When Are Words Just Words?

One of my favorite arguments as a teen was “it’s just a word.” This was usually elicited as a response to admonishments about how girls shouldn’t swear, it wasn’t “ladylike,” or that I was more “intelligent” and shouldn’t need to resort to such words (sometimes, though, “fuck” is just the right word).

            It’s a favorite argument of anyone using a word that’s generally considered crass, crude, or obscene. But that doesn’t prevent people from being offended—and often, being rightfully offended about the context the word is used in. You’re never going to please everyone; someone is almost inevitably going to be offended. One nearly needs to look at the arguments about the use of the word “cunt,” which varies in its reception between British/Australian English and American/Canadian English. North Americans are likely to cringe any time they hear the word, while for many Brits and Australians, it’s akin to calling someone a “tosser” (all right, maybe more mean—but you can use it for anyone and everyone). This has led to many debates over whether or not the word is innocuous; it is, after all, slang for a woman’s genitals and usually used as an insult, which amounts of degradation of the female sex. Brits surely don’t see it as an issue, whereas many North Americans have been taught to avoid this word at all costs.



            Given the ongoing debates about crude words, it’s little wonder that Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans caused a stir in a pre-Avengers interview when they referred to Black Widow as a “slut” and a “whore” (and Renner did it again last year). While some news outlets noted that Renner and Evans were “clearly joking,” using the terms in a sarcastic or even ironic manner (which indicates they don’t really think this about the character, but are responding to others’ interpretation of her), others, including many fans, were unimpressed with the actors’ choice of words. They argued that even if the insults were delivered in a sarcastic manner, they should have never been uttered, as it too clearly mirrors issues about the denigration and stereotyping of women in both Hollywood and comics. The representation of women both in comic books and on the silver screen has become a hot button subject for a lot of people in recent years, particularly as the two have melded and more and more female comic book fans have come to the fore. Discussions about sexist content, misogynistic comments delivered at conventions, and other horror stories of mistreatment are all too common. This isn’t an isolated incident either; these attitudes permeate through Western culture at large and are replicated in the video game community (Gamergate, anyone?), sports cultures, workplaces, and homes in North America and Western Europe. One merely needs to look to the internet to see how women are treated by society at large.
            So are words just words? Would we have been nearly as offended if Renner and Evans called Black Widow a “stupid fuck”? The language is still obscene, but lacks the misogynistic dimension of the insults they chose; the shades of sexism are less pronounced with “stupid fuck” than with “whore” and “slut.” So sure, we can argue that words are just words, but that fails to fully remove the cultural and social weight they’ve been given—sarcasm not withstanding. Much as we might want them to be, words are almost never “just words.”


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