It’s marvellous watching older woman gain power through profanity. We’ve been silenced for so long, it’s a relief to bloody well speak out.
In fact, swearing is nothing short of revolutionary. Revolutionary I tell you! I’m reminded of this reading an article about the actor Dame Helen Mirren. If she had a daughter, the first words she’d teach her would be “f— off.
“Unfortunately, at least for my generation, growing up [we didn’t say that] and I love the fact that girls are so much more confident and outspoken than my generation were,” she told the New York Daily News. “You’ve got to have the courage to stand up for yourself occasionally when it’s needed.”
Her fellow dame, Judi Dench, is known for subversive needlework on set, embroidering “You are a c—” on cushions. “Apparently she’s got hundreds of them just covered in swear words or rude sayings,” Keira Knightley has said.
These women are shaking off the shackles of the “good girl” and our expectations that the “little old lady” should be demure.
Because swearing was seen as “male”, profanity has been used against women. Suffragettes were accused of being ugly, masculine and “swearing like troopers”. As women’s lib took hold in the 1970s, women embraced swearing to challenge gender norms.
Think about who holds the power in society: the media, politicians and business leaders. Behind closed doors within these realms, you’d hear language to make a sailor blush.
Swear words are weapons used in traditionally male-dominated spaces.
Or, as Chi Luu says in Bad Language for Nasty Women, “Men are expected to be strong and aggressive; women are expected to be docile and deferential.”
To those who say it’s simply good manners, remember this: manners may be a means of social subordination. It’s a way of policing another person’s language – usually someone with less “cultural capital”. So, swearing is about class as well as gender.
And it’s good for you! Data suggests that swearing correlates with honesty, works as an analgesic, and bonds colleagues and friends.
In fact, discouraging women from swearing excludes them from male “clubs” at work. As a young journo, brought up by a father who thinks “bloody” is a swear word, I was shocked by the language of my fraternity (at that time in the media, it certainly wasn’t a sorority).
Soon, I fell in love with the strength and versatility of expletives. “F—” can be used as a verb, noun, adjective, adverb and infix. It can be used transitively or intransitively. Really, it is a most useful word. I reckon it could even clean oil stains from the driveway.
Still, hubby and I struggle to not swear around the children. “Don’t use those words. They’re rude!” they often say to us. Fortunately, they’re sensible enough not to repeat them (aside from a memorable moment when four-year-old Taj called a child at preschool a “f—head”, one of hubby’s favourite insults).
There’s no evidence profanity stunts children’s vocabulary, or makes them more aggressive. “If anything, 18-year-olds who swear more have bigger vocabularies on average,” Benjamin Bergen, a linguist at the University of California San Diego, told Gizmodo.
He recommended teaching children that there’s a time and a place for everything. “They learn there is a place to tackle people and it is on the football field, not in ballet class. They can learn those things at age two, so it’s not crazy to think that they could learn those things about language as well.”
Context is key in the radical but eloquent use of swearing by older women in public. Patricia Fellows, a well-spoken 81-year-old, made international headlines on the ABC’s Q&A program after telling an antieuthanasia academic her argument was “bullshit”.
Amid much laughter, the host Tony Jones said, “That was somehow quite refreshing.”
The world’s foremost expert on profanity (I know – what a job!) reports that women have recently overtaken men in the swearing stakes, with the f-word used 540 times per million words by men, and 546 times among women.
Professor Tony McEnery, research director of the Economic and Social Research Council, told UK newspaper The Times, “As equality drives on, the idea that there is male and female language … is going to be eroded.”
I reckon women need to swear more so that naysayers can become accustomed to it. And if you don’t agree, well, you can f— off .