There are words Quadrant Online generally eschews and this essay is about just such a term, recently favoured by the ABC. The minister’s complaint was sneeringly dismissed with the advice that he should get a sense of humour. Misogyny equals mirth, apparently, when broadcast by the unaccountable
Is the use of the word ‘cunt’ on ABC Television in recent times a case of us all becoming so grown-up and sophisticated, so worldly and avant-garde, so modern and non-judgemental, so accepting of ‘the other’ that we can finally face up to, and dismantle, some old and meaningless taboos? Or is it just a case of misogyny at the ABC?
The context in which I have witnessed the word used on ABC Television has been to indicate something despicable, distasteful or horrible. The word is also used to convey concepts like reprehensible, worthy of shunning, worthy of ridicule or derision or, in short, nastiness. The list of these adjectives could go on but I think these few are sufficient to make my point.
And, in case I lay myself open to being a little too self-righteous on this issue, let me start by explaining my background with this. I have been in many situations in my life when the word cunt has been used freely and liberally in coarse language and I have not demurred. In times gone by I have also used it myself, not frequently but, nevertheless, I have used it. My behaviour was a result of an unthinking acceptance that this was a common swearword and people around me were using it. So why shouldn’t I? This may well be the same line of thought that ABC Television goes along with today.
In the past I had not reflected more deeply on the context in which that word was used but, even back then, I had still felt awkward – somewhat inhibited – about its use. I just felt it was beyond the boundaries of ‘normal’ rough language, ‘normal’ coarse speech and ‘normal’ swearing. I always had the reservation that, by using the word as a term of disapproval, I was conflating women with concepts of nastiness, ridicule, derision and so on.
Perhaps my unease was based in my family life as a child and youth during which time I claim to have lived in what amounted to a matriarchy. Both my grandfather and father were merchant mariners and away from home for extended periods and my uncles had, shortly before my birth, been away at war for six full years. Due to these circumstances, the circle of women in my family basically ran the show. At the peak of female authority was my widowed maternal grandmother – and her circle of elderly but very stalwart female friends who had all been the wives of ships’ officers, now departed. In the next echelon was my mother and my and two aunts living in Perth and, finally, my two sisters. My experience of growing up was never that these people were stupid or nasty, despicable, worthy of shunning.
Then, perhaps thirty years ago, a random conversation caused me to shift from a stance of uneasiness about using the word as a label of derision, to a conscious decision not to use it at all. An older man who I respected, and who was no prude, just called me out on it one day. He raised the matter quietly and asked, ‘Do you really mean to use that word in that way?’ There was no anger or righteous indignation in his tone. He just said, ‘Think about it, Dave.’
So I did. I concluded that used in coarse speech, the word is hateful to women. This caused me to stop and think, ‘Did I hate my grandmother?’ … ‘Did I think my mother was despicable or ridiculous?’ … ‘Did I think my sisters were reprehensible or worthy of shunning?’ The answer to my question was, ‘No’. I became aware that I was damning myself by using the word as a term of abuse and, from then on, discarded it and came to the further conclusion that the use of the word is misogynistic.
For fear of appearing too keen on signalling my own virtue, I admit that, when someone uses the word in conversation, I do not launch a set-piece speech on the error of that person’s ways. Maybe I should.
Why is the ABC’s use of the word – or hosting of it – misogynistic? To be used as a term of abuse or disapproval, the word must be associated with something nasty. And what is something that a misogynist may think is nasty? Simple answer: any part, or all parts, of a woman’s body. In response to communications minister Mitch Fifield’s complaint, the ABC said the particular segment was fine by its standards. “The material was reviewed by the program teams prior to broadcast and posting, ensuring both complied with the ABC’s editorial standards on harm and offence,” a statement avowed.
Without its implied meaning being something nasty or distasteful, the word cunt, as used and defended ABC Television as a term of abuse, falls away and means nothing. Is the ABC trying to fill our minds with nothing? Probably not. So we have to revert to the actual meanings the word conveys when used as term of derision. If the ABC is attempting to use the word as a term of disapproval or abuse, then one can only assume that it is happy to associate it with something nasty. From there it is only a very short step to make the further conflation that ‘women have cunts, therefore women are nasty’.
In my view this is misogyny on parade, right there on prime time ABC.
Why does the ABC do this? Is it to show that it is in the vanguard of leading our emergence from a world of senseless taboos to a brave new world of breaking them down and dismantling redundant social inhibitions? Maybe this is true, but the attempt is poor and relies on a dog whistle by those who may be misogynistic to those who the same way inclined.
I ask that any ABC viewers amongst my readers bring this issue to the attention of ABC management, producers, apparatchiks, comedians, staff writers, invited guests, panellists, moderators and so on. And let’s also make the point to others in our circle of friends who are ABC viewers.
Let’s hope that, following the current turmoil at board and senior management level, the ABC can make a fresh start on this matter. Let’s hope the ABC can free itself of any evidence, however inadvertent or well-intentioned, of any hint of an entrenched prejudice against women.
David Mason-Jones is a journalist and the author of seven books. His website can be found via this link