The Onion's use of the c-word to describe nine year-old female actor Quvenzhané Wallis in a tweet on Oscars night sparked such a vituperative backlash that an official apology was issued. Much of the anger stemmed from the perception that the Onion couldn't have been joking, for example Edward Champion said here that there was "no other interpretation" than a deliberately "hateful" attack.
Since the Onion's business is jokes I think this is unlikely, but I've defended controversial humour before and it isn't my topic for today. There were others who were incensed by the perception that Wallis had been targeted because of her ethnicity, and others, Clutch magazine online for one, who viewed the c-word as a specifically gendered insult.
I don't doubt that there are such things as gendered insults - words that demean by associating their target with a particular gender. Slut, whore and bitch spring to mind. The pendulum swings both ways too: dickhead, cock and wanker are male-targeted. Even jerk, so casually employed in the US that it is deemed acceptable for children's cartoons (including My Little Pony!) , is short for jerk-off, a synonym for wanker, and could be seen as a gender-based pejorative. And douche, which as a boy I thought was synonymous with shit, actually refers to a douche bag, a device used to rinse the vagina. For those interested in why gendered insults are a definite no-no, KarenX gives an excellent explanation of power in linguistics and gender politics here. I'm inclined to agree with her and Jessica Valenti: gendered insults are harmful to more than just their recipient because they objectify the target to their genitalia and, by association, demean everyone with similar equipment.
But there seems to be a bit of a grey area when it comes to this particular word. Fortunately the grey area isn't hard to spot: it's big and blue and 4,000-ish miles across and it's called it the Atlantic. Approximately 25% of the students at my university are from the USA; a quick straw poll of American friends revealed that they definitely considered the c-word to be a gender-based slur and the worst possible insult someone could throw at a woman. (One was shocked that I would use the word at all, even when discussing the word itself and not referring to anyone.)
Certainly there are strong feelings about this word, which is partly why I resisted the temptation to engage in some hack journalism and sucker you into reading this by including it in my title. But contrastingly, in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland the word is more or less a very strong version of asshole, i.e. gender neutral. It still refers to the vagina, but when used in a pejorative context is applied to both women and men (as Richard E. Grant demonstrated in the 1987 film Withnail and I). Outside the US it can even be a term of endearment: I'm told that in Australia it can be bandied around quite playfully among mates.
So, internationally, the c-word does has a lexicographic question mark over it. In this respect it is rather like 'limey', a pejorative term for a British person that gets away with casual use sometimes (CNN's Joie Chen used it on air in 2004) but which I would put on the same verboten shelf as 'frog' or 'wop'. However since the word has a more specific context in America that would seem to paint the Onion's tweet in a particularly bad light. My stand-up experience tells me that a good knowledge of a joke's intended audience is always informative.
I'd like to hear your opinion on this too. Is this word a gender-based insult? Do you consider gender-based insults to be a problem? What kind of impact do these grey areas have on the use of insults on the Internet (including this site), which is international? Leave a comment or find me on Twitter.
Follow Olly Lennard on Twitter: www.twitter.com/OllyLennard