The New York Times Embraces 'Douche' as the Television Dirty Word of the Moment

I had to laugh when I read a front page media story in the New York Times on Saturday by in-house art/media critic Ed Wyatt about how the use of the term douche (and its close cousin, douche bag) is breaking out all over -- get this -- network shows during "Family Time."

Now, there's a lot to mock about the Times article, including the fact that Wyatt used statistics from the notoriously biased Parents Television Council to prove that the use of "douche" is very much on the upswing. And of course it's hilarious to see the Times sticking its toe in the dirty-language pool with a term that has been a schoolyard staple for at least 50 years.

But let's not go down the snark path, or the media crit road just yet. Instead, let's stop for a second and see what is up here.

The piece holds up people calling each other douche bags on a range of shows as some kind of example of freedom of expression, or even gritty bona fides for the networks. According to Wyatt, the use of douche  seems to represent "the latest of broadcast television's continuing efforts to expand the boundaries of taste, in part to stem the tide of defections by its audience to largely unregulated cable television."

I'm sorry, but this won't do. I don't see the increased use of a sexist term related to women sanitizing their vaginas as a mark of progress. The word's street meaning, as described in the gritty urban dictionary: "The douche bag is a total moron and doesn't think before he speaks or acts," makes the gendered meaning all too apparent -- and repugnant.

Now, I'm stating the obvious when I note that using douche bag is quite pervasive in all sorts of macho cultures -- sports, military and now bad-ass language in the media. In fact, in the Wyatt article, those TV writers peppering their scripts with douche and douche bag refer to the fact that Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue used the term.

I'm all for gritty realism, and maybe Sipowicz was just the right character to throw the term around, but is that a reason to justify the present usage? I know I'm veering near the free-speech area and artistic freedom. The "what's wrong with just letting guys be guys" crowd may not like this. But I'm sorry, the prevalent use of "douche" does not represent artistic progress nor the expansion free expression.

I'm not for censoring dirty words. I'm only pointing out that the growing use of douche and douche bag is just another little thing -- unlike the stupid Stupak amendment, which is a big thing -- that shows our culture has contempt for women.

I hate the term douche bag (and also never use the word cunt as a derogatory directed toward other men). Maybe this makes me a wimp. Clearly, I'm no Andy Sipowicz. But in my defense, I'm not a prude. I feel free to use the term "scum bag" from time to time, mostly referring the bankers and corporations.

What's interesting is that scum bag -- which refers to a used condom -- is essentially a masculine word. Scum bag is probably as close to an analog to douche bag as we are going to get. But "scum bag" doesn't get any attention. No one's writing about it in the New York Times.

In the Urban Dictionary, the most popular definition of scum bag -- a low-life human being who is as worthless as a used rubber -- has only 144 up votes, while a douche bag -- "somebody who you think is a complete retard and doesn't know anything about what they're talking about" -- has 3,867 up votes. OK, not a scientific analysis, but you get the drift.

And in a kind of ironic twist, douching has been discredited as a bad health bet. Many health care professionals say that douching is dangerous because it interferes with both the vagina's normal self-cleaning mechanisms and its natural bacterial culture, and it might spread or introduce infections. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services strongly discourages douching, warning that it can lead to irritation, bacterial vaginosis and pelvic inflammatory disease. Frequent douching with water may result in an imbalance of the pH of the vagina and thus may put women at risk for possible vaginal infections, especially yeast infections.

Not that the literal meaning matters much: The end of the NYT article quotes Timothy Jay, a psychologist who says: "Vulgar Slang has a way of waxing and waning, where we become desensitized to a word's earlier meanings. I bet most kids today couldn't tell you what a douche bag is."

Well maybe most men couldn't either, because they think it's dirty, which makes no sense, but then throwing dirty words at your pals and rivals is not usually based on logic.

In probing the issue a bit, I discovered a few interesting tidbits. One is that Gawker has some level of infamy for often using the term. And Gawker took some gleeful shots at Wyatt:

He didn't write about how the word evolved from a technical term of feminine hygiene to a schoolyard pejorative, to a favorite of bloggers and mediocre satire writers alike, to a Times media piece. No: that'd be too meta and too interesting.

In a newspaper where the word "fuck" is too vulgar as to only be printed once in its entire history -- despite the word "fuck" and its entrenchment in our daily lives, in politics, popular culture, literature, and I'm sure its handy usage around Times bullpens -- they penned a piece based on the statistical usage and adoption into sitcom television, where every decent slang word goes to die.

And, interestingly, Rachel Sklar, formally a hot shot at the Huffington Post, who moonlights as a comedian from Canada and now is at the new media criticism site Mediaite offers that she has "been a student of the scholarly use of 'douche' for quite some time," and states that the "first use of colloquial 'douche bag' in a national newspaper, as far as I could tell, was the Toronto Star in 2006: It happened In Canada, when TV columnist Vinay Menon, called the pompous, bow-tied conservative pundit Tucker Carlson a douche bag, just after he announced that he was going on Dancing with the Stars. Pretty funny; I could get behind that.

But let's get back to one earlier point about the Parents Television Council, because in my book, they are scum bags, and Wyatt has gotten his hands dirty messing with them. A Times watchdog blog, NYTPicker, steams at Wyatt: "But seeing TV reporter Edward Wyatt and the NYT base its front-page reporting on numbers the paper actually requested from the Parents Television Council -- a notoriously conservative TV watchdog group that has brought 99 percent of all indecency complaints before the FCC (we learned that from an excellent 2004 NYT story) -- makes us a little sick. The PTC has been around since 1995, founded by conservative commentator L. Brent Bozell, and is responsible for complaints to the FCC about the Janet Jackson nipple slip and cursing on NYPD Blue.

So yes, douche and douche bag -- just words. Their usage will not cause the end of the world. But this little narrative is a reminder about how language gets shaped and how dirty words get framed. Are we surprised that once again, what's become au courant on mainstream media is yet another derogatory word related to women?

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