Late in 2011, a song from a virtually unknown 20-year-old rapper from Harlem knocked the Internet on its ass. Azealia Banks's "212" was a wildly original debut single that found the rapper dribbling a steady stream of elastic wordplay and oh-no-she-didn't raunch over a skronky beat from producer Lazy Jay. And then there was the song's hook, a repeated provocation to a male rival for the affections of another woman: "I guess that cunt gettin' eaten."
"212" was voted Pitchfork's no. 9 track of 2011, propelling Banks to the top spot on NME's 2011 "Cool List" and earning her a coveted endorsement from Kanye West—all before she even landed a record deal. But some listeners just couldn't get past that C-word. In a December 2011 cover story for self-titled magazine, the interviewer asked Banks a question that no one would have asked, say, Lil Wayne, who was three years younger than Banks when his debut album dropped: "Is it weird to play these songs for your mother?" When she responded in the negative, he pushed on: "It's jarring hearing a young girl say 'cunt' so often." Banks brushed him off with pointed flippancy. "Sex is fucking sex," she said. "We wouldn't be sitting here if it wasn't for sex."
* * *
In a time when few formerly naughty words still pack a potent punch, "cunt" holds a unique position—everyone from Germaine Greer (who has said that the C-word is "one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock") to anonymous Urban Dictionary scribes can agree on that. As Liz Lemon explains in a classic episode of 30 Rock, the word demonstrates a frustrating lingual gender imbalance. "There's nothing you can call a guy to come back. There is no male equivalent to this word." (She then tries out "fungdark" on a male colleague. He doesn't flinch.)
Indeed, the word's inherent power has made it the subject of a long-running feminist reclamation effort. Eve Ensler put it at the center of one of her famed Vagina Monologues ("Reclaiming Cunt"), and Inga Muscio's 1998 manifesto Cunt: A Declaration of Independence covered sex, politics, abortion, and more in arguing for an embrace of the word and a rejection of its misogynistic connotations. In an introduction to Cunt's revised 2002 edition, veteran sex writer and educator Betty Dodson explained why she preferred "cunt" to the more deferential-sounding "vagina" (which, Muscio points out, comes from a word that means "sheath for a sword"): The latter word refers exclusively to the birth canal, while the former includes the clitoris as well.
The grinning nonchalance with which Banks scatters "cunt" throughout her debut single isn't an anomaly. Actually, it feels representative of a rapidly changing cultural perception of the word—who is "allowed" to utter it, when it's appropriate, or even what, exactly, it means. Though we definitely shouldn't ignore the word's history of misogyny and violence, a new crop of boundary-obliterating female musicians like Banks, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna have recently deployed the word in a way that prompts a provocative question: Is this the beginning of a brave new cunt-positive era in pop music?
* * *
Believe it or not, calling a woman a cunt wasn't always an insult. In ancient Egypt, an early form of the word was used as a neutrally connoted synonym for "woman." (Egyptologists were pretty surprised to find it in the writings of Ptah-Hotep, but as writer Barbara G. Walker notes, "Its indelicacy was not in the eye of the ancient beholder, only in that of the modern scholar.") Centuries later, Anglo-Saxons used it as a utilitarian term for female genitalia. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its earliest English usage back to 1230, when the street that made up London's red-light district was called—not even kidding—Gropecunt Lane. And before long, the term started cropping up in English literature. Chaucer uses the Middle English variant "queynte" liberally throughout his randy Canterbury Tales, and though Shakespeare never used the word outright, he loved to use highly suggestive puns, as evidenced in Twelfth Night ("There be her very C's, her U's, and her T's: and thus she makes great P's"), as well as in Hamlet and Ophelia's infamously entendre-crazed "country matters" exchange. These early literary uses were saucy and irreverent, but not exactly forbidden.
By the 20th century, using "cunt" in a work of literature was no longer a cheeky transgression of social mores, but, as writers like James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence found, fodder for the prosecution at your obscenity trial. In the notorious 1960 trial against Lawrence's anachronistically sex-positive 1928 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, the prosecutor's opening remarks pointed out that Lawrence used the C-word a whopping 14 times.
As modernism challenged Victorian customs of repression and censorship, plenty of other once-forbidden words entered the modern lexicon. So why did "cunt" remain so taboo? It's hard to pinpoint a simple explanation, but in a 2006 segment of the BBC's etymology-themed TV series Balderdash and Piffle, Germaine Greer proposed that the condemnation of "cunt" was an inevitability in a patriarchal culture with a fear of female desire. "For hundreds of years, men identified female sexual energy as a dangerous force," she noted. "And unlike other words for female genitals, this one sounds powerful. It demands to be taken seriously." The vilification of "cunt" doesn't just cast female genitalia as something that should remain unspoken (as did "nothing," a popular and proto-Freudian slang term for ladyparts back in Shakespeare's day), but it erects restrictive boundaries around expressions of female desire—remember that the more "polite" word, vagina, does not encompass the part of the cunt responsible for pleasure.
Pop music is a culturally transformative force, and it makes sense that the earliest appearances of "cunt" in music history coincide with the explosive, taboo-demolishing first wave of punk. Ian Dury yelled the word—along with a few other choice expletives—in his 1977 song "Plaistow Patricia," and a year later, Sex Pistol Sid Vicious snuck it into his iconoclastic cover of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," which became a U.K. Top 10 single. It's worth pointing out that both of these artists are British, and that "cunt," in these songs, is characteristic of its usage in the U.K., Ireland, and Australia as an approximate synonym to "asshole." (A friend who lives in London describes it as "crass but not taboo"; one Australian Urban Dictionary poster genially observes that the expletive "has almost replaced the word 'mate.'") These early uses of "cunt" in song aren't derogatory addresses to a female subject, but are instead used to grasp for easy provocation, empty of specific or explicitly gendered meaning. (Dury, for example, buries the word within an avalanche of "arseholes," "bastards," and "pricks.")
The first artist to use "cunt" with its more precise, anatomical meaning in mind was also the first woman on record to utter it in a pop song: the incomparable Marianne Faithfull, on her 1979 comeback masterpiece Broken English. The former '60s folk darling and Rolling Stones associate had spent two years homeless in London, battling drug addiction; fusing punk, new wave, and reggae, Broken English was a frayed-nerve statement from a woman who had been through hell and back. Adapted from a Heathcote Williams poem, its final track, "Why D'Ya Do It?" tells the tale of a woman confronting her unfaithful lover: "Why d'ya do it, she screamed, after all we've said/ Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed."
Faithfull wields the C-word purposefully. The rage and emotional rawness of her delivery perfectly echoes the blunt force of the line, and "Why D'Ya Do It?" remains one of the most powerful songs Faithfull has ever recorded. But not all of her fans got to hear it: The workers at the Australian EMI plant where the record was pressed were so offended by the song's lyrical content that they staged a walkout, resulting in smooth vinyl inserts being pressed in place of the "Why D'Ya Do It?" track. The proper version of Broken English wasn't released in Australia until 1988. Even in a country where using "cunt" as a synonym for "mate" is relatively commonplace, the response to "Why D'Ya Do It" shows that using the word in a more sexualized context is apparently still likely to ruffle some feathers.
As far as we know, no one walked out of the production line on Liz Phair's 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, which employed the word "cunt" with similar straightforwardness. On the track "Dance of the Seven Veils," Phair offers a feminist take on the titular biblical tale: "I'm a real cunt in spring/ You can rent me by the hour." With her soon-to-be-trademark foulmouthed wit, Phair plays around with the word's double meaning: On the surface, the line sounds self-deprecating, like she's calling herself a prostitute. But once she reaches the end of the chorus ("Entertainers bring May flowers"), "cunt" has bloomed into something more suggestive of its anatomical meaning—foreshadowing another Exile track, the sexually forthright "Flower."
In a 2010 interview, Phair reﬂected on the lyric's cathartic and enduring power: "I think ['cunt'] ties in to all of the feelings that we have about our bodies that are unhealthy—and we didn't generate it. I wouldn't want a guy to call me a cunt. I'm the only one that can say it, and when I say it it's because I'm trying to gather up everything that's hurt me and ﬂip it on its head."
Perhaps the most prominent musician to ﬂip "cunt" on its head in recent memory is the hugely popular, gloriously theatrical rapper Nicki Minaj. "I am not Jasmine/ I am Aladdin," she spits during the opening lines of "Roman's Revenge," a gender-bending cut off her 2010 blockbuster album Pink Friday. Throughout most of the song Minaj acts as her male alter ego Roman Zolanski, but she slips back into Nicki to bark this line: "I'm a bad bitch/ I'm a cunt." It's a powerfully sparse lyric; she pauses for a beat as if to let the weight of the last word sink in. Beyond "Roman's Revenge," Minaj seems to be on a personal mission to reclaim the word; she recently told a French TV show that "I'm a bad bitch, I'm a cunt" is her personal motto. As an introductory statement of self-mythology in a male-dominated industry, it's a preemptive strike against detractors, not unlike another Minaj quote, this one from "Moment 4 Life": "Shout-out to my haters/ Sorry that you couldn't faze me."
Elsewhere, Barbados-born pop star Rihanna caught tabloid flack in 2011 when she was photographed wearing a necklace that spelled out "cunt"—to church. Rhianna had been criticized previously for using the word rather liberally on Twitter. In an interview with British Vogue, she explained: "That word is so offensive to everyone in the world except for Bajans. When I first came here, I was saying it like nothing, like, 'Hey, cunt,' until my makeup artist finally had to tell me to stop. I just never knew." Banks, too, has said that before "212" she was unfamiliar with the word's taboo nature. "I didn't know it was that offensive," she said. "I feel like 'cunt' means so feminine—like a gay guy says, 'That's so cunt. That's so feminine. That's so good.' It's in the vein of, like, voguing."
Banks is right: For at least two decades, in the queer subculture centered around voguing, drag houses, and ball culture, "cunt" (and its variant, "kunt") has been used as a slang term meant to describe something beautiful, delicate, and soft. Recently, underground rappers like Cakes Da Killa and Antonio Blair have begun to use "cunt"/"kunt" to describe the music they make: a gritty-yet-glossy, sexually charged microgenre of queer rap. (A search on Soundcloud for tracks tagged "kunt" yields more than 500 unique results.) In music and in life, queering "cunt" expands and redefines the word's meaning once again—it becomes an embrace of the liberating notion that one needn't have a biological cunt to be feminine or female. Banks has repeatedly noted ball culture's influence on her music and style, which means that the most famous lines of "212" showcase a young artist not responding to the word's derogatory meaning so much as sidestepping it completely; "212" is perhaps the first example of the queer definition of "cunt" going mainstream.
* * *
When I told one of my male colleagues that I was working on this piece, he let out a horrified gasp. And over the course of researching, writing, and talking about the word, I observed its singular power. "Cunt" is a monosyllabic torpedo. If you don't believe me, say it at a fancy dinner party. Say it to your gynecologist. Say it to a stranger. Climb up on your roof and scream it at the sky.
Late last year, writer and blogger Sady Doyle started the Twitter topic #MenCallMeThings, in which she asked female-identified writers to post some of the names that they have been called by commenters and readers. I was dismayed, but not shocked, to see how many other writers I respected and admired had been called cunts: Unlike my dude coworker, I had to stop gasping at the word long ago.
In contrast to Liz Lemon, I think the most unfair thing about the C-word's unrivaled vulgarity isn't that I can't call a man a "fungdark" in response. As Dodson reminds us, it's that a word meant to signify female pleasure has been turned against us into something evil, fearful, unspoken. It will take a long time for the patriarchal sting of "cunt" to evaporate (if it ever can completely), but artists like Banks, Minaj, Rihanna, and whoever's coming up behind them give me hope that the process is beginning. To sing "cunt," to rap "cunt," hell, to wear a diamond-studded "cunt" around your neck is to assert that cunts exist—that, contrary to what language has told us since before Shakespeare's time, female sexuality is not "nothing."