A Fascinating History of the "C Word"
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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.