Women, Profanity, and Polunin

My book club tried to go see a play every year or two. One year, planning the next year’s menu of monthly books, Ida* suggested we read a play instead of attend one. At the time, the consensus was that we’d read a play, but we didn’t discuss any specifics. I was not present at the meeting prior to this play-reading when the discussion turned to what play we would read the following month. By all reports, Ida rather timidly but determinedly suggested Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. When another member, Samantha, brought me up to date on what I’d missed, she asked, “Where can we get a copy of The Vagina Monologues?” As an English professor who used feminist theory as my critical lens, of course, I had a copy.

The task fell to me to make copies and assign parts. When I asked Ida if she had a preference, she said, “I want to say all the dirty words,” so I gave her “The Angry Vagina” and all its glorious profanity. As we gathered around someone’s living room to read The Vagina Monologues, Ida told us that she had wanted to say “the dirty words” her entire life and she never had — not while in labor with any of her four children, not in anger, not under her breath. In her 60s, on the verge of retirement, she wanted an opportunity to use profanity with impunity, in an environment in which no one would judge her or think she was unladylike for doing so. Ida said all the dirty words and then some, amid wine and laughter and no judging whatsoever — but that group of women, ranging in age from early 30s into their late 60s, would not have judged Ida for swearing anyway. I think about the whole thing now and realize Ida had formulated a plan to read The Vagina Monologues from the beginning, but, perhaps fearing opprobrium, had not enlightened the rest of us as to what she really wanted to accomplish until it was a fait accompli.

A few years ago, a video of ballerino Sergei Polunin, dancing to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” in a half-built barn with some churchy-looking arched windows, made the rounds on social media (here). The link to the video was sometimes prefaced by a comment that Polunin was some sort of “bad boy” in the world of ballet, what with all his tattoos prominently displayed and his worn leather dance slippers and cut-off, ripped tights. I saw links to this video pop up most frequently on friends’ posts with a comment about beauty of Polunin’s dancing. I would have categorized most of these friends, were I to channel Truvy in Steel Magnolias, as “good Christian women.” My daughter is a budding ballerina; as a result of ten years of dance classes, I’ve watched a lot of amateur and professional ballet performances. My first reaction to watching Polunin dancing in this video was not how beautiful it was, but rather the display of Polunin’s raw sex appeal. This group of “good Christian women” who posted the video were mostly my friends from my undergraduate days at a small, Southern, religious-based, liberal arts college.** They would never publicly discuss the oozing sex appeal in Polunin’s movements or that his leotard gives the illusion of being see-through, at least in the back, or the sweat around his groin leaking through his tights near the end. Judith Mackrell’s review of the video posted in The Guardian’s online dance blog makes the claim that Polunin seems to “bring to his dancing the demons of his difficult life” (here). I would argue that perhaps Polunin brought out a few “demons” among my friends who elided the sexiness of the video and forestalled anyone critiquing them for posting by calling his dancing “beautiful.”

I’m the parent who taught her first-grader all the swear words and their meaning so she wouldn’t be caught off guard when she started at a public school and the professor who uses fuck and other swear words in my classroom, usually the first day of each semester. I do this because, as an Army officer, I am very aware that some men — in my experience, particularly those who practice some form of fundamentalist Christianity — object to women using profanity; yet the use of profanity is de rigueur in the Army. The young men in my classroom learn quickly that they will have to overcome any sort of bias they have about women swearing. I also allow my students a great degree of latitude with language; the first time one of them swears in class I usually ask them how it felt to say “fuck” and everyone laughs. To be clear, the profanity I use myself and allow my students to dabble with is never hate speech and never directed at a specific person beyond fictional characters. I’ve had one complaint, after more than 900 cadets passed through my classroom, lodged about my profanity because the (male) student didn’t like that I made him use gender-neutral language in his essays rather than male pronouns as universal — I’ve come to accept that I cannot reach them all.

I recount these instances because they particularly strike me as ways that society imposes standards upon women concerning language and acceptable topics of discussion. I generally feel that I have thrown off any such restrictions of my own speech and am surprised to discover women like Ida, who just wanted to use all the “dirty words” one time in her life in a way that she wouldn’t even judge herself and my college friends who are too prudish about discussions of men’s bodies to talk openly about them. As a feminist well-steeped in gender and women’s studies, I know all about men’s hang-ups. It’s the women who haven’t figured out their own socialization, and rebelled against it, that always gives me pause.

* Names changed.

** The irony of “religious-based” and “liberal arts” in the same sentence is not lost on me.