Forbidden Words and Double Standards

I’ve just learned, via Pandagon, that you can’t use the word ‘vagina’ on US television, but ‘penis’ is completely hunky-dory.

“I had written an episode during the second season of ‘Grey’s’ in which we used the word vagina a great many times (perhaps 11),” Ms. Rhimes wrote in an e-mail message. “Now, we’d once used the word penis 17 times in a single episode and no one blinked. But with vagina, the good folks at broadcast standards and practices blinked over and over and over. I think no one is comfortable experiencing the female anatomy out loud — which is a shame considering our anatomy is half the population.”  

She ended up coining the hot new euphemism ‘vajayjay’. The whole thing is a very nice illustration of the way in which things relating to female sexuality are considered dirty in a way that things related to male sexuality aren’t. It can be hard to get students to see this, and this sort of example can really drive it home.

Update:  It seems the above is overstated.  It was the network which blocked the use of ‘vagina’ in the episode where ‘vajayjay’ was substituted.  They don’t block all uses of ‘vagina’ but according to the writer they have a much higher tolerance for ‘penis’ than for ‘vagina’.  So there is a double-standard, but not as stark a double-standard as I initially thought.   Thanks, Cara, for pointing this out.   

8 thoughts on “Forbidden Words and Double Standards

  1. I wasn’t sure if you were using hyperbole, but in case you weren’t, I want to point out that you certainly can say vagina on US television. And the episodes being referenced are two different episodes — one in which vagina was used many times, and another episode where “vajayjay” was used once. It was the network execs who threw a fit over the issue.

  2. Seriously, way to find this stuff out half a year after it was popular.

    And way to get it compleltley wrong. Vagina can be said on broadcast television. Your source was being dramatic, which is no surprise. Also, you need to distinguish broadcast tv from others like cable because you can say vaginal bloodfart on basic cable.

    You might want to study up on the issues before you give in to rumor and hyperbole.

  3. Well, Betsy, you’re pleasant, aren’t you?

    Also, I’m really resisting the urge to make a snide remark that includes the phrase “vaginal bloodfart,” but I’ll be more civil than that. I hope that you’ll all appreciate my incredible restraint ;)

  4. Even if it were true that “vagina” could not be said on television, I’m not sure this would show that women’s bodies are considered “dirty”. Consider that female full frontal nudity is much, much more common in film and television than male full frontal nudity; with this in mind, can we really say that people are “uncomfortable” with female anatomy? I have trouble thinking of even one mainstream film where male genitalia are shown. In this case, at least, the penis seems much more taboo than the vagina.

  5. Off the top of my head: it would be wonderfully interesting if the auditory or verbal sense of what’s dirty diverged from the visual sense. That doesn’t seem, however, the most plausible hypothesis.

    So I’m wondering if we need to think about the centuries of art displaying the human body. At a rough guess, I’d say that the display of the femalebody for the delight of men is an accepted trope. Not so the male body.

    So why does this mean that we can see female bodies all over the place, but it is ‘dirty’ to describe them? I can think of a number of unpleasant hypotheses, but they are really guesses.

  6. PS.

    Of course there are male nudes, and sometimes they do genuinely seem to be the objects of desire on the artist’s part, but I think historically they are not often presented as objects of desire for the viewer. But I might be really wrong here.

    As I say to students: discuss!!

  7. Wait, what do we have to suggest that it’s exceptionally “dirty” to describe the female body, again?

  8. M: I think that your points about what we can see are v. good, but, for reasons I’ve suggested, I don’t think they show the original point (even in its now modified form)is incorrect.

Comments are closed.