The C-Word: Hate Speech in Heels

The C-Word: Hate Speech in Heels February 26, 2013

We talked about the C-word in class last week. It was part of a broader discussion about offensive words and how the majority of the name-calling we do in this culture is gender-specific, designed to denigrate women. And isn’t that in itself a form of hate speech?

The C-word ranks as one of the most degrading of all words. It is the female equivalent of the N-word. The difference being that people who would never in their sober minds use the N-word don’t think twice about hurling the C-word around. 

Perhaps you have already heard that someone on staff at The Onion issued an offensive tweet on Oscar night, referring to  Quvenzhané Wallis, the star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, as the C-word.  

Wallis is only nine-years old and already she is suffering the brutalities of being a girl in a society where hate speech passes for humor.

Despite their reputation for cutting-edge satire, The Onion admits the wrong-doing

Dear Readers,

On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.


Steve Hannah
The Onion

Makes you wonder if Mr. Hannah would have considered such an apology necessary had the tweet been directed at Jennifer Lawrence instead of a nine-year old child.

Some view Hannah’s apology as a blow to free speech.  People need to lighten up. It was The Onion, after all.  Nobody but the North Koreans take The Onion seriously.

Others — and I’ll add my voice to that chorus — consider this more than just an insensitive joke gone awry.

“I’m not outraged about this one tweet,” writes Roxane Gay, in an essay titled How a Wound Heals for The Rumpus. “I’m outraged about the cultural disease that spawned this tweet, the one where certain people are devalued and denigrated for sport and then told to laugh it off because hey, you know, it’s humor.” 

Keeping all things in context, I suspect it is easier to laugh off being called the N-word if you are white, and easier to laugh off being called the C-word if you are male. 

But as a woman, and the mother of three daughters, I can’t for the life of me figure out any context where using the C-word would be anything but hate speech dressed in high heels.

Can you?









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  • I’m a white male and I could never laugh off either word. This tweet was appalling.

    I hadn’t heard anyone complain about Onion’s apology, and would laugh in their face if they brought up free speech. As you know, free speech is about the government, and what they can and cannot do when we choose to express ourselves. Since the government wasn’t involved in this sordid episode, it’s ridiculous that anyone would even bring it up.

    By apologizing, Onion WAS exercising free speech.

    • I’m not sure what you mean about Free Speech being “about the government”.

      • Terribly worded on my part.
        If someone complains that The Onion felt the need to apologize, they are free to complain. But if part of their complaint includes a whine about The Onion’s right to free speech, they don’t understand that this has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

        Freedom of Speech is simply a prohibition against any lawmaking body coming up with legislation which would curtail your rights to speak freely. Since the government did not tell The Onion to apologize, or to remove the tweet, this particular episode has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

  • Alyse

    Thank you for this post. I support free speech and have an “I read banned books” button. That said, I also know that we have the ability to behave as thoughtful, conscious people anytime we begin clacking away at the keyboard. Typing c*n# is a conscious effort and says, perhaps, more about the writer than anything. Writing with resolve calls for a deeper knowledge of words and language and conscious effort to use them. For example, authors often become enamored with Native American lore and toss out familiar phrases. I don’t think I’ve ever read one that didn’t somewhere refer to an NA woman as a squaw. In 2008 the US government renamed Squaw Mountain, Piestewa Peak, to “honor” Lori Ann Piestewa, the soldier who sacrificed herself to save fellow soldier Jessica Lynch in Iraq. Piestewa’s kids are growing up on the rez in the shadow of this mountain. Whether this is an honor or not is questionable. Why? Because squaw is an Anglicized spelling/pronunciation for a native language slur. The c-word.

  • lynette

    I’m with you 100% on this !! It is offensive & degrading !! Also……..if i’m in a bad mood , it doesn’t always mean I’m ” on the rag” which is another pet peeve for me !! I would rather someone say the P word than the C word , if they can’t bring themselves to say the official word for it !! And to call a child this is horrific !! I guess some people think they can just say whatever they want to then issue an apology !! Okay…off my soap box for now.

    • Yes. On the rag is another offensive terminology meant to demean women and their anatomy.

  • I tend to view all words as just that words … but the C word ( as well as the N word) offend me so much that I cannot in good conscience defend their use. What about the P word (used to describe the vagina) — it seems much more “accepted” and used to denigrate males

    • Skip: But even that word, used by males about males (usually referees or some sports icon), is a term that denigrates women. A reference to female genitalia, ie, the worst thing a man can be is a woman.

  • There is an attempt amongst female media commentators in Australia to “reclaim” the “c” word for women. Now, I’m known to toss around the odd swear word, but that particular one needs to be left in the gutter. I don’t want to “reclaim” it in some misguided attempt to reassign its meaning or negate its connotation as a misogynistic slur. Ew.

    • I don’t want to reclaim that word. I want to abolish it forever.

  • I’m an Onion fan and I will also admit they go over the line of good taste on a regular basis. If this is going to be painted as “the war on girls” I’m going to have to differ, as The Onion makes war on everyone, especially the famous. An example of a joke that some might not find funny — after George Harrison died, The Onion ran a two-word headline: “Ringo Next.”

    • When one looks beyond the offenses ofThe Onion to the words we use to name-call each other, and consider that the bulk of these words are female-specific, then, how can you consider it anything but a war on girls?

  • cwgmpls

    Even more disturbing that the Onion used the c-word is the fact that so many people assumed the Onion actually meant it! By applying the c-word to a person for whom no reasonable person could imagine it would apply, the Onion was satirizing the way that all the women at these glitzy awards are treated as c-words by the media. And then, after the Onion tweeted, everyone immediately imagined that the word might apply, even to a 9-year-old, after all!

    The fact that almost nobody saw the Onion’s point is simply more evidence that the Onion was right in the first place. The media, and the general public, treats celebrity women as c-words, to the point of entertaining the thought that the c-word word might even apply to a 9-year-old.

    • That’s not satire. That’s just wrong.

      • cwgmpls

        Being wrong is the *whole point* of satire. If it were not wrong on some level, it would not be satire.

  • John in PDX
    • John: So true. The stories I could tell you about the remarks made to me in interviews… Thanks for sharing.