Is “Douchebag” Sexist?

August 20th, 2008 · 4 Comments

From Ann at Feministing:

It’s pretty easy to see why this evolved as an insult. Douchebag is funny because it’s anachronistic. It was a device once promoted for health reasons, but as science has marched on, douching is generally just thought of as an embarrassing (and definitely not-talked-about) product for women who are paranoid about good old-fashioned vagina smells. If we’re honest, we also laugh at it because it grosses us out. (Call it the bro-ish side of some feminists, myself included.) Like Dodai at Jezebel, I’m not calling for a ban on the word. Just asking feminists to think about it a bit more before saying it. To consider whether using “douchebag” as an insult is just another way of saying “everything associated with vaginas is icky!”

No, it’s saying that some things associated with vaginas are icky. Some things associated with just about every part of the human body in general and male or female bodies in particular are icky. Smegma, anyone? Spooge? I don’t think there is anything misogynist in acknowledging that some of the fluids emitted from the female body can be a little gross. Genuinely gross. And as such they form a legitimate basis for insulting someone.

“Douchebag” is funny not only because it’s icky, but because it sounds funny. Take care of the sound, the sound will take care of the sense, as Lewis Carroll once said. Not always true, but in cases like this, it works. How about “ass-hat”? Does anyone really know what that means? No! But it sounds funny. Dickhead, butthead, shithead, and my son’s favorite, poopyhead — a lot more sound is at work than sense.

Does the word’s relationship to female anatomy or to anachronistic female hygiene put it off limits*? Ann provides a thoughtful discussion of the history of the douching practice and how social attitudes varied depending on the marital status of the woman performing it. Shorter version: it’s okay if you’re married, but single women who do it are sluts. Pretty reprehensible stuff — but, sadly, just about anything a single woman did was viewed as having slut potential. “Naughty” nurses and secretaries, especially; teachers and librarians, not as often, but they pop up even now as part of sexual fantasy. Personally, I deplore the slut-shaming as much as the sexist assumptions regarding single women. But I don’t think “douchebag” inherently connotes either of these stupid ideas. Moreover, I feel there is a risk made in the opposite direction: by putting female bodies or anything associated with them completely out of bounds as the basis of ridicule, would we not be putting them on a pedestal, idealizing them beyond their human qualities.

Human beings are funny. Their bodies are funny. And gross. And weird. And awkward. Zits, farts, dangly bits, hairs, snot, phlegm — as biological beings, we contend with these strange, uncomfortable aspects of our bodies. We have developed lotions, cleansers, trimmers, and other methods to manage them, if not completely eliminate or hide them (and in the process making some people very rich.) The same holds true for those things unique to female and male bodies: pricks, tits, twats, balls and all the wonderful fluids they bring forth. They all serve important functions, but they can be quite embarrassing. And embarrassment, discomfort, inconvenience, grossness — these are the basis of humor. Not the most sophisticated variety, to be sure, but unless you are a total snob (and thus likely trying to distance yourself from your body and all its problems), you should recognize the value of humor derived from our most intimate experiences. Nothing especially “bro-ish” about that.

* Yes, Ann states that she is not trying to ban the word. And the discussion is certainly worth having — hence, my engaging in it. But for some folks it’s a short step from raising the question to calling for a ban, so I feel it’s necessary to address that possibility. Back to whence ye came

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