also, she has a bunch of cats. Three of them. Is three a bunch? Discuss.
This entry was posted in comedy, Dallas, politics, rape culture. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Bill Maher Plays The Privilege Card When He Calls Palin That Word That Rhymes With Runt But Starts With C.

  1. joereform says:

    I agree with the sentiment, Andrea. It’s too bad more people are not up-in-arms about it like they would be if it were aimed at, say, Joy Behar. Thank you for your consistency here.

    One question, however: if it had been a man from an ethnic minority group up on the stage calling Palin a “cunt,” would it have been less damning because he wasn’t white?

    • I don’t know if it would be less damning as much as differently damning? It’s hard to say. I definitely think Maher’s whiteness, combined with his privilege-blindness, compounds the violence of his use of the word.

    • Alison says:

      Personally, I think it would be equally damning if the man calling Palin a gender slur were brown. It’s male privilege, really.

  2. Sara says:

    Thanks for this article. There is absolutely nothing wrong with disagreeing a person’s politics (or that one should even be IN politics). Maher’s statement said much less to me about the kind of person/politician Sarah Palin is and said a whole hell of a lot about the kind of person that Maher is. It’s disgraceful.

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  4. Lindsay says:

    I sure as hell do not agree with Sarah Palin & I hardly identify as a feminist really, but the use of that word just makes the person using it disgusting to me. As Sara said, it says a whole lot more about the person using it than who about whom they are throwing that insult.

  5. bill holston says:

    well said Andrea. Love your commentary.

  6. Robbie says:

    What about when a good comedian, like Louis C.K, uses the word? To me, his usage doesn’t seem all that different… See Chewed Up. Yet somehow, its less offensive…perhaps because he is talking about it from a more linguistic nature. He does the same with “nigger”.

    Actually there is an episode of Louie where he says it about 18 times when confronting a heckler…

    could it be that Maher is just a genuine chump and thats why its innately offensive? He’s always seemed like a complete misogynist and asshole to me.

    also, how is the British usage different? I don’t really see that it is. I think the truth is that they use it more commonly and people take less offense. It’s the same obscenity. I don’t know thats its fair to dismiss their use and damn others.

    • You bring up interesting points, Robbie. I’m less familiar overall with the Louis CK ouevre than I am Maher’s, but generally, I would say Louis CK’s persona is about subverting cultural narratives about maleness, specifically about his own power and sexuality as a man. And you’re right, he treats words as academic-linguistic exercises and acknowledges the nuances of their use. Maher’s schtick is largely about how great and smart he and his buddies are. He’s not known for subtlety. Which is why I’m venturing to say at this point, it’s less acceptable for Maher to call Sarah Palin a cunt than it is for Louis CK to use the word cunt in his act. Maher’s whole persona is about power and superiority, Louis CK’s is about his feelings of vulnerability. I think that does make a significant contextual difference.

      But that’s all generalization. If you can link me to some YouTube clips or similar, I’d be interested to do a closer reading of some specific instances. Like I said, I’m not super familiar with CK and could be wildly wrong about the whole thing.

      • Robbie says:

        I totally agree. Just rewatched CK’s bit and its perfectly done from a sensitivity standpoint:

        Maher’s use was malicious, while CK was merely making a point about the use of language. Its smart.

        Now he does have more offensive bit in his show, but I still think it all comes back to his insecurity and general demeanor. watch the whole thing:

        note: “cunt” is bleeped from the clip interestingly enough. it wasn’t in the original episode.

    • Oh, I forgot to say a thing about British use: in my experience (months living in London, many English friends, many trips to the UK) “cunt” is used much the same way “bitch” is in America. I don’t know how that has come to be, or what the societal factors are in the UK that make it a more socially acceptable word. The very fact that it is more socially acceptable (I recall it being on television? Or maybe the fact that it was going to be aired on television was a thing? I can’t remember exactly) speaks to the power of Maher using the word to an American audience that understands that in the U.S., it’s still serious business.

      • Robbie says:

        Perhaps its actually a little bit like black people using “nigger”, versus white person using it.

      • Daniel says:

        Also, in British usage, the slur is used to describe both genders. (Keith Richards, for example, has often weighed in with his judgment that Brian Jones, among many other male friends, acquaintances, music writers and ten-percenters, was a cunt.)

        I totally get your point, Andrea — historical context is, for example, why the N-word is more offensive than other racial epithets. By the same token, cunt is worse than prick, but whether the difference is one of kind or degree isn’t entirely clear. After all, hating men (which I’m not at all suggesting you do) is just as toxic as hating women, even if it’s less menacing and less freighted with historical baggage. The magnitude or provenance of a turd is largely irrelevant when it’s encountered in a punchbowl.

        On balance, I’m not convinced that Bill Maher was exercising his male privilege per se, or intimating violence somehow, just by uttering the C-word. As a previous commenter observed, I think he’s just such an arrogant prick that it rankles to hear him speak at all, let alone to hear him say an ugly word like that. It’s not the context of the usage in this case so much as the context of the person using it.

  7. Bob says:

    You know what’s interesting? He didn’t even use that word. He called her a tw*t, not a c***. It’s not nearly as bad of a word. In general, it’s a good idea to not get all worked up over something that didn’t even happen. I would agree that the C word shouldn’t be used in general, but if you want to be viewed as a credible journalist or even blogger, you may want to independently verify an easily verifiable fact.

  8. glenn hunter says:

    Thoughtful article, Andrea, and you make some good points. But, reverse the roles: If a woman called a man a “prick,” would you be just as outraged? I don’t see much of a difference, except that “prick” is a helluva lot more common. Both are vulgar demeaning terms for sexual organs. So, what’s the beef?

    • I wouldn’t be nearly as outraged if a female comedian had called a male politician a prick because there is little to no historical evidence for the systematic marginalization, abuse, rape and disenfranchisement of men by women through the use of violent acts and discriminatory language. That’s why I repeatedly brought up the issue of privilege in the piece–it’s about the word cunt, yes, and Maher’s use of that, but it’s also about who Maher is as a human: specifically, a man.

      As you note, the word “prick” is a much more common insult in the English vernacular. There’s a reason for that: cunt, and the calling people such, has a very specific affiliation with violence and oppression. Cunt is a dangerous word for a reason. Prick is not–largely because the thinking continues to be that women are not actual physical or sexual threats to men. Female on male violence is often a punchline. Male on female violence? Reality.

      • joereform says:

        Female on male violence is often a punchline. Male on female violence? Reality.

        Female-on-male violence is not reality? Now I suggest you check your facts, Andrea.

      • I will amend, although I don’t think I was setting up “punchline” and “reality” in true opposition. Fact is, (see: this year’s Pepsi commercials during the Super Bowl) people can be expected to laugh about women hitting men. They are rarely expected to laugh about a man hitting a woman. Part of the reason this is problematic is because female-on-male violence is real and does exist. Does it exist more often, more historically and in more damaging ways than male-on-female violence? Me, I don’t think so.

      • joereform says:

        Does it exist more often, more historically and in more damaging ways than male-on-female violence? Me, I don’t think so.

        Historically? Perhaps not. In more damaging ways? I still think you are downplaying it. Studies show that female-initiated domestic violence goes under-reported, and men who call in a domestic disturbance are three times more likely to be hauled off to jail than the women involved.

        Women like the one involved in the Ben Weasel incident at SXSW have internalized a false and dangerous message that violence against men will never be reciprocated. Dr. Phil excuses admitted domestic violence against men as a mere “relationship issue.”

        This is a different, more limited type of “privilege” on the part of women that is not addressed nearly enough. Is it a historic privilege? Probably not, but it is a present-day one.

  9. Martin Delgado says:

    Is this the last great semantic debate?

    Sticks and stones aside, there really is no other word. “Bitch” has been reclaimed as a mantle of power, and is no longer an insult. I (like Lady Gaga) am a free-bitch, baby. It (cunt) hasn’t been transformed yet into a fraternal hip-hop greeting, like “nigga.” (I’m surprised Lil’ Kim and Lady Sovereign passed on the opportunity.) Soon, the term will inevitably evolve, through standard etymological migratory forces, into something routinely used in pop music (see Ceelo Green’s “Fuck You”.)

    I particularly feel that Muammar Gaddafi is a right cunt. Oops, did I just threaten him with a gender insult? Was it really as bad as what he could potentially level at me? Or do his actions define him, such as I just labeled him? (Or is it ok for me to use the term that time, Andrea, because I used it in the English sense of the word?)

    Cunt is as cunt does, the modern definition of the word (as decided by its usage) has ejected anatomical considerations (and therefore gender identifications.) It’s synonymous with Snooki, or Favre: “someone who is absolutely useless to the point of danger, devoid of intellectual or sensual potential, worthless.”

    What do you call someone, like Sarah Palin, a gender traitor who points a political gun at our children?

    Bill Maher’s right: for him (and for her), there’s no other word. No other word would be able to cut and insult. You can’t call her a corrupt governor or a weak parent. Well, you actually can, because it’s true (but it won’t insult her, which is the intent.) Since her ignorance, superstition, paranoia, and bigotry are her party tentpoles, she would take pride in any other description you could label her with.

    So, Bill Maher wants to drag her down to his level and make her as mad as he is is: go ahead dude, drop the bomb. (The weird thing is that she didn’t have a fiery retort. She didn’t drag it out for full news cycle over the next three days. She just sighed and whined, “I’m through whining.” She complains of “a liberal press that holds particularly conservative women to a different standard.” She doesn’t even see her own hypocrisy: as a conservative woman, she publicly promotes the higher standards and values she consistently fails to live up to; and yet whines when she’s criticized for her value failures.) He won. He was willing to take the hit, because it’s his role. Yet, in the end, he succeeded in reminding us what Sarah Palin really is: worthless.

    I agree with what Spencer Tracey said as Henry Drummond in “Inherit The Wind”:

    “I don’t swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We’ve got to use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words anybody understands.”

  10. Borborygmus says:

    I believe the correct male counter-insult would be “dickless”, not “prick” (which some men might take as a compliment to their defiance), the first also being a sexual slight against the ability of a man to perform as well call into question his bravery.

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  13. Martin Delgado says:

    I also agree with Geoff:

    http://remarkablyunmarketable.wordpress.com/2011/03/30/hey-andrea-grimes/

    What with all the liberal infighting of late, I’m starting to suspect a Republican plant.

    Jon Stewart, Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, and now Bill Maher have all recently failed the Feminist thought-crime litmus test.

    Have we been infiltrated by conservative double-agent-provocateurs?

    It’s a wedge issue that only results in splits. Don’t be a splitter, Andrea:

    I’d just prefer not to do Karl Rove’s rat-fucking for him.

    Oh, and up to about sixty years ago, “dude” was the biggest insult you could brand a man with. It labeled him as a no-talent fraud: all hat, no cattle.

    Hey, remember when Newt Gingrich’s mom called Hillary Clinton a bitch “off the record”?

    And when George W. Bush called Adam Clymer a “major league asshole”?

    It’s all so trivial. It’s not assault. It’s not word-rape. It’s more akin to flashing: you publicly expose yourself so everyone can see your tiny vocabulary.

    • It must be nice to be able to view this kind of silly feminist thing as trivial. I believe there’s a word for that, and that word is “privilege.”

    • For what it’s worth, flashing isn’t trivial, either. It’s assault. Look up any number of the Hollaback chapters in the US and I hope you’ll quickly understand why.

    • AND ANOTHER THING because apparently I can’t just write all this shit at once: “don’t be a splitter” is what women have generally been told by so-called liberal dudes who, instead of seeing gender-related issues that need to be addressed to create a more gender-equal society, really just want things to remain basically the same. Hint: you’re not liberal or progressive if you think telling women not to split the vote is the way to go. I’m sick of being thrown under the bus by liberal or progressive dudes who think there’s more important shit than what women need, think or want. See: Reform, Health Care. (http://www.alternet.org/reproductivejustice/146132/health_care_bill_throws_women_under_the_bus_on_reproductive_rights) Women will continue to stand up for themselves and get what they need, but it’ll largely be without the help of liberal dudes who think they should keep quiet and not bring up a “wedge issue” like wanting people to treat them like human beings. Ugh. I don’t know who you are, but you are the worst. And if you really are a liberal, and not some weird conservative troll, I hope you work harder to practice what you preach, dude.

  14. svente says:

    Maher has long been a fauxgressive of the highest order. I just cannot take him seriously as the intelligent man he portends to be when he relies regularly and repeatedly on hating women to get a laugh.

  15. TexRex96 says:

    This thesis is a tad overwrought for me. The implication that any insult that infers gender is inherently patriarchal and sexist is both dated (think late 90’s) and problematic (it’s anti-feminist). Andrea presents a compelling reminder of how women have been held back, abused, and dehumanized throughout history, yet the idea that Maher is a conscious vehicle for keeping these ideas alive is absurd. By its very nature, insulting language is crude, politically incorrect, and of auspicious origin — all on purpose.

    Firstly there’s context. If you follow Maher at all and can see past his general arrogance, then you know of his many close female friends, like Ariana Huffington, and that he genuinely respects women as equals. Arguing otherwise because he is single and fancies himself as somewhat of a playboy is similar to saying single women make bad mothers, so let’s not go there. You also know how much Maher hates Sarah Palin and why, and that for him, “cunt” is not a strong enough word to describe such an awful woman — er, sorry Andrea: awful person.

    Then there’s this persistent feminist impulse to scrub away gender from our dialog, which sometimes feels like a group inferiority complex. I’m sure if Maher was ripping on, say, Newt Gingrich, he would have happily called him the male equivalent (“prick”), but he stepped in dog pooh with Palin because, of course, women must be protected from such harshness — it’s just too mean. Andrea doesn’t quite say this, but that was my take-away. Palin is a highly public figure who wanted to be vice president of the United States, has a big stage from which to attack large groups of people, and often assails the president himself. Yet somehow Mr. Maher must tread lightly when attacking her because she is a woman, and he is a man. If he uses a bad word, it must not imply gender, or he is a “privileged” sexist. I think Bill Maher would rightly call “bullshit” to this argument, and call this line of thinking what it is: anti-feminist.

    I personally wouldn’t have used this word because I know how much women hate it. But I might have used “bitch,” to which the author could have the same argument (though she demurred here). Andrea could have a point with the idea that our most insulting words all imply gender, and maybe we need new ones. But she doesn’t really go down that path — it’s all about the women, and the men whose rhetoric needs policing. At the end of the day this word is going away, just like men use “hysterical” less to describe a inconsolable, frantic woman today than they did 30 years ago. Language evolves, and feminists can influence it with articles like this. But this added, Paglia-esque bombast backfired for me (also ironic because Paglia would not agree with you either, Andrea).

    It’s also interesting to see a feminist rush to the defense of Sarah Palin, a person who has set the feminist movement back 20 years.

    • Mark says:

      Very well put TexRex96, I can’ believe anyone can seriously consider this anything to do with gender to be honest. ‘cunt’ is the only word left in the English language that produces such an impression of extreme offence in a single word and when used in a that context as it was by Maher is wholly justified. If he wanted to be sexist and demeaning he would have called her a ‘slut’. Any linguist will tell you it is more to do with the sharpness of the sound that makes the word extreme than any connotation it may have about the vagina or pudenda in general!

      Sarah Palin has created the worst perception of woman since Paris Hilton. If it wasn’t for Nancy Pelosi and other strong female figures currently in the public eye the role of women in US politics could have easily been set back far more than 20 years! It still may if she is allowed to pedal her brand of “female success through ditzy stupidity and subservience to the faceless finance men in the back room” through another election cycle!!

      • I would like the number of any linguist who doesn’t take context into account when people are talking. Feel free to e-mail me.

      • Mark says:

        You wouldn’t find one Andrea, just as you wont find your comment as having anything to do with what I wrote if you read it again.

        In studying psychology (14 years ago so don’t blame me if I’m rusty) it was shown that language has tonal relationships to emotion just as color does. It is this synaesthesia that most likely formed language and brought us further along the evolutionary chain.

        The harsh K sound adds to the harshness of the word just as the K sound’s in kick, kill, crack and fuck also lend further power to them. That does nothing to detract from the impact of context, but enhances understanding of it.

        I always thought Germaine Greer put it best by saying there was something precious about the word as one of the few remaining words in English that still retained its power to shock (or something to that effect).

  16. mofeto says:

    Did either of those women back the E.R.A.?
    Then they got what they deserved.
    If you’re going to act like a shark,then you better learn to swim with them.
    Besides,if the word is good enough for John McCain to refer to his wife, it’s good enough for Bill maher.
    Maybe he should be the Republican candidate for president in 2012.

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  18. TexRex96 says:

    I must commend Andrea for even posting my reply, among others — clearly she is interested in fostering intelligent debate on these topics and not just pushing an agenda. We can agree to disagree, but all things considered, I think this makes a great blog. At the end of the day, I think (hope) all of us are concerned about the portrayal of women by media figures, and such scrutiny keeps us all on our toes. Again, I personally don’t think Maher crossed any lines here, but he flirted with them — and this closer examination is clearly worthwhile.

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  20. Fred C. Dobbs says:

    Wrong again, Andrea: Current AMERICAN use of the word “cunt” is not the alpha male paradigm attacking woman-ness, it’s the antithesis of that: Similarly, for his historical record and in recent days Newt Gingrich has earned the same epithet. A “cunt” is an anti-woman, the epitome of those attributes diametrically opposite to those valued as womanly. And Mr. Mahrer is absolutely correct, Palin is a useless, self-serving and hypocritical cunt, as is Gingrich.

  21. Calling Palin a cunt is NOT an attack on women. It’s not attacking HER for BEING a woman. It’s a rude word, & offensive name, for someone who has earned both.

    • kimmoth says:

      +1; where I come from, it’s far more common to refer to blokes as cunts.

      Palin is simply a cunt. Her gender doesn’t factor.

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