Foul-mouthed females: Why are so many women so comfortable being coarse?

Posted on 29 January 2012


January 29, 2012

Tina Fey, left, and Jane Lynch got laughs when they made a penis joke at the Golden Globe Awards earlier this month. / PAUL DRINKWATER/Associated Press

Joan Rivers goes on “Good Morning America” and compares Angelina Jolie’s Golden Globes gown to a used feminine hygiene product.

Jane Lynch and Tina Fey high five each other after making a penis joke on the nationally televised broadcast of the Golden Globes.

Miley Cyrus poses with a birthday cake designed to look like a part of the male anatomy, and the photos show up all over the Internet.

From morning to night, we’re bombarded with crassness and vulgarity on television — reality and otherwise — in magazines and via blogs and Twitter.

And it’s notable not only because there’s so much of it and because it’s so gross, it’s noticeable because these days the worst offenders aren’t men — the very group that has a history of going for quick laughs with dirty jokes and shocking language.

These days, the worst offenders are women.

Being ladylike, it seems, is a thing of the past.

SECOND: Carol Bartz became defined by her use of profanity when she was fired as CEO at Yahoo. / MARK LENNIHAN/Associated Press;
TOP: Joan Rivers, with daughter Melissa, has never been afraid to push boundaries. / Form top to bottom: DONNA SVENNEVIK/ABC
THIRD: There are fistfights and plenty of swearing on MTV’s reality show “Mob Wives.” / MIKE COPPOLA/Getty Images

It’s not that women are new to swearing or telling off-color jokes or repeating brutal gossip or engaging in bad behavior. “I grew up in Brooklyn, New York,” says Regina Barreca, a feminist scholar, humorist and English professor at the University of Connecticut.

“The aunts would tell dirty jokes — only to other women, only in the basement kitchen. They would pretend they didn’t understand them when they first heard them. Then they’d repeat them and laugh with other women.”

It’s just that now, many of us are loud and proud of it. We expect Rivers to be vulgar on late-night cable, but on a morning news show? We are bolder, braver and bawdier.

“There may be fewer filters,” Barreca says. “I think there is less a sense of fear of public shaming. We’ve got all kinds of other things that are permissible. In a way, those are hard-won rights that women have been able to sort of gain … where we’ve been able to speak up and be ambitious and be sexual and control parts of our lives.”

The vulgar language, the bluntness, the crassness, she says, is a way of further testing boundaries.

As is often the case, it’s younger women who are most likely to test those boundaries.

Stacey LaPlante, a Chippewa Valley ninth-grade teacher in Clinton Township doesn’t hear a great deal of profanity from her female students, but she does find them to be especially blunt and critical of each other.

“They say stuff that I would never have said at their age. They’re much more open,” says LaPlante, 41, of Macomb Township. “Somebody will say, ‘I can’t believe she’s dressed like that.’ Where our generation, we might have whispered it, but we wouldn’t have said it right out loud.”

She adds: “I think that might be this generation, the way they’re connected to social media. They’re typing it on Twitter, on social media. It just pops out of their mouth the same way. I think people are definitely changing. I don’t know if it’s social media, if people are just busier, if parents aren’t teaching manners any more.”

Or if reality TV is partly to blame. (LaPlante no longer allows it on in her house because she fears it creates a bad example for her 10-year-old son).

There’s no denying that reality TV is a showcase for bad behavior, especially among women — fistfights and f-bombs on MTV’s “Mob Wives,” bullying on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New York City” and grandmothers knocking each other down in the hospital after their grandchild arrives on Lifetime’s “One Born Every Minute.”

“Young people have grown up today with reality shows,” says Jennifer Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV” ($18, Seal) and executive director of New York-based Women in Media and News.

The problem is “these shows are marketed to us as if they are simply reflections of our day-to-day lives,” Pozner says. And reality TV is “not indicative of women in the culture. Narratives are crafted before they even find the people to cast. And then they cast with a very, very specific set of tropes and stereotypes in mind. You’ve got the bitch. The slut. The good girl who cries all the time — the weepy waif. You’ve got the angry black woman.”

According to a recently released study by the Girl Scout Research Institute, girls who watch reality TV expect and accept more conflict in their lives and are more prone to being focused on outward appearance than inner beauty.

Among the findings:

• 72% of girls who watch reality TV say they spend a lot of time on their appearance, compared to 42% of non-viewers.

• 68% of girls who watch reality TV say that it’s in girls’ nature to be catty with one another, compared to 50% who don’t watch reality TV.

• 28% of girls who watch reality TV say that sometimes you have to be mean to get ahead, compared to 18% of the girls who don’t watch reality TV.

“I see a big problem with ideas changing in ways that will encourage girls and women to think that they should expect and accept being constantly seen as competitive with other women and expect and accept if they’re not super skinny or they haven’t spent $10,000 on a pair of earrings (that) nobody will value them or that the way to get what they want is to be violent,” says Pozner.

“I don’t tend to see big warning signs or get too concerned if women want to make dirty jokes or if women feel more comfortable or less nervous about using the same words that men do,” adds Pozner.

Aimee Spencer, a local entertainment publicist who took charge of organizing the dropping of the “D” in downtown Detroit on New Year’s Eve, was having difficulty getting a bouncer to follow her instructions to allow members of the media into a reserved area.

“This happened, like, 10 times,” says Spencer, 37, of Royal Oak, who was 19 when her mother washed her mouth out with soap for swearing. Finally, “I said, ‘Are you not f—— listening to me?’ “

And after that, she says, “I didn’t have a problem the entire night.”

Women have long been expected to be polite, our use of vulgar language stands out, says Camelia Suleiman, a visiting assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania who has studied the difference between the way male and female politicians speak.

And because vulgar language stands out, women need to be especially careful of how they speak and realize that there is a difference between a few well-placed swear words and an all-out assault. “A woman will be judged more severely through the way she’s speaking than a man would,” says Suleiman. “An outspoken woman, we’re quick to call her a bitch — I want to see an equivalent of a guy being called that — or she would be called a diva. I don’t hear these names about men.”

Carol Bartz — who told Fortune magazine she was “f—— over” when she was ousted as CEO of Yahoo — is hardly the first executive to swear. Yet her use of foul language is now part of her identity; media reports often describe her as “profanity-spewing.”

For better or worse, women are different. The crassness that has become part of their lives is very male in tone. When women take on male characteristics, they lose themselves.

We’re not embracing our humor, our feminism; we are following in the footsteps of men.

And isn’t it about time women stopped doing that?