“Pussy Up,” and Other Phrases My Father Never Taught Me

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(Gina Faldetta)– I had never heard the phrase “but actually” until I got to Amherst. I still don’t understand when the phrase became so popular, but since my first day on campus I was hearing it from people who had just arrived from literally all over the country, and maybe a few other parts of the world. After the initial moments of confusion and the feeling of being left out of something integral to my generation (how was I to know? Maybe this “but actually” was just the tip of the iceberg) I quickly erased all concerns by simply adopting the phrase and using it just as much as everybody else.

Later I wondered if this was how everyone came to use the phrase – simply hearing it from one or two people and then appropriating it so as to stay hip with the trends or whatever it is we young people do. But again, I may just be embarrassing myself by admitting that I was late to that crucial rite of adopting the ever-popular (okay, I haven’t heard it much since that first semester) “but actually” that possibly was given to us on index cards in ninth grade and told to use when we arrived at college.

The point is, I quickly realized that language, namely what you might call “slang,” can spread like wildfire on a small college campus, and can even cross over between schools like some sort of verbal STI. Upon realizing this, I saw my opportunity. The moment I had been waiting for. Everything was clicking into place. It was time to release the “pussy up.”

Now, the “pussy up” is not an original thought, but it is relatively unique as a movement that I single-handedly tried (am still trying) to start. As in, I don’t know how many other people read that great quote falsely attributed to Betty White in high school, couldn’t get it out of their heads, and then forced their college friends to subvert the way they called someone a wuss… but I definitely did. All I had to do was pick my moment – about the middle of the fall semester – and then bring up the ever-relevant point that saying someone’s ballsy doesn’t make any damn sense.

We’ve all had this conversation, but I’ll go over the main points just to be clear. Saying someone’s “ballsy” or “has balls” (the size of the balls can even be expounded upon depending on your enthusiasm level), to mean that they’re brave doesn’t make any logical sense. Not that any anecdotal evidence is actually needed to support this point, but at the risk of confirming any suspicions you might have about how militant my feminism is (ask me about my “misandry” tramp stamp), I have never seen a guy less brave than right about when my foot gets near his crotch.

The same illogic applies to the use of the word “pussy” to indicate weakness or wimpiness. For those of us who use that word in a derogatory way (“stop being such a pussy”), and who weren’t born in a Cesarean section, maybe we should check our lack of respect. Because if pussies were actually weak or fearful, a whole lot of us would not be here to talk about it today.

Of course, the issue goes beyond logical inconsistencies. Calling someone a “pussy” for being timid or weak immediately associates those qualities with women and further perpetuates negative stereotypes that women aren’t strong. You can’t call your buddy a pussy for not being able to ask out a girl, or lift a heavy box, or win a game of Super Smash Bros without implying that women are timid, weak, and generally incapable.

Sure, people do use “dick” in a derogatory way, but what is that perpetuating? The gender stereotype that men are kind of uncool and maybe not that nice? That’s not even a gender stereotype that really exists, much less keeps men from getting the respect they deserve in social and professional settings. Besides, there’s still the whole testes-worship thing that tells us that “nutting up” will make us more capable of dealing with difficult situations. Who cares if my penis makes me kind of inconsiderate if my testicles give me the strength to confront my biggest fears?

I’d like to take a moment to clarify that in this discussion of diction and gender stereotypes, I am by no means equating gender to sex – having a pussy doesn’t make you a woman and having a dick or balls doesn’t make you a man. But it is the case that these words are most commonly associated with those respective genders, something we can witness from the interchangeability of “nut up” with “man up,” and the impact of their usage on gender perception is a very real thing, even if gender as a biological construct is not. So for the purposes of my discussion of word choice, I will associate the word “pussy” to womanhood because that is what the term is referencing, and I sincerely hope I do not marginalize any readers in doing so.

So, what is there to do about the harmful representation of gender in colloquial language? Well, there’s always just abstaining from using “pussy” in a derogatory way. That’s as simple as remembering where you came from and finding another way to tell your friend to stop being a useless wimp. But why not go a step further?

Why not call your friend a scrotum instead?

“Hey, pal, stop being such a scrotum. The Grab ‘N’ Go line isn’t that long.”

Hear me out. It makes a lot more sense as a phrase, because few parts of the body are more sensitive and delicate than the scrotum. And the intention is not to create negative gender stereotypes about men, but rather call attention to the existence of those about women. Besides, the usage of this word would not actually create negative gender stereotypes. When I use the word “scrotum” in a derogatory way, to imply weakness, I’m deriving that meaning from the actual characteristics of that body part. That’s something that cannot be said for the usage of “pussy” in the same way. Pussies obviously aren’t weak, so we have to assume that meaning comes from the metonymy of pussy representing womanhood. But we can agree that testes are sensitive to the point that the usage of that word does not go farther than its literal meaning. You wouldn’t be making a broad statement about men as a whole by using the word “scrotum” to imply weakness.

The unusual nature of these phrases calls attention to the implications of the clichés we hear most often. If hearing someone being called a scrotum sounds weird, maybe we should question why it sounds so normal when a word meaning vagina is used. Does the phrase “pussy up” in the place of “man up” or “nut up” sound unfamiliar? Let’s familiarize ourselves with the idea of women as strong and capable.

The way we relate to one another influences the way we conceptualize ourselves and those around us, which makes the language we use to communicate more significant than we may realize. I’m not suggesting that we all have to subvert language in the same way I’ve chosen to. But I do believe that we should consider what we’re saying when we employ diction so strongly associated with gender. And I’m going to continue my “pussy up” movement, because I think it’s high time for women to be verbally associated with strength.