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Opinion A middle finger to decorum: Why should women pay for swearing?

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Michael Gove, the U.K.’s Environment Secretary and one of the key architects of the campaign to leave the European Union, made some pointed remarks about the opposition Labour Party this week, ending with this pithy observation: “Their official Brexit position is bollocks.”

You don’t need a Canadian-British dictionary to understand that Mr. Gove had reached down for a more pungent word than “hogwash.” The members opposite shook their heads at him, more in sorrow than in anger. The speaker of the house, John Bercow – whose wife has a “bollocks to Brexit” sticker on her car – was asked if he’d made a ruling on whether this was unparliamentary use of language. “There was nothing disorderly about the use of the word,” he replied. “I think it is a matter of taste.”

Indeed, when it comes to the public use of profanity, it all comes down to a matter of taste. And those subjective measures of vulgarity, offence and shocked pink cheeks have as much to do with who’s speaking as what is being said. When women swear in public – especially high-profile women – a stampede of the righteous arrive on their high horses to explain why this is corrosive to polite society. Profanity has a variety of benefits, from stress relief to pain relief, except for the ladies who dare to work blue.

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Rashida Tlaib, the newly elected Congresswoman from Michigan, kicked off the latest furor when she suggested to a gathering of progressives that their intentions toward the U.S. President should be to “Impeach the motherfucker.” Now, you can argue about whether possible impeachment is the best strategy for the Democrats to pursue, and that is a vital and fascinating debate. But that was not the debate that followed. Instead, Ms. Tlaib was pilloried for her language. The President, who famously declared that it was a fine idea to sexually assault women by grabbing them by a euphemism for their genitals, deemed Ms. Tlaib’s language “disgraceful.”

Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only female prime minister, then repeated the insult on her Twitter feed, specifically in reference to Mr. Trump’s cavalier response to the suffering of American workers affected by the federal government shutdown. Ms. Campbell deleted her tweet, but not before the offended took to their fainting couches in a mass swooning. I personally find it more offensive that this country has not had another female prime minister in 25 years – not even come close – but that’s just me.

When I tweeted my support of Ms. Campbell’s language, I was told she was told she was an “attention whore,” “bats**t” and “a douche.” These are perhaps critics who do not have a keen sense of irony.

Ms. Campbell pointed out that her counterpart Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, has been far more graphic in his denunciation of the American President. Mr. Fox once went on Fox News (no relation) to avow that his country would not “pay for the [expletive deleted] wall.” But men, you know, they just can’t control their manly outbursts of passion. That would explain why former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney told a Democratic senator – on the Senate floor, that hallowed space – to go copulate with himself.

It would also explain why notorious swearer Donald Trump reportedly used the f-word three times in a closed-door meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – on the very same day he was denouncing Ms. Tlaib’s remarks as “disgraceful.” Residents of countries the President referred to by a profane euphemism for “toilet” were not consulted on this hypocrisy.

In her book about women’s anger, Good and Mad, journalist Rebecca Traister notes that female politicians such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand get labelled “unhinged” for swearing, but that they also find power and sisterhood in co-opting traditionally male language. “Like anger itself, cursing has been discouraged in women as it is considered unladylike and masculinizing,” she writes. “But in fact it’s useful precisely because it is an outlet for all that pent-up anger.”

Some swearing is considered a sign of authenticity. Some is considered vulgar, shameful and weak. To this day, women who use profanity in public fall into the latter camp, as Emmy Byrne points out in her 2017 book Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language. “Whether we like it or not,” Dr. Byrne writes, “research shows that we are still a lot more judgmental of women who use taboo language than we are of men.”

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One of the studies she cites was conducted at the University of Louisiana: Participants were shown texts containing swear words, and consistently rated the text more offensive when they knew the speaker was a woman. In another study, breast-cancer patients in their 50s who swore frequently were more likely to alienate their friends.

There’s also an interesting discussion in Dr. Byrne’s book about how much women swear (it’s on the rise) and how that profanity is increasingly being employed in the way that men have traditionally used it: to bond with each other. One researcher, Karyn Stapleton, told her: “When women swear, they’re expressing trust in other people. When you’re able to relax with someone and swear with them, that means you trust them.” However, Dr. Stapleton added, “Swearing is still more circumscribed for women, it is a higher risk.”

Any woman who has jokingly called her girlfriend “bitch” and then glared at a man who did the same will understand the dynamic. I think that’s what was going on with Ms. Campbell and Ms. Tlaib: It was a way of saying, I see you; I understand why you’re flouting the rules; and frankly I don’t give a [expletive deleted] for the rules either. We didn’t agree to these rules; we’re making new ones.

I’ll gladly raise a middle finger to decorum and welcome these new rules. Everyone else may want to cover their eyes and ears for the next little while.

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