Sorry, The Word 'Pussy' Isn't Going Anywhere

Netflix's new six-part comedy 'History of Swear Words' explores the origin of the word that has made people blush for the last 500 years.

Jan 11 2021, 3:50pm

2020 was the year of the pussy. City Girls and Doja Cat took body language to new heights on "Pussy Talk," where JT boasted about the origins of her own: "This pussy from the hood, this pussy from the projects / This pussy so ghetto, this pussy speak ebonics." Writer Katori Hall adapted her Off-Broadway play, Pussy Valley, into a complex STARZ series about the strength of women in a Mississippi strip club. But we have Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion to thank for perhaps the biggest, and moistest, moment of all: With "WAP," they gave all of us permission to scream about our "wet-ass pussies," infuriating conservatives and misogynists alike. 

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"Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are what happens when children are raised without God and without a strong father figure," Republican U.S. Senate candidate James Bradley tweeted in August, after claiming he "accidentally" heard the song. The song, he wrote, "made him want to pour holy water in [his] ears," which is not quite exactly the flood Cardi and Megan are referring to when they say "Grab a bucket and a mop." 

Needless to say, the word "pussy" makes people uncomfortable. And Netflix's new Nicolas Cage-hosted six-part comedy series, History of Swear Words, has dedicated an entire episode to unpacking how women turned a nickname for a feline into a way of reclaiming their sexuality. It's an illuminating look at the oral history behind the term—one that reveals that Bradley's reaction to "WAP," and other reactions like it, speak less to any inherent problem with the word "pussy" than white patriarchal society having a problem with Black women using the word "pussy."

In the 1500s, the only "wet-ass pussy" was a soaked feline—so how did the term become a euphemism for a woman's lady parts? According to the show, that happened the moment the word became synonymous with femininity: By the close of the 16th century, "pussy" had become a term of endearment for wives, a phenomenon the History of Swear Words traces back to a line that appeared in an educational pamphlet about marriage and morality that circulated in London in the late 16th century: "Every boy huggles his pretty pussy." (I traced the term online to a 1583 manual called The Anatomy of Abuses, by Phillipe Stubbes.) 

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From there, History of Swear Words traces the term's evolution from describing a woman to describing her genitalia through the written word—and of course, through music.

Almost a century before Lil Kim hit her infamous squat in leopard lingerie for Hard Core, the Barrison sisters set the precedent for disclosing the treasures that lie between one's thighs. In the 1890s, the traveling Danish dancers put on adult shows, setting their audience up for a tongue-in-cheek reveal: live cats, or pussies, strapped to their waists under their dresses. In the 20th century, the word "pussy" only got more sexualized. Henry Miller's 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer walked so 50 Shades of Grey could run: "As she stood up to dry herself, still talking to me pleasantly, suddenly she dropped the towel and, advancing toward me leisurely, she commenced to rubbing her pussy affectionately, stroking it with her two hands, caressings it, patting it, patting it," Miller wrote. 

By the next decade, "pussy" had become a recurring motif on blues records. But nowhere in the term's history did it cause as much of a commotion as it did when it infiltrated hip-hop.

Miami rap group 2 Live Crew's chant of "Hey, we want some pussy"—on their 1986 album, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are—put a huge target on their backs. By 1990, it was illegal to sell As Nasty As They Wanna Be, the group's third album, in Broward County and other surrounding areas in Florida—and a record store employee was arrested on felony charges for selling the record to a minor. Members of the group were even arrested after a show on obscenity charges.

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Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. testified in favor of the Miami rap group in court, confirming that rap music, no matter how sexual, was artistic. "This is not guitar music," said the group's lawyer Bruce Rogow in the 1990 trial. "This is not violin music. This is not piano music. But this is serious art, even though it may be different. These words, as crude as some people find them, can have artistic value when you have an understanding—when you have them, in effect, decoded." The rappers, who were facing up to a year in prison and a maximum $1000 fine, were acquitted on all charges; in 1992, the group succeeded in overturning a 1990 Federal ruling banning sales of the record. 

Rap's fight for its right to follow in 2 Live Crew's footsteps and be "as nasty as they wanna be" may have begun with the men, but it ended with its leading ladies.

In the mid-90s, mainstream hip-hop was brimming with narratives about pussy by people who actually had pussies. Foxy Brown rapped about her "Ill Na Na," and Lil Kim kept you guessing about "How Many Licks" it took to get to the center of one. Khia's "My Neck, My Back" was practically a step-by-step instructional on how to please a woman's entire body—not just her pussy—and on "Da Baddest Bitch," Trina was bold enough to talk about the taboo of receiving oral sex while menstruating. 

This crop of female rappers took a word that was historically used to label women and turned it inside out. Not only were they redefining what pussy meant; they were redefining what pleasure meant.

But Black women asserting their sexual autonomy, on the same American soil that once stripped them of that liberty, are bound to find themselves on the receiving end of backlash, whether that be Bradley's religious assumptions or slut-shaming on the internet. Of course, this raises a valid question: Why is there only outrage when the word is reclaimed and repurposed by Black people—and more specifically Black women? Blame that on the misconception of white purity, or the idea that something is tainted if it deviates from whiteness. In making music about pussy, and particularly their own, Black women are calling attention to and subverting a longstanding double standard.

The short story is this: The word pussy isn't going anywhere. We've been saying it for 500 years, and we'll probably be saying it for 500 more. Weaponizing the word and attaching an imaginary moral compass to those who choose to use it only makes its impact stronger. "Pussy" appears in this piece 25 times, and if that makes you uncomfortable, you should probably watch the other five episodes of History of Swear Words. In 2021, pussy is still powerful. 

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.

Tagged:

Netflix, Rap, 2 Live Crew, Cardi B, wap, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, megan thee stallion, history of swear words

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