When Toni Morrison, best-selling author, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was criticized for her depiction of graphic violence, and use of the N-word in her book, Beloved, she said this: “The slave owners were creative in their cruelty. I am taking that creative power back”.
She did not describe the violence of slavery for entertainment value, nor did she whitewash the verbal abuse black people have endured in this country. Instead, she exercised her freedom as a black woman living in the 20th century to write a novel about the unthinkable horrors of slavery. When I read her novel as a 21-year-old white woman, I came face-to-face with a narrative about human slavery that I had been shielded from up until then. It was supposed to make me uncomfortable – to disgust, offend, and ignite me, and it did.
This weekend I marched alongside over 4.2 million women, men, and children worldwide – across all seven continents – many of whom were wearing homemade bright pink pussycat-ear shaped “pussy hats”. Some of them were carrying posters with pictures of cats, or the phrase “pussy grabs back” on it. I saw one woman dressed in a vulva costume, and another woman wearing a vulva hat.
Since then, I have seen a whole lot of conservative women on the internet react to these hats and posters with revulsion, criticism, and even accusations that the same women carrying these “vulgar” signs are part of the culture that promotes and celebrates the moral depravity we have seen from Donald Trump.
When I was in college, studying Religion at a Baptist University, a man named Tony Campolo came to speak to my class about childhood poverty in America. “There are more than 10 million American children who’s families can’t afford to feed them today”, he said. “And the harsh reality is that most of you sitting here today don’t really give a shit”. “In fact”, he continued, “I would be willing to bet that most of you here today care more about the fact that I just said the word ‘shit'”.
So let me try to explain what I see as a similarly frustrating response to the language used by some participants in the Women’s March on Saturday.
Did you know that one in four American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime? Do you doubt for one second that the current President of the United States has sexually harassed, molested, assaulted, or abused women? Because he admitted it on tape – more than once. Try to wrap your head around that with me for a moment: a little less than half of this country’s voters voted for a man that was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.
I’ll say it again. They heard that tape, and they voted for him.
For many women who have been sexually assaulted, the election results exposed every single fear they have about our “look-the-other-way” “boys-will-be-boys” “what-were-you-wearing” culture. Because that was exactly Trump’s defense. “It’s locker room talk”, “she’s not attractive enough to assault”, “it’s all lies”.
On the morning of November 9th, the first person I talked to voice-to-voice was a sexual assault survivor. Through wracking sobs, she asked me, “What do you think my attacker learned today? Because I think he learned what I learned.”
Until Trump’s Access Hollywood tape was released, I had probably only said the word “pussy” maybe 12 times in my life – usually in an embarrassed whisper when quoting someone else. Almost every single time a man has said the word “pussy” to me, or in front of me, it has been meant to humiliate or threaten me. I haven’t been conditioned by my life experiences to be a fan of that word, and even now am a bit nervous to defend it.
When a word has been used by someone in a position of power to abuse or malign a person that does not occupy that same position of power, it is unquestionably offensive. But when that same word is used by the victim(s) – ON THEIR OWN TERMS – and turned into something empowering and unifying, that is how you take the power of a word back.
So, even if you hate the word and would never use it, never allow your kids to use, drop dead in the street if your husband or father or brother or mother or neighbor used it, please try to imagine how impossibly healing it might feel for countless other women to stand in a sea of people celebrating the power of that word as a unifying force.
By reclaiming the word “pussy” in this strikingly feminine way – knitting a bunch of pink hats, creating art, costumes, camaraderie, and conversation – 4.2 million women (and male allies) worldwide said, “This is our word now. We are going to take the narrative about our bodies back”.
After Saturday’s march, I cannot imagine ever feeling afraid or offended by this word again. How powerful is that?
#WomensMarch #WhyIMarch #PussyHat #PussyGrabsBack #MarchOn