Swearing is a touchy subject for some of us. Whether it is to express frustration, to be obscene, to be provocative or to be intentionally hurtful, not everyone tolerates profanity.
For someone like me, whose self-imposed cussing limit is ‘damn’, ‘hell’, ‘bloody’ and ‘bugger’; who constantly shrieks ‘flip’ and ‘sherbet’ instead of their more colourful counterparts; and who cringes at hearing the tamest terms like ‘ass’ and ‘b***h’; you can imagine how much I wilt when people let loose and casually drop the F-bomb and the like in front of me. To avoid coming off as snooty, I don’t say anything instead of revealing my discomfort.
If I think about it, I’ve been exposed to swearing my entire life. My parents, who taught me to never curse in the presence of others, often went straight for the F-word rather than anything else. At get togethers, family friends swore when the situation called for it (or when it most certainly did not). Countless programmes and movies that I watched whilst growing up had characters who cursed themselves to the moon and back, making them seem edgy, or – as others would say – badass. At high school, my classmates started to nonchalantly slip the occasional ‘s**t’ and ‘ass***e’, among other colourful expletives, into their conversations.
In particular, seeing my peers swear made me bristle inwardly. I had grown up with most of them, going back as far as preschool. We had been taught the same values and life lessons that were sure to keep us in some higher power’s good books if we stuck to them – one of these was to not use profane language; to rather speak politely and with courtesy in the presence of others.
But I had to consider this: had my classmates been all boys instead of girls (as it was a girls’ school that I attended until university), would I see them any differently if they swore openly, or would I have simply accepted it because “boys will be boys”?
As Michael Gaulthier points out in his text labelled Profanity and Gender: a diachronic analysis of men’s and women’s use and perception of swear words, “Gender norms pervade every aspect of people’s personality and appearance, and dictate how we must act, think, move and behave.” From the way we dress to how we present ourselves in public, he explains, is indicative of how these norms that are present in contemporary society, prescribing our behaviours based on the characteristics associated with the male and female genders. For example, boys are discouraged from crying because it is seen as a sign of weakness, and girls are supposed to be playing with dolls instead of ‘rough’ toys like trucks and action figures.
These stereotypical masculine and feminine assumptions have become embedded in most cultures, particularly in the West. The way we speak, too, has not been spared by these standards. There are certain words that we find ourselves aware of using to avoid judgement from others. A man might be loath to use the word ‘lovely’ in a sentence as he might be seen as effeminate; a woman might refrain from swearing to uphold a ‘ladylike’ image.
As aforementioned, one of the life lessons I learned was never to swear in front of people. At school, my peers and I were taught that girls should never utter an expletive, as doing so was ‘unladylike’ and ‘unattractive’. The implication was that an upright, intelligent woman should never mouth off foul four-letter words, lest it lessen her femininity and make others perceive her as less of a person.
That in itself is a problematic implication. Although I don’t swear myself, I don’t regard my female friends who do swear as any less feminine or intelligent. Whatever the context may be, we are quick to admonish women who curse, whilst men often go unnoticed regarding their swearing habits. In line with a tough, masculine image, swearing for men is seen as an asset to applaud, whereas women are generally perceived as coarse, unintelligent and unappealing. Deviating from the norms is linked to the fear of being stigmatised or judged, so a man might swear frequently in order to affirm their masculinity and self-confidence. On the other hand, a woman who deviates from the norms by swearing is chastised for not being ladylike. This should not be the case. There should not be a double standard in the way we use language to express ourselves. If society deems it acceptable for men to swear, then it should not be policing women doing the same. For example, male rappers such as Eminem and Dr Dre curse their way through chart-topping songs and are considered among the greatest living hip-hop artists; the likes of female artists such as Nicki Minaj, however, are asked to tone down the swearing.
“On the one hand you have people saying, ‘We want her to be hard and raunchy and explicit,’” Minaj said in an interview with The Guardian, “and on the other hand, there’s ‘Nicki Minaj, would you stop swearing for the children, please?’ It’s like, what d’you want me to be? How many different people can I f*****g be?”
In a similar incident, a New Jersey Catholic school saw female students taking a “no swearing” pledge at the request of the school’s officials, but the male students were exempt from taking the oath. Again, here lies the implication that women ought to maintain decorum and a sense of refinement that comes with being a ‘lady’.
The gender politics of swearing is a topic that easily provokes tension and debate. There seems to be no right or wrong answer in terms of whether it is acceptable for women or men (or both) to swear freely or not at all. This depends on one’s sensitivity and tolerance, as well as the context in which profanity occurs. Nevertheless, to say that women should stick to societal norms that evoke the image of delicate femininity is both unrealistic and unfair. Unrealistic, as everyone has different perceptions of what it is to be a woman and that there is no legitimate way to ensure that women stop swearing; unfair, in that women should be equal to men on all levels of expression, namely how they behave and the way they speak.
Swearing is not for everyone. Whether it’s a man or a woman dropping some four-letter words, I can’t say that I enjoy hearing them. But even so, if a man can do it, why the hell can’t women do it, too?