Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: The lady taboo that won't go away

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There's an unspoken rule that swearing is unladylike.Photo / Thinkstock
There's an unspoken rule that swearing is unladylike.Photo / Thinkstock

Last week, the New York Times published the story: 50 Shades of Vulgarity. (When oh when will the world STOP REFERENCING THAT BOOK?) observing the rise of curse words in women's magazines.

"... editors throughout the industry are sprinkling more curse words on their covers and weaving expletives into the headlines and the copy between the photos of celebrities with flawless skin," wrote Christine Haughney.

Then she sought out a linguist to explain that "It's now more acceptable for women to curse." Before Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles weighs in with the illuminating: "cursing could look unattractive for women".

The piece has sparked an outcry online. How, asks women's site The Gloss, is women swearing news?

And why did they only look at women's magazines, poses Margaret Wheeler Johnson, Women's Editor at the Huffington Post:

"The article not so subtly floats the age-old idea that women should appear genteel and well-behaved at all times," writes Johnson. "The piece practically shouts, Look at how these foul-mouthed women are degrading themselves!"

First of all, isn't swearing odd? We open our gobs and emit an ultimately arbitrary sound - it should be harmless. Yet what comes out can feel like a slap in the face, splashing dark paint over all the other innocent words.

Too many 'vulgarities' peppered in speech is abrasive, no matter who's doing it. Historically though, there's been a whole lot more fuss around women swearing than men. Even in the present day, as the New York Times has just shown.

When it comes to 'deal breakers', things you just couldn't live with in a partner, men will often cite swearing. There's an unspoken rule that it's unladylike, despite a high tolerance - immunity even - when it comes to platonic mateship.

Men have been shown to swear more than women, perhaps because they feel freer to do so. If a woman swears, goes the myth, she's less of a woman. She's flirting with a male domain.

"I know that I may get my bra-burning card revoked for this, but I think that it's even more appalling when it's coming from a woman," wrote Staci Zaretski for Above the Law, a career resource for legal professionals.

To which Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan deftly responded:

"Space and resources are for the men, and so in order to be Woman correctly, we need to be passive, shrinking, silent. If you're a fat lady, you're offensive because you're taking up too much space.

"If you're a loud lady, you're offensive because you're taking up too many sound waves. If you're swearing, you're ruffling too many feathers."

Cussing ladies have found freedom online in spaces like Jezebel, which has always laden its copy with cussing. There's something freeing about it - you might not talk like that in real life necessarily, but a media domain in which female swearing is accepted has, till now, been largely absent.

Men have always seen men swear in films, for instance, whereas female characters are painfully polite, at least where speech is concerned.

Not to say swearing is nice. It's not. (Although, used for affect by real smarties, it can be funny. Writer Charlie Brooker does it well. As does Caitlin Moran.)

But let's at least agree that if it's not nice, it's not nice from any mouth anywhere, not just the ones attached to ladies.

Debate on this article is now closed.

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