What Power Does the Word ‘Cunt’ Still Hold?

Marilyn Minter, My Cunt-ry 'Tis of Thee (still), 2018, HD video. Courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery

The once obscene word is now transcending censorship to enter the mainstream via queer communities around the world, revealing the shifting power of language in the digital age 

In the English language, ‘cunt’ is a wildcard. For a small word, one full of phonetic pleasure, it carries a lot of baggage. It can shock when used in polite company, and is still considered deeply offensive in the public sphere. It can seduce – although drop it in a sexual context at your own risk. It can be punk, when reclaimed by artists like Tracey Emin, in CV: Cunt Vernacular, the 1997 video self-portrait of her early years of sexual promiscuity and sexual abuse. Or by the writer Eve Ensler’s 1996 play the Vagina Monologues: “CUNT. I’VE RECLAIMED IT. CUNT. I REALLY LIKE IT. CUNT.” Its meaning has developed over time, morphed by who is saying it, how and where.

‘Cunt’ is currently having something of a mainstream moment. Like ‘slay’ or ‘it’s giving’, the terms ‘serving cunt’ and ‘cunty’ have entered the popular consciousness, treading the familiar path from Black trans communities via drag culture to white gays, teenagers on TikTok, and into the realm of the girlboss. Rolling Stone declared last month that the ‘c-word is everywhere right now – and not in a bad way’. In voguing and ballroom communities, to ‘serve cunt’ means to bring feminine realness, or a convincing display of womanhood. American drag queen RuPaul rebranded the concept as ‘C.U.N.T.’ for ‘Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve & Talent’, broadening it into a general accolade for exquisiteness. Predictably, the phrase has now become a meme on Twitter and TikTok. ‘How do you serve cunt in a way that creates value for shareholders?’ writes one online commentator. My straight while male friends appropriate the words ironically. ‘Am I serving cunt today?’ they’ll ask, in a white t-shirt and jeans.

Yet the word hasn’t always been considered acceptable in popular culture and literature. American poet Eileen Myles, who emerged from New York City’s underground poetry scene, and the author of the cult queer Künstlerroman Chelsea Girls (1994), has found themselves facing censorship over their inclusion of the word in their work. One poem, ‘Transmissions’, was omitted this year from an anthology to be published by Norton and Tin House, on the basis of its classifification as “a family book and a gift book”, Myles explains over the phone. “The notion that a cunt is neither a gift or related to family is what’s obscene”, they laugh in riposte, pointing out that their use of ‘cunt’ was in fact an allusion to their mother (mothers are, after all, the first cunts we encounter). Myles was responding also to being branded a poet who writes about sex, a kind of preempting of the expectation that ‘cunt’ is a word they might use. See ‘Holes’, an earlier poem from 1986, which features the indelible lines: ‘I remember / you handing me the most beautiful / red plate of pasta. It was like your cunt / on a plate.’

Myles is not the first writer to be censored for using the word ‘cunt’. Henry Miller’s banned 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer featured the word in its opening lines. Shakespeare was subtler, opting for euphemisms or plays on the word. ‘Do you think I mean country matters?’ says Hamlet. ‘That’s a fair thought to lie between a maid’s legs.’ No wonder ‘cunt’ is often associated with the outsider literature of the likes of Kathy Acker and Valerie Solanas, where authors aren’t subject to the eye of the commercial publisher-cum-censor. So shrouded and scarce is the appearance of cunt in literature that the exact origin of the word is unknown; it derives from either the Latin ‘cunnilingus’, the old Norse ‘kunta’, Proto-Germanic ‘kunto’, or the Indian goddess ‘kunti’. It was even censored from the Oxford English dictionary, not appearing until 1972 despite evidence of common use in English centuries before. The citation the dictionary offered was from the 1230s: the London street ‘Gropecunte Lane’ – unsurprisingly, a red light district.

In queer circles at least, ‘cunt’ is now dropped freely. But there has always been something queer about the word, one which evades easy categorisation. To censor it is to deny female sexuality in and of itself, Myles argues. “It’s not obscene to say ‘cunt’, it’s obscene if there’s no man involved.” For women to use the word ‘cunt’ breaks from decorum, and is therefore seen as masculine, whereas when uttered by a man it has less potential to shock. Myles uses ‘cunt’ with their friends – “artists and dykes” – as another kind of reclamation. Just as the context in which ‘cunt’ is used matters, so too does the person saying it. So, yes, you can say ‘cunt’ now, depending on where you are and who you are.

Cunt might be ripe for reclamation in the queer world, because, as Myles puts it, “we are in a dysphoric relation to the patriarchy”. In other words, queer people like us exist both within and outside of the heterosexual power relations that make ‘cunt’ misogynistic to begin with. In a time of growing queerphobia and transphobia in the USA and the UK, use of the term ‘cunt’ by these communities lobbies a challenge to the cisgender paradigm. You don’t have to be a man to desire cunt or to call someone one. Nor do you have to be born with a vagina to ‘serve cunt’.

The word’s contemporary resurgence speaks also to the contemporary politics surrounding women’s rights in the wake of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. “It means so much for the word ‘cunt’ to be reclaimed and talked about when, in places like the US, the politics of the right is really taking over when it comes to women’s bodies”, Myles says. Since 2018, the artist Marilyn Minter has prominently included the word on a series of artworks, featuring c-word derivations like ‘No Cuntry for Old Men’ and ‘Our Cuntry Needs Y’all’. Minter had previously organised an auction with artists including Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Richard Prince to fundraise for the sex education nonprofit organisation Planned Parenthood – and these works showed as part of the exhibition Abortion is Normal, co-organised by Minter at Eva Presenhuber, New York in 2019. The word’s deployment in these works speaks to its political punch in an America that is enduringly “puritanical and overtly misogynist”, says Myles, “a white Christian nation with a man on top” where “everything relates back to the female body or obscenity or power”.

Cunt’s renewed reclamation, then, might have come at the right time. ‘Serving cunt’ is, after all, an affirmation of autonomy – bodily or otherwise – for those who are marginalised. Within a heightened context of censorship and book banning in the US, the word’s obscenity is also a challenge to the so-called ‘morality’ police. In a context where the state seeks to assert control over your cunt, there is rebellion in a feminist reclaiming of the word. But should we be wary as the growing emergence of ‘cunt’ within the mainstream inevitably sees the word subsume into straight culture? The early warning signs are there: Beyoncé recently opened her Renaissance World Tour in Stockholm in front of a desk emblazoned with the words ‘KNTY 4 News’. Could its transgressive feminist potential become anodyne if overused? ‘Serving cunt’ is already a meme – it will no doubt find its way onto a mouse mat or mug before long. Yet another reason we should use the word with caution.    

Amelia Abraham is a journalist and the author of Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture, 2019

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