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Article • The Reappropriation of Derogatory Terms by Women: A Power Move?

27 April 2020
Catherine Gareau-Blanchard | M. Sc. Travail social
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☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].

Translated by Audrey Morabito

The text below is from the Avant-garde magazine from Les 3 sex* published in paper format in April of 2019 and then in electronic format in May of 2019. For more information on the magazine or to get a copy, click here.  

 

As I looked over to my bookcase, I was struck by the unusual pattern before me. I paused on the words slut, whore and bitch, each proudly printed on a different book cover, forming an improbable mosaic.

How did this far from acceptable vocabulary find its way into feminist literature? Is this process avant-garde? But most importantly, what are the reasons behind the reappropriation of derogatory terms associated with sexual promiscuity? For the purpose of this analysis, we will take a detour through pop culture. 

We Are Not Born a Slut, We Become One

In its traditional definition, “[A slut is] a woman who has many casual sexual partners.” (Oxford Dictionary, 2018). This term is, however, used far beyond this framework and is generally used to refer to women (or girls), who, because of their physical appearance or rumours, are assumed to have an active sexuality (Sciortino, 2018). This is a phenomenon known as slut-shaming, and is observed, not only in heterosexual men towards women but also amongst women themselves. Thus, as a derogatory term, slut is used to accuse women of having sexually inappropriate behaviours that represent an ideal of promiscuity that is generally denied to women (Marceau, 2017). The freedom embodied by a slut is in direct opposition to the norm requiring women to have a discreet sexuality, nested within a marital context and motivated by emotional but not hedonistic needs (Marceau, 2017). A slut lives her sexuality excessively. 

The term slut is used based on the interpretations of perceptions and social control (Werhun and Bazuin, 2018), as businesswoman and actress Amber Rose said, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called a slut. From the time I was a young girl—even before I was sexually active—it was a label that was placed on me. [...] I began to realize that I’d be called a slut whether I behaved according to other people’s standards or not” (McCluskey, 2018). 

Faced with the inevitability of a label doomed to derogatory use and antagonist towards women’s sexual desire, could changing its meaning be an important power move, at least in the short run? 

The Roots of Reappropriation 

From this perspective, author Karley Sciortino uses humour to address the issue of women’s sexual agency, a concept that refers to the active control of one’s own sexuality (Lang, 2011) and proposes an alternative definition to the term: “Slut is a great word. [...] [and] also happens to be an anagram for “lust”. [...] We’re lucky that “slut” is such a great word because it’s pretty safe to say that every woman will be called a slut at least once in her lifetime. [...] I’m not sure if my brain is wired wrong or if I’ve simply developed a defence mechanism after years of harassment [...], but now when someone calls me a slut I get bizarrely excited by it. I find perverse pleasure in knowing that simply by being a woman who openly enjoys sex, I’m able to incite rage in total randoms. [...] It’s a rite of passage. [...] Like you’re officially a woman” (Sciortino, 2018).

Despite the persistent evocation of sexual promiscuity, the derogatory connotation is transformed, as what is deemed reprehensible now corresponds to a liberated ideal to which the author aspires. Since sexual activity is a part of her identity in which she takes pride, she avoids shame and is even satisfied with the reactions provoked by her exercising such freedom. The dominant power dynamics are suddenly blurred by the discursive exercise of sexual agency. 

Who Now Bears the Burden of Shame and Anger if Not the Slut? 

The Creation of a Sorority and Exclusion 

There is strength in numbers and it affects the reach of the use of the word slut. The transition from a small minority, hidden and divided in shame, to a larger group reclaiming the word with pride, allows for the creation of a community that can be qualified as a sorority. As Amber Rose mentioned when speaking of SlutWalks (an international march which aims to fight against slut-shaming and rape culture through the reappropriation of slut status), which she helps organize in the United States: “Solidarity is the biggest vehicle for change” (McCluskey, 2018). Karley Scortino is also eloquent in this regard when she mentions: “[...] the slut label is unifying. When I meet a girl who self-identifies as a slut, I immediately feel an affinity with her – like, one of us” (Sciortino, 2018). It is this same dynamic of contemporary reappropriation that Goffman (1963) referred to when establishing the concept of stigma and exploring the extent to which its reversal was possible. The external validation of one’s self-identity is paramount. The reappropriation of the term slut is a way of gaining social recognition (Goffman, 1963).

A Discursive Battlefield 

The discourse and choice of vocabulary employed play a central role in the construction of the identity of individuals and groups: “The construction of one’s self-understanding or self-conception is a site of contestation. The authority to narrate one’s understanding of one’s own life, and the capacity to tell the stories one chooses about who one is, are key components of this self-conception. Yet, the authorship of self-understanding is rarely one’s own in its entirety, particularly in the case of women” (Godrej, 2003). In this context, the reappropriation of derogatory terms can be considered as particularly subversive and powerful as it directly draws from oppressive vocabulary and discourses to collect information that will serve for its self-definition and even self-proclamation. 

By playing with the vocabulary and pop culture archetypes, these women seek not only to pull the rug from under their opponents’ feet and to assert their perceptions of themselves but also to change the dominant power dynamic. The reappropriation of derogatory terms is closely linked to the notion of power. As long as it is employed by only a few individuals, it shocks, surprises and can be perceived as a provocation, but it also has the potential to become a tool for the empowerment of entire communities (Nunn, 2015). Obviously, such a claim has its costs and not all individuals have the privilege or the social capital that would allow them to position themselves in such an identifiable way in society (Foucault, 1971). 

The shocking nature associated with such terminology acts as a tool in the quest for empowerment since it garners the attention of the speakers and arouses their indignation. The women who claim the slut identity are no longer passive concerning the respect they demand for they use wordplay in a rather ingenious way (Austin, 1975). Instead of waiting with outstretched arms for power to be handed to them, they take it straight from the mouth of their oppressors. 

Social Transformation as the Goal 

If words can hold power in this act of protest, then it is logical to see the longing for social transformation that transcends the individual. Foucault (1971) asserted that the human is a communicative being with scripted social discourses whose expression is limited to those with legitimate authority to speak. Pop singer Taylor Swift, during her 2016 altercation with rapper Kanye West, provided a current example of the way the narrative can act as a true battleground for self-determination. She responded to the attacks of the rapper (who refers to her as a bitch in one of his songs, claiming he is responsible for her career) by saying: “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative” (The Telegraph, 2017). 

By claiming a derogatory term that defines their sexuality in this way, women who claim it are part of a feminist approach since they seek to undermine oppressive power relations and demand the right to a liberated sexuality such as is afforded to their male counterparts. When we draw words from a derogatory repertoire, the vocabulary is transformed to meet new objectives “so that their meanings have the authority of our ownership behind them.” (Godrej, 2003). From an advocacy perspective preaching liberation and the reappropriation of women’s sexual pleasure, we could say this is a type of sexual revolution. 

In this context, if being a slut is stripped of its stigmatizing label, and is brought back to its original definition through reappropriation, its power and its usage also change. If being a slut means finally  having agency over an active, assumed and satisfying sexuality, we can understand why many women may see it as an aspiration rather than an insult. 

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References
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To cite this article:

Gareau-Blanchard, Catherine. (2020, April 27). La réappropriation de termes péjoratifs par des femmes : un levier de pouvoir? Les 3 sex*https://les3sex.com/en/news/1216/article-the-reappropriation-of-derogatory-terms-by-women-a-power-move- 

vocabulary, feminism, terminology, social control, etiquette, power, sexual agency, domination, rape culture, solidarity, social regngnition, self-determination, sexual revolution, slut, bitch, whore, slut-shaming

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