Oh Pussy . . . Riot, How You Make This Boy Squirm

Photo by “linksfraktion” on Flickr

If you have spent any time on the interwebs over the past month, you have probably seen the words “Pussy Riot” flash across your feed at some point. Oh be still my Puritan heart, I hope my cafe table-mates, can’t see what I’m reading and googling

In a nutshell from CNN:

Three members of Russian female punk rock band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison Friday after they were found guilty of hooliganism for performing a song critical of President Vladimir Putin in a church.

While I will admit that my first reaction was “Awesome, a new ‘Vagina Monologues’ must be in production!” I also found myself a tad bit uncomfortable. I mean come on, this was not like the dust-up over the word “Vagina” being so brazenly uttered on the floor of the Michigan State Legislature, so what’s up with the “P” word being used so liberally all over the web. I mean seriously, instead of “Pussy Riot” what would have been so wrong with a name like, “Vagina Discernment,” anatomically correct and community based? This I could deal with 😉

So in true “I’m a progressive trying not to act out of the privilege of his gender and class” fashion, I began to ask myself why I was made so uncomfortable by simply seeing the word “Pussy.” Sure, there is some shock value that challenges conventional understandings of language and, certainly, each person will be comfortable using language of all sorts . . . but there was something about the word “pussy” that seemed to really create discomfort for me.

I will admit, in a vacuum, I do not like the word because of how it is used by most of society, as a symbol of weakness. Since I see part of the world through the eyes of my three daughters, I am acutely aware of how female-based words are used to put down men. Insults directed at males usually find their impact by inferring something female. Calling someone a “pussy,” screaming, “Hit the ball, Nancy!” or uttering the still ever popular “You [insert athletic skill] like a girl” are all about using female attributes to demean a male. And don’t get me started on put-downs that are driven by some form of male penetration, good gravy we boys can be so predictable. I am one who believes that words do not solely define a person, but they do matter, so tacit approval of these kinds of put-downs is simply not okay and worthy of a well-placed correction or a laser-like stink-eye.

I don’t know much about Pussy Riot other than what I have read. And while I may not agree with their tactics or the repercussions of those actions, it seems clear that the choice of their name was NOT about dehumanizing women, but about claiming power by reclaiming the word. This happens all the time by marginalized communities, racial epitaphs and slurs are claimed by the targeted groups as a way to both remove the power of the word and deal with the pain those words have inflicted. So, just as aware as I am about how the word “pussy” is used to demean, the use of the word by the band and other women also challenges my own preconceptions about the word. Society uses male genitalia based slang all the time without batting an eye: “I’m so screwed,” “That sucks!” and “You’re a dick” for starters, so why is the word “pussy” still so shocking? Probably because the use of the word in some instances by women is not about demeaning someone else, but about claiming power.


So at the root of my discomfort just might be that no matter how much of a “liberated” male that I hope to be and become, somewhere in my psyche there is a place that probably does not want women to claim power in ways that experience as challenging my own. Dangit, now I do have to keep reflecting on my own power and privilege.

Thanks a lot Pussy Riot, and I do hope you are freed!

My Sunday Sermon, “Would Jesus Have Said Vagina?”

Photo by joethedork - San Francisco Bay to Breakers, 2005

[Photo By joethedork]

Okay, I am not preaching anywhere this Sunday, but feel free to “liberate” the idea, should you need a sermon starter. That said, I do hope that more than a few preachers out there are going to somehow use the recent Michigan State Legislature vagina kerfuffle as fodder for some good conversations on power, community and discernment.

For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about but have noticed an increased use of the word “vagina,” you are not imagining things. The increased volume of verbal vagina usage can be attributed to Thursday’s rebuke of Michigan State Representative, Lisa Brown, after her use of the word “vagina” during a debate on abortion the day before. According to the Detroit News, at the close of her argument about an abortion bill she said these words,

“Finally, Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no,'”

The result was that she was barred from speaking the next day.

“What she said was offensive,” said Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville. “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

This was apparently not out of character for this particular legislative body as Rep. Barb Byrum was also barred from speaking because of what she said during her failed amendment to the abortion bill banning men from getting a vasectomy unless the procedure was necessary to save a man’s life.

“If we truly want to make sure children are born, we would regulate vasectomies,” Byrum told reporters Thursday.

Wow. Just wow.

While there are many directions one could go with this, I think this situation raises some good questions for bodies of people who strive to engage in debate, discernment and decision-making. There have always been people who seem to cross the lines of appropriateness, decorum and social norms, but in this case we are again reminded that part of the discussion always has to be about who gets to determine those rules and to what end.

I am all for appropriateness in large groups and helping people to avoid unnecessarily over-sharing about their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I still remember during one meeting that I was leading when, during a debate on sexuality, a father shared with the body – and webcasted community – about his daughter’s sexual activity. He was trying to make a point, but I am not sure that it was very effective NOR did it get to the heart of his position. Instead, attention was drawn away from the point he was trying to make and the energy of the whole body was deflected away from debate.

Now some might say that Brown’s and Byurms’s comments did the same thing, but I would disagree. I do not think that their use of “shocking” language drew attention away from the debate, instead, their comments got the heart of the actual debate on abortion AND challenged the enforcement of random rules like “decorum” and “civility” that are meant to stifle voices and preserve power. There are few things about which I agree with the Tea Party, but one thing that I have appreciated is that they have used their place of authority to speak into systems that have lost touch and/or have used sets of unspoken rules to control and maintain power. I rarely agree with the content or tone, but they get it. Sometimes, you just have to call horse manure when you perceive it being unnecessarily spread. There may be repercussions for those actions, but speaking truth to power, by it’s very nature, will illicit reaction and rebuke.

So the burning question for me and I hope for preachers the world world over this Sunday is, “Would Jesus have said, ‘Vagina’?”

Jesus healed in the Sabbath and said to those in power… Mark 3:1-6

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

Jesus was a tad bit bold, shocking even, and said to those in power… John 6:25-59

48 I am the bread of life.

Jesus sometimes had enough, got pissed and said to those in power… Matthew 11:20-24

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

All of this goes to say that there are times when shocking words that defy decorum and civility are needed in order to hold accountable the very people who have the power to define the rules of decorum and civility. These acts help bodies to reflect on whether the rules and expectations of behavior help move a body forward with a sense of integrity or if they are a means to maintain power, silence the minority and lessen the positive influence of the body.

Jesus was not always about speaking shocking words to power, just as I am sure that not all of the representatives involved in this case are always the inappropriate or uptight caricatures that they are made out to be. But at the same time, just as Jesus called us to prayer, compassion, service and love . . . in order to make a point about an issue and to speak truth to power when needed, he did so with a prophetic and often shocking word.

So yes, Jesus would have said, “Vagina.”