Pussy

Today I got the tip on Twitter about a slide deck with information on how to create interesting presentations. Sounded like something I wanted to know more about, but when I went to the page and saw the first slide, I lost my interest.

What was the problem?

In the first slide (well, technically the third, as an overlay on the first background) it has the text:

Use type confidently – don’t be a pussy

Reading the word “pussy” made me feel like it wasn’t worth seeing the rest.

Before I go on, let me strongly emphasize that I don’t know the creator of the slide deck, Andy Whitlock; I don’t have a problem with him or his work, and I’m certain he has good experience, and most likely didn’t mean anything bad with it.

This blog post is not about Andy.

What it is about is the general behavior that’s ingrained in our society, with how we are using words and how they are loaded with mixed feelings for different people.

I could just shrug and move on. I’ve done that many times. But I’ve gotten tired of shrugging about things that I actually think matter. About words that regularly gets used, and often to push down other people and exercise control over them.

The word “pussy” is for many people quite a harmless word, and if he had said “cunt” or something else it would have been stronger/more clear that it was inapropriate.

So why am I so fucking sensitive about it?

Why I feel that way

In many places and context, gender words are used to convey a certain meaning. Somewhere along the line they got characteristics, that a certain gender got connected to a certain personality and behavior. I see it all over.

If we take the above meaning as an example – “Don’t be a pussy” – it implies that you are a coward, weak, not brave enough to do that.

And everyone knows that. And that’s the gist of the problem. Being a pussy is equal to being weak, and as an extension of that, it’s based on the notion that women are weak.

If it had said: “Don’t be a dick” it would’ve been really weird in that context, right? Wouldn’t really make sense. Because a “dick” isn’t weak. A dick is rather rude instead (naturally implying that all men are that).

What gets to me here is that it’s so completely unnecessary to use gender words to apply characteristics to a certain behavior. Just describe it instead.

The “explanation”

Usually when you tell people that maybe you shouldn’t say “pussy” you get a reply like:

It’s ok. I actually have female friends, and they weren’t offended. So I’m allowed to do this.

Which of course becomes as ridiculous as:

I’m not a racist, I can say/burn whatever I want, since I have a black friend.

or

I can call anyone a cock if I want, since I have one attached to my body

or

I sometimes watch Ricky Gervais, so I know edgy humor

(Note: None of the above were reactions from Andy. Forget Andy, this is about a bigger phenomenon.)

Somewhere along the line, the excuses people use to vouch for how they express themselves are both hilarious and a bit sad.

Comic effect

Presentations, humor, shows and more are a lot about comic effect. You want to be a bit edgy, balance on the border on what’s inappropriate. Get attention.

That’s fine! I’ve said many bad things, both on stage and in my personal life. Most things I can stand up for, some things I’m not that proud of. I try to avoid regretting things, because I know my reasoning when I did it, but I’ve learned along the line and I try to become a better person.

But I think it boils down to two things:

  • It should never truly offend someone
  • It shouldn’t connect a gender to a certain behavior

I’m fine with most profanity, nasty jokes and such. If someone gets upset and uses “cunt” or “cock” when they’re mad at something, it’s much easier to understand.

It’s also about context. What you say in private or what you say in a professional environment shouldn’t necessarily be the same. Because even if you and your friends are ok with it, even if you don’t find it offensive, even if you understand the joke, there’s an entire world out there.

And if you want to share your work and knowledge with them, if you want to be a role model, if you want people to be able to use your material, you need to take that into account.

The Cerebral Palsy approach

When I grew up, the most common word used between kids to be mean was saying that someone else was/had CP (implying Cerebral Palsy). As you might know, it is about “motor conditions that cause physical disability in human development, chiefly in the various areas of body movement.”

Basically, it was like calling someone retarded. And people in my age group still use this quite a lot, just to say that something is off/bad/whack.

Not because it really means that, or that there’s any connection, but that’s just what they learned when they were small.

Don’t mind that it’s insensitive, just use it because that’s what you always did.

What I want

It’s really easy. I just wish people would stop lazily using words out of old habit that, while fine to them, could be a word quite charged for another person/gender.

Don’t be afraid of comic effect, on being on the edge and pushing the boundaries. But don’t use words that it’s pretty obvious will leave some people feeling alienated, offended or left out.

Let our world move on, and be a place for children, where “pussy” doesn’t mean “weak” (but rather a cat), “dick” doesn’t mean being “insensitive” and where we don’t call chocolate balls “nigger balls” (yes, true story).

Just spend that extra second to think about the possible effect of the words you choose.

Posted in Personal/life |

31 Comments

  • Thank you for posting this. I feel like inclusive language is a topic that the tech community hasn’t really addressed in a consistent way, and I’m glad to see more people thinking and talking about it.

  • Ryan M says:

    I’m assuming the word “pussy” in this context is not gender related, but rather associated more closely with the word “wimp”.

    See the 6th definition here:
    http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/pussy

  • I agree with the general sentiment, but I always assumed that “don’t be a pussy” meant “don’t be as easy to scare/offend as a cat”. Am I wrong?

  • starwed says:

    The etymology doesn’t really matter so much as the cultural baggage it has right now — and current usage is definitely gendered.

    But in any case, the etymology happens to actually back up Robert’s general point. According to the link above, it was originally used to refer to girls, and then to refer to “effeminate men” — it’s an insult because of that, and not because of any direction connotation with “scaredy-cats”.

    But you just have to look at how the word is actually used (e.g. this South Park episode) to see the connotation with the other sense of the word, and how it’s likely to be interpreted.

  • I agree with David; I always thought this was a cat reference. Are you sure it’s not? Have you asked the author?

    Also, “current usage is definitely gendered” – in your culture or subculture, maybe. How do you know the author doesn’t come from somewhere where it’s about cats? Or do you assume that South Park’s cultural influence is total and worldwide?

    As a general principle, we should assume the non-offensive option if there is no evidence to the contrary. I’m sure that’s what we’d want from other people who read what we say.

    Gerv

  • Mark says:

    Just wondering how you feel about slide four, the silhouette of someone blowing their brain out with a gun? This graphic depiction was repeated throughout the presentation and the final slide states “This Was Fun”. Is violence so common place and accepted that no one even notices anymore?

  • Simon says:

    Maybe it’s geographic differences, but I think you’re reading too much into it.

    Yes, calling someone a pussy might originally have had the associations you’re upset about, but these days it’s just a simple insult. I think most people – women included – would be surprised to be told that the term might be demeaning towards women.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Ryan F,

    Thanks, glad you like it. And I agree!

    Ryan M, David,, Gervase,

    In general, and as pointed out in starwed’s link on etymology, suggestion is that it generally is referring to gender rather than cats.

    We could assume that it does indeed refer to cats, but a brief look at popular culture definitely implies that the usage overall is about female genitalia.

    The thing is, though, that it isn’t only about what the original user of the word meant: it is also about how it will be perceived. Even if the reference would be about cats (wherever “pussy” is being used), there will always be a number of people assuming it refers to the female gender – based on history, and based on how many people have purposedly used it to mean something bad.

    The main point about this blog post isn’t what “pussy” referred to in that specific case – it is that there are some words that are definitely charged, and avoiding them out of respect and trying not to offend is what I would recommend.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Mark,

    That’s a very good point, and I thought about it when I wrote this post. I didn’t want to digress too much, but I agree that violence seem to become way too common and accepted.

    Simon,

    If you look around online in articles and forums, or ask around with both women and men what they think is being referred to, my guess is that a good number would say female genitalia.

    And as I just mentioned in my comment above: If there is a risk that people will misinterpret it for something that it isn’t meant to be (but something it does mean as well, and has been used for extensively), I’d suggest avoiding it.

  • Steve Fink says:

    Meh. To me, the word has multiple independent meanings, and when I consider the origin of the “weak” meaning, I would assume “having the strength of a kitten”. That’s partly because I never knew it was ever used for females, only for genitalia, and I see no association between female genitalia and weakness (good or bad). Nor have a ever heard of anyone making that association. It’s just weird.

    However, even with the “weakness” definition it’s very much not a word for polite company, so I would still agree that it’s inappropriate. Just not for the reasons you gave.

    On the other hand, you could easily swap in any gender-flavored derogative and your essay would be equally valid, so the exact connotations of “pussy” are an irrelevant distraction.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Steve,

    I’d argue that a lot of people do find it derogatory. But yes, you’re right. That was just the initial thing that led to me wanting to write about this.

    The gist of the post is expressing respect and being careful with things that might offend people, where there is a wrong perception risk.

  • Simon says:

    If you look around online in articles and forums, or ask around with both women and men what they think is being referred to, my guess is that a good number would say female genitalia.

    Ok, I *definitely* don’t see that one. Sure, that’s another meaning of the word, but when someone uses the word “pussy” as a synonym for a wimp or coward, the association with genitalia really doesn’t come to mind.

  • njn says:

    I’ve been thinking about the word “bitch” recently. I’m used to it usually meaning “an unpleasant woman”. But recently it’s taken on the meaning “someone under my control”, especially when written as “bi-atch” or something similar.

    So we’re moving away from the derogatory gender-specific meaning, which is good! But the new meaning, although it can be applied equally to both genders, clearly has gender-specific roots, which is bad. Generally I just avoid using the word :/

  • lol says:

    “pussy cat”
    “scaredy cat”

    If you know little cats, and their behaviour, you know what being a pussy is about.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    njn,

    Yes, bitch is another one of those words. For some people it’s completely harmless, for some it’s quite offensive with really bad connotations. So I’d probably avoid it in a professional context.

    Unless you are specifically talking about a female dog, of course.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Simon,

    I think that’s just fine, and I’m happy you don’t. But many people do, though, thus using it when it’s almost bound to offend some people isn’t right, if you ask me.

    lol,

    In your mind. sure. But to many other people it means something else, and it definitely has a history of having been used as derogatory to women. Hence my suggestion to be very careful when using it.

  • Andy says:

    I’m disappointed that you didn’t ask me about this before posting.

    When I was 6 I had a cat called Ralph. Ralph loved typography, which amazed me. I mean, he was a cat! But I encouraged him nonetheless.

    Frustratingly, despite the many hours he spent kerning the living hell out of well-crafted sentences, he never had the confidence to use large fonts. I think the biggest point size he ever toyed with was something like 14pt. To make things worse, he would stick to standard system fonts, even though I gave him a gift card for myfonts.com.

    One day, we were shooting the breeze, drinking martinis on the deck. I guess I had one too many, because I lost it.
    “Your writing is beautiful!” I yelled. “Make it bigger. Let it sing!”
    He began wailing. I feared that the crying would drain him of all his bodily fluids.
    Eventually I calmed him down, and he explained to me:
    “Cats can’t use large type,” he whispered, licking his paw with a dry tongue. “It’s a cat-rule. Start showing off and humans will become uncomfortable with our ability to use their computers better than they can. So we have to stay under 14pt.”
    “I never knew,” I told him.
    “Why would you?” he sighed.
    And from that day, I knew that if humans were to be able to put together good presentations, they would need to take advantage of this under-appreciated gift of BIG TYPE.

    “Cat-rule does not apply to us!” I screamed in countless online forums. But they didn’t take me seriously. I will not rest, though, until all human beings realise that small cattish type simply won’t suffice.

    P.s. Ralph got hit by a car the day after our heated exchange. But it had a bumper sticker with a glorious 120pt slogan. That somehow gave me closure.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Andy,

    Sorry if you feel disappointed, but the whole blog post isn’t actually about you – just that your usage of words sparked my interest to write about that.

    That’s a very funny comment and great wording.

    Too bad you don’t seem interested in discussing this in a serious manner.

  • To me the word doesn’t even have any particular gender association – if you asked me to “describe a pussy (as in wimp)” I would probably describe a weedy guy. Even if you do that it to mean a woman, I think it is a stretch to say that it implies that ALL women are pussys.

    The whole presentation is meant to be a bit lighthearted, and one way it does that is to use relatively inoffensive slang. I think it would be a real shame if we were all so scared of offending people that we didn’t make slides like the third slide.

    If there is anything to be offended by, then in my opinion it is definitely the trivialisation of suicide, which is a very complex and difficult issue to deal with.

  • Man, the post is pretty clear. How can people don’t get the point?

    “Everyone out there is ingenuous and will think that pussy, in that context, is referring to a cat. I included”. This is ridiculous. Most people out there will use the worst meaning of anything you say to them. And people can say whatever they want to, but inside they have at least thought that it could have a gender meaning. And I agree with you, this should be avoided, specially when related to gender, color/race/no-good-word-for-this, religion, sexual orientation, …

    Congrats for having the guts to write this! It’s hard to address such topics, specially in a community like ours, very gender biased and full of people trying to appear to be what they are not.

  • Farrah says:

    In general I agree with the premise that we are lazy with language and that we too readily go to gendered or other protected class derogatories to express a point in a way that is meant to make us seem totally awesome because we are so over the niceties. (But see also, the word “awesome” wildly overused in tech & creative circles.)

    I, for instance, refer to Don Draper as a ‘douchebag’ in one of my talks. I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure why someone deserving my derision is a ‘douchebag’ but it gets a laugh. I’ve generally assumed it’s a funny sounding word associated with something that makes people feel slightly embarrassed, and that this is why they laugh. By the way, this concept – funny sounding words that make you slightly embarrassed – is the cornerstone of my comedic style, and has been well documented as one of the roles of humor by Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

    But I think, perhaps, we’re conflating multiple issues here: you didn’t like seeing the word “pussy” on the first slide of a presentation deck. It bothers you. That’s fair enough. But you say you don’t like it because it’s a derogatory term against women. As (I think) the only woman who has commented (yet), I find myself skeptical. And I’ll tell you why…

    You mentioned the word “cunt” several times in this post. I’m an American so I can tell you that we really don’t use that word. It’s considered incredibly foul, and is the sort of thing someone gets slapped for. I spend a lot of time in London and among English colleagues, so I’ve become rather used to the word. In fact, I’ve come to think that women should try to take ownership of the word “cunt” – to make it more mundane by using it more themselves. What bothers me is not the word but that it has, in American culture, been reserved for something ordinary people never say but only in utmost, vengeful anger. I like the casualness of the British usage – it means, I suppose, that “cunts” are people, too.

    But what I can tell you unequivocally is that there is nothing the same about the word “pussy” and the word “cunt”. I’m not etymologist, but while people can differ on whether they think “pussy” is weak because it’s feminine or feline, I am unaware of multiple associations for “cunt”. Beyond that – we don’t, in America, call women “pussies” usually. We go straight for the descriptor you request: we tell them not to be such girls. And when we do refer to someone as a “cunt”, it is only used for a woman, and a woman we despise with all the bile in our guts. Brits call men and women alike “cunts” – I find this, in its way, refreshingly egalitarian.

    So – I’ll tie this back to my skepticism. For one: anyone who sees a remote equivalence between these two terms simply because they are “gendered” doesn’t understand their meaning or application in common usage. For another: I don’t like, as a woman, feeling like I’m being used as a shield for your discomfort. I don’t need your protection, and I’d rather you owned your own reaction than make it about something larger/more meaningful .

    Now, I don’t know you, so maybe you are an ardent feminist and feel strongly about the use of the words “pussy”, “dick” and “cunt”. Maybe you never use these words when out with friends and admonish friends who do. I don’t know. But I’ve seen this line of rationalizing before from men who are really simply saying, “I didn’t think this was funny.”

    And Andy – I’m so sorry to hear about Ralph. My thoughts are with you.

  • You can’t be assured of never offending anybody. If you strive for that goal, you’ll never say anything. But you can certainly avoid things that you are aware are offensive to your audience.

    Gendered terms and offensive terms define by implication who you think your audience is. Women are rarely told to “man up” or not be pussies. Using those terms implies that you’re not speaking to women. Using offensive terms can implicitly define an “in-group” of people who are not offended by them. As a way of defining the cool kids, that’s kind of pathetic.

    When in doubt, leave it off the slide. “Use type confidently” is a bolder statement without the “don’t” appended to it. You can always use the questionable term in your talk if it’s appropriate to the audience and context. That way, you limit the risk of offence to only those present rather than to anyone who ever sees your slides.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Sorry for late moderating of comments.

    Ian,

    In general, I agree with you that we should dare to balance on the line with what’s provocative and offensive, and I talked about that in the post. The main point wasn’t about the specific word here – it was that some words are bound to offend some people or leave them out.

    The point of the post is to make people think about that, not stop trying to be funny, lighthearted or similar.

    Ricardo,

    Thank you! Glad you liked it, and happy to see that you got my point.

    Farrah,

    Thanks for a long and thorough comment!

    The gist of this blog post wasn’t about the word “pussy” being used, it was rather that I’ve gotten so used to seeing words being haphazardly used, when it is pretty established that those will offend some people, or at the very least make them feel excluded. More often, from what I see, this seems to be more beneficial for men than women, but definitely not always.

    Personally, I’m fine with swearing etc, but if you use words that has a charged meaning and that some people use to diminish others (and not in a fun context, like your douchebag example, but in real life power use cases) I don’t think that’s respectful.

    Like you say, the two words are vastly different in meaning and how strong they are. And I wouldn’t say they are both bad connected because they are gendered, but because of how people have been using both of them in a demeaning manner, or that there are people who percieve them as excluding.

    Funny that you mention the part about women and needing protection. I considered focusing on that in the blog post, being very clear that my role is not here to take on defending women – I’m more than convinced that men and women alike can defend themselves just fine, if needed.

    I would say that the point of the blog post is about something more meaningful, though. Not the word pussy – that was just what started the blog post – but about how we use words and how they can offend someone, no matter if we meant it or not. How we need to consider how we might alienate people for such unnecessary reasons.

    Janet,

    I completely agree, striving for not offending isn’t a solution. Like you say, the main point was just to say that certain terms and words are bound to offend, to some extent, or unnecessarily create in-groups.

  • (I haven’t read all of the comments, but find-in-page suggests that no-one has yet mentioned this, and it’s semi-on-topic:)

    Geek Feminism has a guide for foul-mouthed feminists, listing various invectives and epithets, along with their suggested suitability for use by decent humans.

    These words may offend but don’t oppress. I think this is the missing distinction in pretty much all “political correctness gone mad” discussions.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Greg,

    Thanks for the link!
    I’d agree that offending vs. oppressing is a valuable point, and definitely something that comes to matter.

    One small part not covered there, though, is that even if the word itself is the friendliest ever, it could have been used as oppressing/demeaning by less considerate people, so it’s also based on the word’s history.

    Tricky, for sure.

  • Karig says:

    The best reaction I can think of to that “don’t be a pussy” slide is:

    “If you’re trying to explain something to somebody, it works better when you’re not being an asshole.”

    And I agree with the author: When somebody starts a presentation or an argument with an insult, I’m inclined to blow him off, particularly when there are other people around I could get the same information from.

  • Robert Nyman says:

    Karig,

    Thanks, glad you agree!

  • skoppI ion says:

    Nice article. Admittedly, I was scrolling (fast) down your blog front page so I don’t know how I saw the title : “Pussy”.

    Naturally, I wanted to know what the fsck you had to say about cats so clicked through.

    I still don’t know, just got the gist that powerpoints should start off ionteresting. I “Pocket/Formely-read-it-later’d” it so don’t worry I will read it. Later (it’s safe in my Pocket).

  • skopp says:

    What is skopp l ion?? Crissakes.

    Sorry, I just remembered that I had two actual things to say but got lost in this ‘pussy’ affair.

    1. Wordplay is an excellent writing style – to get a point accross. But only a few can do it. For everyone else, there’s MAstercard.

    2. Suggestion: it took me about 6 minutes to get to the bottom of this so I could post a comment. I have no mouse, my keyboard is a Dvorak (yup…those. And it’s okay, I’m over the grief phase – I DO NOT want sympathy ok!) and to top it off my pet lizard, Horace, enjoys sleeping on the part of the keyboard where the pgup and pgdn keys are (I think it’s warm there). So I had to phone my uncle who was in a bad mood, so I hung up on him. Then tried a “friend” of mine and begged him to go to this page, scroll to the bottom and provide me the direct link with the div id to the comment div.

    Just saying.

  • […] in November my colleague Robert Nyman wrote about a word that annoys him. I like that. I think our day to day online conversations are full of little misunderstandings and […]

  • […] in November my colleague Robert Nyman wrote about a word that annoys him. I like that. I think our day to day online conversations are full of little misunderstandings and […]

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