Keeping Pussy’s Power: The Complications of Reclamation

These past few months, “pussy” has been on the tips of news-making tongues round the world. Regardless of what people are saying about Pussy Riot, the fact of the matter is that “pussy” is appearing with high frequency in publications famous for their censorship, like the The New York Times. Pussy is essentially everywhere you look. As a result, this week, writers on Slate and Jezebel have been pondering pussy’s comeback, discussing whether the word can, should and will be reclaimed.

But looking into the etymology of the word reveals that it’s not just a simple matter of reclaiming. As Lindsay Zoladz points out on Slate, the root of pussy as an insult to men actually comes from pusillanimous, the Latin word for “having little courage.” So we’re dealing with an actual definition rather than a connotation. And meanwhile pussy as a synonym for vulva has a completely different root — though the actual origin is up for debate, it has similarities with the Old Saxon word for vulva, pūse, as well as several other words in various Germanic languages that mean “pocket” or “bag.” It’s doubtful that when people call one another pussies that they are acknowledging this difference in etymology. It’s not like people say, “You are a pussy, and I don’t mean a vulva.” It seems much more realistic that when people use the word as an insult, they intend it to mean “having little courage” because it’s a word that also means vulva. So that’s a problem. Pussy needs to be separated, untangled, from pussilanimous, before we can reclaim it.

via The New York Observer

In addition to these two, separate meanings that have come to be problematically understood as a singular definition, pussy also implies a fair amount of raunchiness that differentiates it from more clinical, anatomical terms. And to that end, Madeleine Davies writes on Jezebel that among pussy’s problems is its “porny” connotation. So if patriarchy has re-appropriated pussy to insult masculinity and also added some verbal raunchiness that distances it from clinical terms, can women untangle it? Should we?

And maybe that’s why the word pussy is such a polarizing issue among lesbians. I can totally see how it can feel uncomfortable to use a word that all too often is coming out of some dude’s mouth to prove he is manlier than some other dude, or used to reduce women to their sexual capacities (as in, “getting some pussy”). But I feel very strongly that men don’t own words, and they especially don’t own words that describe your vag.

If pussy is fated to be untangled from its negative roots, it seems fitting to me that lesbians and feminist punk rock rebels should be first in line to do so. I personally have a fondness for it: in a private space without men and without an insulting definition, pussy becomes a liberated thing on its own terms. Because even while it has the ability to shed its “weak” implications, pussy doesn’t lose its naughtiness, that aforementioned “porny” quality. Since it doesn’t lend itself to a conversation about biology, it reserves itself for sex. The word pussy can have a nasty porny raunchiness that is decided upon by the very pussy that implies all those things.

Madonna, via Hollywood Reporter

Now that everyone from your grandma to stodgy old newscasters are saying “pussy” like it’s no big deal, it’s starting to feel like that special dirty je ne sais quoi of the word is being replaced with a matter-of-fact, neutral, implications-free two-syllable bore. Is this part of the process of “reclaiming?” Does pussy need to become a blank slate in order to be rewritten with a meaning of strength rather than weakness?

I’m not so sure that’s the journey I want to see pussy take. Seeing one of my favorite sexy-time words on the front page of newspapers that my parents read feels almost intrusive with its casual intimacy. We live in a world created by language, where words have the power to shape reality: if pussy becomes a household name, I will deeply miss its naughtiness.

I wonder if Pussy Riot had a different name, would it would have caught the whole world’s attention? Part of what makes the group’s activism so successful is their ability to create shock value, and using “pussy” as part of their name is an integral part of that. Sure, they are reclaiming it, but they are also relying on the fact that for the rest of the world, pussy has yet to actually be reclaimed. That’s what makes it a radical band name. If the world gets on the pussy train and stops using it as an insult, I worry that it will lose its shock value as well. If pussy eventually becomes a commonly used vaginal word, will the name Pussy Riot eventually sound more or less like Vulva Riot?

Although, looking at it written there, I don’t hate the name Vulva Riot. Maybe I should work on reclaiming “vulva,” if only for the sake of my own dirty talk.

Avatar of Gabrielle

Gabrielle writes facts and feelings from an old brick house in an outer borough of New York City. When she's not writing about lesbians, she's editing/writing/producing things at her day job in the beauty department of a well-known online style magazine. In her spare time, she helps organize the New York City Dyke March and makes up songs about her dog.

Gabrielle has written 96 articles for us.

27 Comments

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      I was just about to say how much I love the word “vulva.” It’s perfect for what it defines. It almost feels holy when you say it aloud, the way it fills your mouth and curls your tongue.

      Maybe that’s why I’ve never personally been a fan of the word “pussy.” Loving a woman is like worship to me and pussy sounds so crass. Then again, I hate the word “boobs,” too so I think I might be in the minority. :)

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    I don’t have much to say on the subject at hand, but I find it funny/weird that “pussy” in English as a slang word is supposed to come from Latin/Old Saxon/Germanic languages etc, because here in France we also use the word for “female cat” as a slang word for vulva, yet it doesn’t sound the same at all so probably doesn’t have the same root (“chatte”, probs same root as “cat”).

    I also seem to remember my German teacher from middle school telling a bunch of giggling kids that “cat=slang for vulva” in that language too, but maybe my tired mind just made that up (yeah our teacher would totally have told us that, he also made us learn Rammstein songs and was generally awesome). Any German-speaking Straddlers to clear this one up?

    Anyway, just wondering is this is just a coincidence or if all those words and their derived meanings are somehow etymologically related. Either that or everyone else sees something vulva-like about cats that I don’t.

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      Hmm. Interesting.

      I suppose a connection could be found if one tried. Like, when you see it you probably want to pet it and bury your face in it. Especially if you’re one of those crazy ladies who never settled down with a man like they were supposed to.

      …I don’t know if I’m more intrigued or disturbed by this.

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      In dutch cat is translated als ‘poesje’ and is sometimes used in the same way as pussy. I think that it is used in the same way in german but i’m not completely sure either.
      By the way someone’s trying to insult someone they use the english word pussy, not the dutch cat (because we use way to much english/us words in our language).

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      Well, I’m from Germany, but I’ve never heard of ‘cat’ or ‘Katze’ as a slang for vulva … there is ‘Muschi’ though, which means kitty and is also used for vulva and can be an insult in a similar way as pussy. There is also ‘Fotze’ as slang for vulva, which is also a very crass insult. But I doubt it has the same root as ‘pussy’. I guess mostly teenagers use pussy here too, though I feel like it’s not very common.

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      ‘Chat’ and ‘cat’ both come from Vulgar Latin ‘catus’. ‘Chatte’ meaning ‘vulva’ could well be a calque, a phenomenon whereby a metaphorical term from one language is translated directly into another, like how the German ‘Weltanshauung’ became ‘worldview’ in English.

      Language geek hat off, now.

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    pussy is not really an insult to masculinity outside america. or at least, in the uk, it is only used as an insult to masculinity by people trying to sound like they’re in an american film, and eveyone recognises them as losers.

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    I actually kind of hate this word. It’s probably the double S sound and also the “ee” sound at the end. It reminds me too much like “messy” and “smelly” and also kind of like pus and just really negative imagery, you know?

    Like I’m not going to tell anyone else what to call their body parts but the word legit makes me cringe. Then again, I love the word cunt and wish we could reclaim that ASAP but everyone else seems to hate it.

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    Can I be that person who makes the joke about pussy being on the tips of tongues? No?

    that out of the way, I want to like (the word) pussy but something about it makes me think of frat boys trying to sound cooler than they actually are.

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    Dear Gabrielle,

    I have so many feelings about the word pussy, all of them positive. But I feel like nothing is naughty when you’re a sex blogger because you use all these words so much, so I feel like we could make a flag that just says pussy all over it, fly it from every car dealership in the tri-state area, and I’d still like the word pussy. Wouldn’t lose any power for me. But then again. I am a pretty huge fan of pussy.

    Love,
    Ali

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    I really love the word pussy. I just do. It might be my favorite ladybits word.

    Relatedly, I’m sangria tipsy and just played euchre with my sister as my partner, who yelled “PUSSY POWER” when we teamed up.

    It was awesome.

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    I use pussy to call out both my female and male friends on being weak and I prefer the usuage of it in this context far more than using it to describe a bald man in a boat. I have predominantly straight male friends and I find it far more uncomfortable when they use it describe women as in ‘getting some pussy’ or ‘her pussy’ than when they call me out on being a pussy. It should be left to be synonymous with weak imo. Also just thought of the word ‘dick’ being synonymous with essentially an arsehole and penis (ew), also the way I just used the term arsehole! prehaps we just all love using these parts as insults?? in a non sexist way? Both men and women can be arseholes, pussies and dicks although probably not at the same time..

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    Whenever someone uses ‘pussy’ as a synonym for ‘weak’ my response is “First of all, don’t underestimate the power of the pussy. Secondly…” I guess that’s an attempt at reclaiming it? I don’t know, I just hate when people say things mindlessly. I want the person to realize that they’re saying ‘pussy’ and that it has other, awesomer, meanings then the one they just used.

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      Balls are weaker. You get kicked in the balls and you’re down. Get kicked in the vagina ….. What ever. I don’t see penises popping babies out and bleeding every month. Yet people are still saying having balls means you’re strong and being a pussy means you weak. It’s really ironic.

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    Vulva Riot sounds cool. I’ve never thought calling somebody a pussy when they’re afraid to do something had anything to do with the vulva. I always imagined a little kitten trembling with fear, that makes much more sense to me as a representatation of weakness than female bodyparts would.

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