Using the "C" Word: the Power of Slurs

By Sherry F. Colb

Recently, Samantha Bee of Full Frontal referred to Ivanka Trump, the President's daughter, as a "feckless c---." Bee became the subject of immediate condemnation, especially from the right. Not long before that, ABC had terminated Roseann Barr's television show because she had sent out a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, former advisor to President Obama, suggesting that Jarrett was the offspring of Planet of the Apes and the Muslim Brotherhood. For this post, I would like to explore how critical we should be of Samantha Bee for using the C word against Ivanka Trump.

First, though, I want to briefly discuss two other issues. One is whether what Bee did was comparable to what Barr did. And the second is what it means when someone compares an African American woman to an ape.

Let us assume that the specific remarks that each comedian made were equally offensive. Bee used a misogynistic slur against a woman, and Barr used offensive "lineage" talk against an African American woman. One thing that would differentiate the two, even on this assumption, is Bee's versus Barr's history.

Bee is a feminist who regularly enacts her feminism by doing stories on the latent and blatant misogyny around us. As one example, she here presented a funny and biting short history of how poorly the male medical profession has handled gynecological distress. Barr, on the other hand, is not a civil rights leader who regularly uses her comedy to spread a message of racial equality or anti-subordination.

On the contrary, Barr has regularly offered television and Twitter audiences close-to-the-line and over-the-line racist themes. On one of the last episodes of this season of Roseanne, for instance, her character assumed that the new Muslim neighbors were terrorists, an assumption that she allowed the neighbors to refute when they offered Roseanne free wifi. This was, I think, supposed to teach a message of tolerance. At best, it displayed a troubling amount of hostile cluelessness (and a tolerance for such cluelessness). And it resonates with what Barr said about Valerie Jarrett's Iranian origins.

In short, while Bee is entitled to have the benefit of the doubt, Barr has earned the detriment of the doubt. This was not just a "slip" or an Ambien-induced departure from the norm. It was Roseanne Barr, genuine and true.

Second, what about Planet of the Apes? Barr's suggestion is that African Americans are apes. The fact that in the movie, the apes are smarter than the humans, and the fact that the humans destroyed their world (sorry for the spoiler) are irrelevant. Indeed, the fact that humans--all humans--arguably should be called apes, because we are close enough to the other great apes to be in their group, is also irrelevant. (The reason we classify ourselves outside of the ape group may be our vanity, the same vanity that leads us to say we are not animals when we in fact are).

These facts are irrelevant because Roseanne and most other people likely neither know nor would acknowledge them. Roseanne and almost all of her audience (as well as people outside of her audience) uncritically accept the "wisdom" that humans are unquestionably superior to our other animals cousins. Humans "count" while animals, we conveniently declare, do not; that soothes our conscience in hurting and killing living beings in order to use them. And Roseanne and her audience accept the further "wisdom" that considers great apes to be stupid creatures who look sort of like humans but lack any but the most rudimentary intelligence.

Roseanne and her audience, most importantly, share a long history, starting after Europeans began kidnapping and selling Africans as slaves, during which white supremacists characterized African Americans as intellectually inferior to white Americans. Sharing an accepted view of apes and an accepted view of African Americans, the comparison between apes and African Americans captured the "similar to us but not nearly as intelligent" idea and thereby slurred African Americans. Stated differently, the slurring of nonhuman animals in general and apes in particular, already in place when white supremacists needed an "argument" for the atrocities that they had begun to commit against African Americans, became a perfect foundation for slurring their African American victims.

Why do I go into such detail about this? I do so because whenever people insult other people by comparing the latter to "animals," I cringe (at least internally). I am part of society, so I am quite aware that comparing a group of humans to animals is a way of diminishing the humans in question; I know that calling an African American an ape is effectively equivalent to calling him or her by the n-word, and so I am outraged on his or her behalf.

At the same time, I find offensive as well the fact that the animal metaphor is a way of slurring minority groups or women, etc. Animals are innocent of human depredations. They have talents and wisdom all their own. They have impressive qualities, some of which we humans lack. And they deserve to be free of the violence that we daily perpetrate against them to satisfy culinary and sartorial preferences rather than true needs.

By analogy, I would be offended on behalf of myself and other Jews if some unfairly despised group with stereotypically Jewish characteristics were called "Jews" as a slur. And I am thus offended on behalf of nonhuman animals when racists and other bigots use "animal" or particular animals as a slur against racially marginalized groups.  I am, accordingly, upset both for the humans slurred by being called animals and for the animals slurred by being presumed worthy of use as a slur to diminish a group of humans.

Now I want to talk about the use of the C-word. According to some, the C-word is not everywhere an insult. In England and Australia, it is supposedly less objectionable to call someone a c--- than it is the United States. In the U.S., the C-word is unambiguously insulting and demeaning.

People do, of course, use slurs in ways that might be friendly, despite their ordinary meaning. An African American man, for example, might refer to an African American friend of his with a variant
on the n-word, without intending to say anything racist. Perhaps Bee was doing the same thing?

No. Though Bee--like Ivanka--is a woman, she is not behaving like the African American man in the hypothetical case. She shows no evidence of regarding Ivanka Trump as a friend, whom she might call "c---" affectionately (assuming anyone in the U.S. did that). She was yelling at Ivanka about a photograph in which the first daughter appears with her child, even as the President was up to his usual immigration antics with  children as the victims this time. Bee was using the word in anger.

Is it different when a woman uses the word than when a man does? Yes. If a man said what she did, people would have found it more offensive, just as people would and should find it more offensive when a white person (like Roseanne, for example) directs racism at a member of a minority group.

Being a woman, however, does not mean that using the C-word is okay. The choice to use the C-word or the B-word or any other slur, instead of saying "terrible person" or "jerk" or "asshole" reflects the stigmatizing power of slurs. If you really hate someone, your inclination is to identify something stigmatized about your nemesis and then slur that. It is why Michelle Wolf comparing Sarah Huckaby Sanders to Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid's Tale was offensive. Despite denials, it seems plain that the comparison was intended to fat-shame Sanders, which is reprehensible.

If we take non-stigmatized groups, by contrast, and use "slurs" that highlight their dominant traits, they just don't pack much of a punch, because there is no stigma behind them. Calling someone a "dick" is no big deal, saying "honkey" or "pale face" hardly counts as anything, and saying "you're acting like a Christian" is positively complimentary (by contrast to "you're acting like a Jew." I cannot even think of a slur for a straight cis man that emphasizes his maleness and straightness (though I suspect that there is one)).

Racial and sexual slurs "work" as slurs because they are like sticks of stigma dynamite. And when they work against members of dominant groups, it is because they're being compared to those who are marginalized: saying that a man is a "pussy," for example.

Because of the stigma-carrying power of slurs, Bee wanted to use them. She wanted to call Ivanka something that would convey the anger that Bee felt. For her, the C-word allowed her to truly express intense negative feelings in a way that no other word could do. A study reported that using swear words reduces stress in a way that using more polite words fails to do. I would guess that slurs are to swear words what swear words are to polite words.

Should we be censoring Bee by condemning her use of the C-word, when its use helped her to fully express herself about a woman whom she holds in contempt? Yes, we should. There is no need to cancel her show, as she has no history of this sort of talk or the hateful attitudes it expresses, by contrast to Roseanne Barr. Having to apologize, however, is appropriate.

Though Bee is a woman, she either indulged in or at least exploited the fact of woman-hatred, the fact that the worst thing a woman can be called is a word for a woman's vagina. It capitalizes on the reality that people view a vagina as something that should garner shame and hatred rather than the pride and self-adoration that seems to accompany the possession of a penis and testicles, with rivalry among men over relative length and girth and expressions like "he's got balls" signifying audacity (rather than, say, vulnerability, given how men react when lightly grazed down there).

It is not okay to stir up and exploit the stigma attached to the use of a gender slur. And the fact that it is a woman using it does not add much, because many women have long shared in men's misogyny. Women can sometimes receive the respect that they would otherwise have been denied if they help enforce misogynistic norms in a way that only women can.

There have always been private spaces like locker rooms where women find themselves alone in one another's company. Misogynistic women can keep other women in their place even when they might otherwise have felt free to transgress. Rewards might even include a gig on Fox News.

I therefore hope that Samantha Bee means her apology, if not to Ivanka Trump, then to women who share Bee's frustration at Trump's cruel immigration policy but who felt offended by her use of a misogynistic slur. If she hates a woman, she can say so or find other words to express her feelings. They may not be as powerful, but they also will not derive their strength from a contempt for females.

I watched Samantha Bee's apology for what she said here. She expressed some frustration with people's obsessive focus on the use of the C-word, ignoring the segment in which it appeared, where she presented a highly critical analysis of the president's immigration policy. She also noted that she has used the C-word a lot on her show and that she generally does so with an eye to "taking it back," in the way that the LGBTQ community took back the word "queer." In this case, however, she acknowledged that she was using the C-word against Ivanka Trump, not trying to compliment the first daughter in a "take it back" sort of way. For that, she said, she was sorry.

Bee's apology is satisfying, though it doubtless did nothing to silence the people who--as John Stewart put it--probably use the C-word in place of "please." Unlike a certain leader of the free world, though, she did not double down and defend her use of the word, and she did not lie and say that she never used the word. She was honest, and she even explained when the word is okay and when it is not. She gets it, and she is sorry.

Most of the people who attacked Bee, however, either do not get it or choose to pretend that they do not. Fans of Roseanne Barr (and the president) may use this word in private to describe the women whom they hate, thereby amplifying their hatred by calling on misogynist language to refer to them. And Roseanne herself deliberately used racist talk (with the elaboration I provide above) to refer to Valerie Jarrett. One gets the sense that unlike Bee, who hates Ivanka Trump *and* used a misogynist slur to hurt her, Roseanne Barr feels antipathy for Valerie Jarrett precisely *because* of her background and lineage.

For this and so many other reasons, canceling Roseanne made sense, and so did keeping Full Frontal on the air. Roseanne Barr appears, from all of the evidence, to be a racist. Her use of the racist language was in keeping with her prior behavior. She is a white person and therefore gets no slack for using a slur that could have been applied to her. And she clearly meant what she said as a racist insult to her target.

Samantha Bee is not a misogynist, even though women can be and have been misogynists (for a fabulous portrayal of that, see Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid's Tale). Bee has a history not only of avoiding misogynist talk but of exhibiting loyalty and allegiance to women as women. Her use of the C-word to insult a woman was out of character for her, though she used it to mobilize female stigma against someone whom she apparently dislikes intensely.

Bee's behavior represented a momentary lapse, a mistake, while Barr's was the culmination of conduct that had been so consistently racist that people wondered why the show had not been canceled sooner. There is no unfair disparity, then, between what happened to the two shows and the two speakers of "hate speech." The two situations resolved themselves differently and appropriately.