I had been trying to pinpoint exactly why the HBO television show Veep brings me such joy. Yes, it is a very funny, very well-written show with a great cast, but that didn’t quite go far enough in explaining the immense enjoyment it gives me. The eureuka moment finally struck when I stumbled over a compilation video of the best insults from the show. There it was. Most of the characters on Veep swear, a lot. And not only do they spout off swearwords here and there, but they absolutely revel in using profanity as a vital part of the dialogue and thrust of the show. This is a difficult feat to achieve without going overboard, but Veep does it skillfully (probably thanks to creator and writer Armando Iannuci, who pulled off similar brilliance in the British show The Thick of It). And for me, there is something particularly delightful and heart-warming about watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Anna Chlumsky wield this kind of language.
It is not uncommon to hear that swearing isn’t ‘ladylike’. There have been many occasions where I’ve heard men express their dismay when a woman swears, or conversely, proclaim that they don’t find it attractive, even though these same men have been spouting off the most unimaginative swearwords in the dullest way their entire lives. It’s as though a woman must watch what she says at all times in case she isn’t saying things in the perfect way to attract all of the men around her. Swearing itself has historically been classified as a masculine linguistic quality, and there are a lot of people who don’t appreciate that women have breached that divide. In a 2012 interview, Nicki Minaj called people who suggested she should stop swearing in her songs sexist, saying: ‘Why do people ask me to lose swear words? Do people ask Eminem to lose swear words? Do they ask Lil Wayne to lose swear words? Nobody stops them and says “Would you stop swearing swearing… for the children, please?” ’ And she is right.
Women are viewed much more negatively if they use the same kind of profane language as men. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee calls them trashy. Gordon Ramsay can precede every second word with an expletive, but it’s Helen Mirren who is told to wash her mouth out. In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey describes a situation in the SNL writer’s room where Amy Poehler made a loud and vulgar ‘unladylike joke’, only to have Jimmy Fallon tell her that he didn’t like it, and that it wasn’t cute. Amy apparently turned around and said, ‘… I don’t fucking care if you like it’. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character Selina Meyer does not fucking care if you like it either.
For so long, swearing has been gendered – and not just because only men have been granted the permission to swear. This gendering is apparent in the way that men have historically used body parts synonymous with women as swear words, or descriptions of women (or gay men) in order to try and insult each other. Because the worst thing a man can be is gay or womanly, obviously. It is especially satisfying to hear women take back these words for their own use. During a Veep scene about abortion, Selina Meyer says, ‘… maybe I should just say “get the government out of my fucking snatch”.’ The sentiment behind this statement has been repeated ad nauseam, but there is something so fulfilling in hearing it expressed so bluntly, by a woman, to a room full of men. Dialogue like this in Veep shows how entertaining and expressive swearing can be. It is not, as some people claim, a sign of limited education or vocabulary (almost always a class-based argument), but a sign of expanded dialogue. Giving that dialogue as equally to women as it is given to men helps to chip away at the idea that women’s voices should be received differently, and judged more harshly, than men’s voices are.
There are still times and places where swearing is less appropriate. And of course, sexist, ableist or bigoted swearing should be avoided. My speech isn’t peppered with swear words as filler, but I find nothing beats an expletive to get across something you feel passionately about. Also, put plainly, it is really fun. The word ‘fuck’ is appropriate for an incredibly wide variety of situations. If insulting someone, I try to use gender or sex-neutral, creative swearwords like ‘fucking deadshit’. Swearing is simply another form of expression, but it can be creative, and it can be powerful. It is especially powerful when coming from the mouths of people who have been made to feel that this specific form of communication is not for them to use. Women have important things to get across, and we shouldn’t care about saying those things in a way that pleases the delicate ears of the fucking patriarchy.