Eric Henney examines what’s truly behind the barring of a Michigan legislator for using the word “vagina” on the legislature floor.
On Wednesday of last week, Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown, an otherwise minor figure in the American political landscape, used the word “vagina,” a rather unremarkable term, when arguing against a set of draconian abortion regulation bills being pushed through the state legislature.
Of course, if you were one of Ms. Brown’s Republican peers, you would have a slightly different view. You would feel her clinical diction to be gutter-mouthed and obscene. You would feel that Ms. Brown no longer deserves the privilege of speaking, that she instead deserves punishment for her lack of decorum. Also, you would have successfully barred her from speaking on the legislature floor.
Considering “vagina” obscene is manifestly asinine. “Vagina” carries none of the carnality of “snatch” or “pussy.” It belies none of the misogyny of “cunt” or “twat” and none of the puerility of “bajingo” or “hoo-ha.” In fact, it is the only word in the layman’s parlance that manages to refer simply to the area between the vulva and uterus. So if one were to refer to that space at all, it would seem that the most neutral way in which one could do it would be to use “vagina.”
So Michigan Republicans involved have acted in such a way as to epitomize the worst, most Victorian aspect of American sexuality: we love to talk about sex, but only in mind-numbingly connotative code. They have also betrayed in themselves a disturbing squeamishness about the facts of femininity. But I daresay very little of this is news.
What I find so dumbfounding, so stupefying, though, is what Michigan Republican Mike Callton had to say in support of the silencing: “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
Let’s try to parse this comment a bit. Callton finds “vagina,” a direct and unadorned term, to be offensive, which is to say that certain parts of the female anatomy make him uncomfortable, at least when referred to publicly. And he also seems duty-bound to protect women from obscenity, which by itself is a kind of chauvinism. But that’s really beside the point, because the word about which he is being chauvinistic is a word that references women. So Mike Callton seems to think that women ought not hear words which reference their own gender if they have not been sanitized for the evidently delicate and hysteria-prone female sensibility. Women must be therefore be protected from thinking too much about themselves, because women are both fragile and gross.
Unless Mr. Callton suffered some brief cerebral short-circuit at the time of his speaking, he seems to be able to sincerely hold these antique beliefs together. And for that he deserves a perverse kind of applause. I suspect, though, that it will be drowned out by all the boos he and his cronies deserve for everything else.