Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sucks Stinks

(READ THIS BEFORE MOVING ON—the following post contains repeated instances of curse words, including one that some find particularly offensive—the “f-word” [that’s the last time in this post that I do not use the actual word]. I use the words in this post to analyze their semantic functions through an anthropological lens. I also spend the entire post criticizing their use, not because they’ve been defined as “curses,” but because I think their use has other, nasty social consequences. This warning may seem overboard, but if anyone from my institution of employment comes across this post, I want to be clear that this is not the case of a professor going off with f-bombs for some polemic purpose. I’m doing this because it’s anthropologically interesting and relevant.)

Why Sucks Stinks
I never thought I’d be one of those parents to watch my language around my children to avoid cursing, but it’s happened. More than anything, I don’t want them to suffer the consequences of using foul language in some non-home context…some teacher or other parent scolding them for doing something that may have seemed normal at home. So, my wife and I have become active patrollers of our language.


My recent posts have noted my self-perceived failings as a parent. This one, however, is an attempt to think through a strategy for socially conscious parenting.

Two words in particular have really caught my attention. While many don’t consider the ubiquitous “sucks” necessarily a curse word, that’s one that I’m most actively avoiding now and trying to replace with “stinks”…though I often fail as the word has become such a lexical reflex for Americans born after 1970. My avoidance of the word is more than just wanting my kids to evade punishment by non-parental authorities, I believe that sucks, and its more infamous cousin, fucks, both embed subtle and not-so-subtle messages of misogyny. Being a person who likes to think of himself as committed to fairness and social equality, I would like to avoid doing anything that contributes to the perpetuation of unfairness and inequality. And since I’m the active agent of enculturation for two new humans, I’d like to pass on those ideals and practices.

How did I come to this conclusion about sucks? Once I started really paying attention to cursing, I began to think about all of the meanings embedded in those words. After all, they’re just words right? Sticks and stones and all.

Covert Meanings: Mock Spanish
At this point, my anthropological training kicked in and I thought back on much of the linguistics I’d studied in school. During graduate school, I was lucky enough to take a class with Jane Hill. While linguistics was not my focus, her work has stuck with me and I still assign one of her articles (discussed some below) every semester in my cultural anthropology classes (Hill 1998, for a book length treatment, Hill 2008).

In one of her more provocative ideas (I say provocative, because my students generally vehemently disagree with it), she focuses on the insidious racism present in what she terms Mock Spanish. Hill argues that Mock Spanish is one of the ways, though definitely not the only, that racism is able to culturally reproduce itself in a society that proclaims to be post-racial (if you ask someone if racism is bad, they will almost always agree and say that it is a nasty thing of the past, yet racial patterns of real inequality still persist).

Linguistically, Mock Spanish is a kind of use of Spanish-sounding words and phrases within situations where English is the primary language used—not Spanglish which is characteristic of speakers who are fluent in both Spanish and English and can skillfully weave the two together to produce nuanced meaning and aesthetic effects impossible with one language alone.

While I very much encourage interested readers to seek out Hill’s work for themselves, here’s an example to illustrate the idea. Imagine a ninth grade classroom in upstate New York (why here? Because demographically, Upstate—real upstate, near Canada—tends to be predominately White and one would not assume a student would be a Spanish speaker), where the teacher is strolling between desks checking student understanding of some newly introduced concept. To one student, the teacher asks, “do you understand?” To another student, he asks, “comprende?” Comprende being a Spanish substitute for the former question (though improperly conjugated), and an example of Mock Spanish. Hill contends, and I agree, that a covert form of racism is enacted in that question.

At this point, Typical-Anthro-101-Student responds:
How is this a form of covert racism? The teacher wasn’t speaking to a Hispanic person, and no Hispanic folks were even in the room. Also, the teacher was talking about math, not spouting racist hate speech. I bet that teacher is a firm believer in social equality and civil rights. You pinko, lefty academics look into things too much.
Here’s how it is a form of racism, though not the explicit, KKK-style form most conjure up with the term. What extra meaning is communicated when comprende is used? It’s more than just a playful, direct substitution of meaning-equivalent words. It does to that though…at some level, the direct meaning communicated is exactly the same. For me (and I bet you too, if you’ll admit it), however there’s some nastiness underneath. To me, it seems like the teacher thinks one of two things. One, “the concept is so easy, that anyone could understand it.” Two, “the student is too stupid to understand it.” While I repeatedly noted that that is my understanding, I am a product of some version of American culture, so I can’t be alone in this (at least I know Jane Hill has similar understandings).

The question is, why does a Spanish (sounding) word produce this extra nuance of meaning? Jane Hill’s answer is that, somewhere in the back of my head, I have access to a negative stereotype of Spanish speaking peoples and that stereotype informs my interpretation of the algebra teacher’s question. I’ll restate my earlier interpretations more explicitly, making the covert overt. One, “the concept is so easy, that anyone could understand it, even a person who speaks Spanish.” Two, “the student is too stupid to understand it, like a person who speaks Spanish.” When qualified like that, the racist meanings are clearly visible. To “get” this example of Mock Spanish, there must be something in my cultural understanding of the world that sees Spanish speakers as stupid, otherwise, the “comprende” question makes no sense beyond a simple substitution.

IMPORTANT NOTE—I, as an individual, do not consciously hold or advocate the opinions listed in the preceding paragraph within quotes. In fact, I argue that these kinds of ideas are negative and dangerous. I’m simply describing Jane Hill’s work on how to uncover hidden meaning in order to make it more visible, more ridiculous with the hopes of deconstructing such meanings and their effects (I sometimes find such clear disclaimers necessary when discussing touchy subjects in class). Put simply…racism is bad, even these small forms, and all efforts to put it to an end should be pursued.--NOTE FINISHED

Subsequently, while an individual speaker may have absolutely no racist intention, collectively, the use of Mock Spanish serves to reproduce racist ideology and imagery—small bricks in a racist project. This racism may not be as atrocious as slavery or lynching, but still has no place in a society that truly values equality and acceptance.

You still don’t believe me? One more example. Americans often engage in “Mock-French” as well, but with different subtle meanings attached (making things seem snobby, fancy, effete or elite). One of the most common contemporary uses is the transformation of the name of the big box store, Target into Mock French—tar-ZHAY. That humorous transformation conveys the idea that Target sells better merchandise than competing big box stores, or simply makes mockery of the idea that any big box store would sell anything fancy or elite.

While folks usually don’t apply Mock Spanish to Target, I will now. In Mock Spanish, Target would become “El Target-o” (this is another strategy of Mock Spanish, taking English words and adding the “El and o.” Think “el crapo,” “el cheapo”). What message is communicated with El Targeto? Quite different than the Mock French meanings.

This extended discussion is to communicate the idea that meaning can be complex and subtle. And, that complex and subtle meanings can contribute to the construction of systems of exclusion, in the case of Mock Spanish, racism. In the case of sucks and fucks, sexism and misogyny.

Metaphors of Sex (Let’s Talk about Sex)
Cross-culturally, people have sex, talk about sex, and use that talk about sex metaphorically in non-sexual contexts. Metaphors involve taking language from one domain of experience and applying it to another (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). When this semantic strategy is used, a package of associated meanings comes along for the ride, not just of the specific words used in the metaphor.

When sexual metaphors are used, a large dose of assumptions and attitudes about gender come along for the ride. Talk about sex occurs for a variety of reasons, but a common way that Americans talk about and use metaphors about sex illustrate a continuing ideological attempt to maintain a status hierarchy for men at the expense of women.

Typical-Anthro-101-Student returns: Dude, seriously?

Bear with me. I’m now returning to two of the most frequently used curse terms currently in use in American English. Fuck and suck obviously refer to sexual behavior and are many times used to specially describe sexual acts, though not always. In many cases, the words are used metaphorically to communicate messages not necessarily directly tied to sexual behavior. The metaphorical uses of the term conjure up not just sex (behavior), but also sex (as in gender). I don’t think the under the radar meanings that I’m going to try and uncover here are as subtle as those described for Mock Spanish. However, before we get to those very common English curse words, let’s take a brief detour into ethnography.

Symmetries of Sex, Gender and Speech
In my cultural anthropology classes, I sometimes show a film, The Canela Indians: Mending Ways, based on the ethnographic work of William Crocker. To my students (and most folks), the most interesting thing about the Canela is their “extra-martial sex system.” In public rituals and private trysts, in pairs and in groups, traditional Canela life included sexual unions far beyond that found in monogamous married pairs. While most societies include such diversity of sexual groupings, the key point with the Canela is that the extra-marital sex was, for the most part, socially sanctioned. A point made in the film and the accompanying ethnography (Crocker and Crocker 2004) is that these sexual connections supported and extended the more general system of generalized-to-balanced reciprocity that bound the Canela society together.

From my reading and viewing of these works, it seems that both men and women were equal players in this sexual system. Women and men “exchanged” sexual actions just as they exchanged food…no double standards, and no one consistently getting the bad end of a deal—a symmetry of gender relations seemed the rule.

As in our culture, the Canela used sexually metaphors that referenced sex. One important rite of passage for young boys was the ear piercing ritual. The conduct the procedure was called hapak-khre (Crocker and Crocker 2004:74). As is usually the case, the action and language associated with ritual is symbolically charged. This term was also metaphorically used in a number of other contexts. One specific meaning of hapak-khre is to open up, which can also be applied to a woman’s first sexual encounter. Because a boy’s ear is “opened-up,” the Canela also see that as becoming willing to be advised by others, to listen to others.

In the end, the basic equivalencies are: “piercing ear” is similar to “woman having sex for first time” is similar to “provide advice, or assist.” A young woman’s first sexual experience is equivalent to elders advising one another…both actions viewed under a positive light. I believe the use of this metaphor reflects and reproduces the more general sexual equality evident in the ethnography. This contrasts markedly with the meanings associated with the words under analysis described below.


Deconstructing Fuck and Suck
Now, we’ll return to the primary subject of this post, fuck and suck. To begin with, I think it’s important to be very explicit about the meanings of these words and the contexts in which they are used. For the most part, I will restrict my discussion to the use of both words as verbs. At a level of direct reference, both refer, or can refer to sexual interactions (here, suck has many more uses, such as infants nursing on mothers or bottles. I am not referring to these uses in this post and these are not the ones that folks using the word as slang are referencing). Put most simply, fuck describes the act of sexual intercourse and suck refers to some variety of oral sex. Syntactically, the use of the words as verbs also implies the existence of a subject and an object—the subject fucks/sucks the object.

Now let’s move to the common metaphorical levels in which these words are commonly put to use. Fuck is used in many different ways, so I’ll only note a few of the more popular here. “Fuck you” is an archetypal insult. The full sentence would be “(I)-[subject] fuck you-[object].” Describing a person or situation as “fucked” refers to that person or situation having become seriously hurt, damaged, embarrassed, etc.—all bad things. On the other hand, stating that one “fucks” or “fucked” another person usually means that the subject dominated, degraded, humiliated or hurt the object. When you use fuck, it’s better to be the subject than the object.

Suck is a bit quicker to describe. At the metaphoric level, to say something “sucks” is to say it is bad, whether person, situation, thing…whatever. Unlike the previous example, the subject is the primary part of the statement referenced. Yes, someone could say, “that Danzig-[subject] concert sucked donkey balls-[object],” but the object here is for effect and not main target of the utterance. The main point of the statement is to diminish the subject doing the “sucking.”

Just to be completest, Canela metaphor took phenomena from a non-sexual domain of experience to a sexual one. In the English examples, a sexual domain of experience is transferred to non-sexual ones. Regardless, both cases show transfers of bundles of meaning with all of their associated cultural baggage, good and bad.

Let’s Get to the Point, or it sucks to suck and you’re fucked when someone fucks you
So far, so good and, what the hell am I talking about with all the misogyny and sexism? Well, one lesson we learned from Mock Spanish is that context matters. Mock Spanish consisted of Spanish-ish words and phrases used in negative and humorous contexts. The examples I’m exploring share that characteristic of context, in this case, almost always as some way to insult or demean something or someone.

Another key point of this whole discussion hinges on the direction of the action in the usage of the two words under analysis. Remember the Canela’s symmetrical gender relations? This was apparent in their behavior and in the uses of hapak-khre—both men and women participated in extra-marital sex without stigma and the term was used without hierarchically grading women or men. On the other hand, the usage of fuck and suck demonstrate marked gender asymmetry and inequality. When using either word, being subject or object matters and consistently, one gender gets the bad end of the deal. In the case of fuck, the subject holds power, while the object is degraded and humiliated. In the case of suck, the subject is degraded and humiliated, while the identity of the object is less important. Why is this important?

When we use language, we depend on a society’s conventions, which are often idealizations of some particular meaning. I’m not talking “idealization” in the sense of perfect, but in the sense of a common convention of normality (I’m sure there’s a specific term in linguistics, but at the moment, I’m ignorant). If not thinking about a specific thing when using words, we tend to fill our heads with normalized conventions of what word is being used. If no specific chair is being discussed, when I think of a “chair,” I often think of some ideal-type kitchen chair. When I think of a car, I don’t think about my beat-up Toyota Echo. I think of a “normal,” “average” car.

How do we think about sex, then? If not thinking of a specific interaction, many people imagine the stereotypical pair of a man and woman in a heterosexual exchange…from Adam and Eve on. So, we’ve got a “normalized/idealized” image. What happens when we add the words under analysis? Both of these words have conventional gendered assumptions as to who is the object and who is the subject in a statement. In my understanding, a man fucks a woman (wow, I feel like a five year old with that sentence). As for the most part, a woman sucks a man, at least in the interaction I believe most Americans would first conjure. Please post in comments if you disagree, I’d love to hear your understandings. Some of my students vehemently disagreed; they argued the subject and object are not consistently gendered.  These are undoubtedly heteronormative understandings, but that’s the culture we live in.

Now, let’s combine the importance of the subject/object distinctions with the metaphorical meanings of our two words that I discussed above. Typically, fuck and suck demean and degrade someone or something; fuck degrades the object, suck degrades the subject. Combined with the conventional image of sex described in the previous paragraph, this means that the woman is degraded and demeaned in both instances, while the man is empowered in the case of fuck. The frequency of the use of these two curses means that unconscious images of women’s degradation and humiliation and men’s empowerment at women’s expense are enacted constantly.

(Side note: Every time I discuss topics like Brazilian travestis (Kulick 1997) in my classes, students have a hard time grappling with the idea that in some cultural contexts, men who have sex with men are not considered “gay.” In the case of the travestis, men who perform the penetrating role in a sexual interaction are not considered gay, maintain a masculine identity and continue being “regular men.” It’s the whole subject and object distinction I’ve been talking about here. For my students, the role in the homosexual tryst doesn’t matter, they’re both gay, but for the folks in Brazil, the role definitely does matter. However, in the metaphorical use of fuck and suck, role does matter.)

So, every time fuck and suck are used in their usual ways, a speaker and listener generate a small reproduction of ideologies of gender hierarchy and misogyny.

Anthro-101-Professor’s Turn
All this talk about language makes me think about my basic lecture to my 101 students. Of course, I must include some discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. While this is often a misunderstood idea, I think most anthropologists would agree that at least we can say that the way language is used predisposes folks to certain patterns of thought—how you say, what you say shapes what you think, and how you see the world. So, my point in this entire post is that how people talk, either Canela or Americans, affects how they view sex and the people and things associated with sex.

Sticks and Stones…
may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

When I was a kid, I never liked this saying. I suffered at the end of words much more than I did from sticks and stones. While the saying ostensibly is to empower children to take the sting from insults, it seems to me that just saying “they don’t hurt” avoids the real issue. Words do hurt and I think it’s more responsible to understand why and how they hurt. Once you understand how hurtful language works, you see its underlying mechanisms, you see it for arbitrary and you can work against it. That’s the message that I want my kids to hear (They’re three and one, so I’m assigning this post as bedtime reading).

Don’t get me wrong, I think there are much more heinous examples of racism and misogyny in the world today. I firmly believe that all people should work in whatever capacity they can to end major forms of oppression. However, that doesn’t mean that smaller forms shouldn’t also be understood, deconstructed and done away with. And on top of that, the examples used in this post are so easy to put an end to—we just have to watch what we say. Language like this is simply part of the ongoing production of a cultural matrix of racism and sexism. And if I’m wrong, are you really that oppressed if you think twice before saying comprende, fuck and suck?



References Cited

Crocker, William and Jean G. Crocker (2004) The Canela: Kinship, Ritual and Sex in an Amazonian Tribe. Wadsworth Publishing.

Hill, Jane (1998) Language, Race and White Public Space. American Anthropologist Vol. 100, No. 3 pp. 680-689.

Hill, Jane (2008) The Everyday Language of White Racism. Wiley-Blackwell.

Kulick, Don (1997) The Gender of Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. American Anthropologist Vol. 99, No. 3 pp. 574-585

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4 comments:

  1. This was an interesting post (even if I did only find it today).

    I found myself recognizing the impulse to evaluate the meanings inherent in curse words, and I wanted to get your thoughts on power and cursing as well. I find that the characteristics of the "curse-er" and the observer, for lack of better term, have an impact in the perception of the "curse-ing".

    As a young, generally polite, educated, well-spoken white female, I am at a power disadvantage in most interpersonal interactions (especially those in the public sphere with middle-aged, heterosexual white men). I have found that dropping "the f-bomb" during a confrontation (after politeness doesn't work) gives a brief pause to the other party that seems to help break through their perception that I am a) helpless, b) stupid, c) unable to act without the permission a male in my life, etc. Were I a young, urban, male of any background except Caucasian, the perception of the cursing would likely be different.

    So perhaps I already think about cursing and use it judiciously, if that was your main point. I am not a linguist or cultural anthropologist, but it seems that using gender-related curse words in a gender-reversed or gender-neutral (I use "sucks" generally with "it" or "this") fashion at specific times is more effective communication than the complete absence of cursing in an adult, American vocabulary.

    ...and none of that that really applies to cursing around your children.

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  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m always surprised that anyone reads this blog and if you found it interesting, I’m pleased.

    Here’s my two cents. I completely understand your point. Language is a system of meaning and meaning is often contingent on social context. In your case, you have found that as a woman in a culture/society build on sexism/male privilege, occasional use of language such as that discussed in my post provides you an advantage and furthers your agenda in specific situations.

    However, in my reading, that language is part of the mechanisms that construct that system of sexism/male privilege in the first place, regardless of the social identity of the speaker. If the assumed gendered subject/object distinctions I discuss in my post are correct, the context common uses of fuck and suck, the following analogy makes sense:

    man:woman as aggressive/winner:degraded/humiliated

    As long as that analogy holds, I think that any use of the terms perpetuates sexism and misogyny.

    Language shifts and demeaning language can be reappropriated and given new, positive meaning. Here, I’m thinking of the transformation of the meaning of "queer" in the gay community from an insult into a celebration of non-normative identity. However, since the meanings I’ve discussed in this post are a bit more covert, I do think it would be a bit more difficult to fundamentally transform their meaning. As noted, I simply choose to not use them (though, I often slip up and use them...they’re such a common part of informal American English discourse that it’s hard to avoid them).

    This is just my view and I welcome other perspectives. I do feel uncomfortable offering this interpretation as a man communicating with a woman as it may smack of paternalism. That is definitely not my intent.

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  3. It's all too true in, the infamous ethnography " When I wear my alligator boots"

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  4. It's all too true in, the infamous ethnography " When I wear my alligator boots"

    ReplyDelete