Jane's New Cause (National Post February 20, 2008)

Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I'm not what you'd call a fan of Jane Fonda.. But my coolness has always been tempered by pity. Jane Fonda's serial, husband-inspired personas -- sci-fibimbo, antiwar radical, trophy wife -- reveal a fragile ego perennially doomed to playing a latter-day Trilby to modern Svengalis.

After her 2001 divorce from media mogul Ted Turner, Jane seemed to have surrendered hope of vicarious fulfillment through men. Which is not to say her inclination for slavish disciple-hood in any way subsided.

Her latest "marriage" showcases Jane as born-again celebrity shill for feminist guru and best buddy Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues (TVM), in which, inter (genit)alia, the notion of the lesbian "good rape" of an underage girl finds rapturous expression.

Last Thursday, Jane appeared with Ensler on NBC's Today Show. During the interview Jane casually introduced the C-word that signifies the female sex organ. Host horror, network embarrassment, rebroadcast bleeping and public apologies ensued.

The blogosphere lit up with commentary from opposing camps. On one side, comments along the lines of: "She made a mistake, what's the big deal anyway," and "Good for her!" On the other: "She shouldn't have," and (from deep Fondaphobe territory): "Hanoi Jane knew exactly what she was saying!What a c--t!"

Jane's supporters repeatedly invoked the TVM mantra about "reclaiming" the C-word from misogynists. In this optic, Jane was simply doing her bit to take back ownership of the word on all women's behalf.

Considering Jane's faux-revolutionary history, the "slip" was probably purposeful. Still, her provocation raises an

interesting question: How can an identity group "reclaim" a word, as though it were equivalent to a company logo -- that is, a piece of intellectual rather than public property -- and effectively privatize it without democratic consultation?

Words are powerful. Those who capture the language capture the culture.

There are two kinds of word reclamation by identity groups, one far more serious than the other. The first is merely an irritating form of linguistic bossiness aimed at everyone; the second actively seeks to widen racial and gender rifts in our culture.

As an example of the first kind, organized homosexual activists and their supporters employed relentless substitutions of the erstwhile neutral word "gay" for "homosexual." Eventually, with the help of the largely liberal media, they seized it in the linguistic approximation of a "hostile takeover." ("Queer" is somewhere in between: It has for the most part migrated to niche use as an academic shibboleth).

So although it was arrived at through bullying, "gay" is democratically available for everyone's use. You'd be thought rather queer -- I

mean strange if you persisted in using "gay" when you meant "merry," but at least linguistic dissidents are not reproached for their stubborn insistence on the word "homosexual" over "gay."

The second kind of reclamation -- linguistic segregation -- occurs when a taboo word is arbitrarily assigned to one particular context alone. Thus for blacks the N-word (and others like "ho") has been reclaimed for benign self-referential use in "their" culture, but remains racist in "ours."

In its public forums, society benefits from a dignified level of civil discourse, which can only be achieved through taboos against words commonly perceived as disgusting. However titillating and rejuvenating Jane Fonda finds the use of transgressive thug code in her private life, she should not have inflicted on her mainstream audience a word the vast majority of them consider indecent.

But what the lumpenproletariat find indecent is of no concern to language-engineering ideologues. With a view to emulating the transmogrification of the N-word, militant feminists like the TVM gang are urging a scenario in which women may refer to themselves as c--ts at their pleasure, but men only at their peril. A feminist devoted to furthering this cause actually signed off on an e-mail to me (without the editing you see here): "[Y]ou're a c--t, and I'ma c--t -- and quite proud of it?C--tily yours,?" Yuck!

Language belongs to everyone, and evolves organically, not by edict. No racial or cultural or ideological elite should seek to sequester for its own use what is forbidden to the general population. That's an impulse that is socially, culturally and politically divisive. That's language apartheid.

I'm allowed to write the A-word in full, because it isn't taboo. But the impulse behind language apartheid is nevertheless obscene, and acceptance of its application token of a riven culture.