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the d word

March 25, 2010

I hate the word douchebag. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. Yet, somehow, no one else seems to. Even the feminist and the animal rights crowds, my typical comrades in matters of language, have embraced douchebag with gusto.

According to Urban Dictionary, a  douchebag is “Someone who has surpassed the levels of jerk and asshole, however not yet reached fucker or motherfucker. Not to be confuzed [sic] with douche.”

I followed the link to douche and I can see why the definitions might be confused, as douche is  “a word to describe an individual who has shown themself [sic] to be very brainless in one way or another, thus comparing them to the cleansing product for vaginas.”

At least the definition of “douche” gets to the heart of the matter, and ties the now-common colloquialism douchebag to the female “hygiene”[1] product. Using douchebag as an insult solidifies the idea that that which is tied to the vagina is gross and undesirable. (Apparently, the vagina is so ick, that even the products used to “clean” it register somewhere in between “asshole” and “motherfucker.”)

I have rarely had people accept my anti-douchebag claim outright. Typically, I get one or all of the following: you are too sensitive, it’s just a word; douche is bad for women, so it is appropriate to use it as a derogatory term; and, what phrase would you use to replace it?

It’s not just a word…

No word is ever just a word. Language is one of the most important tools we have. Language can liberate and language can oppress. The oppressive force of language is easily observed via the power of the pronoun. Pronouns are often neglected in language when referring to non-human animals, which serves to erase the individual identities of animals. Rather than acknowledging animals as individuals, as “he’s” and “she’s”, individuality is erased by calling each individual only by his or her species name.  Another way in which pronouns are used to deny that non-human animals are individuals, is by referring to all of one species as a single gender.  For example, people often unreflexively refer to all cats as female and all dogs as male, even when they know an individual cat’s or dog’s sex.  Similarly, pronouns are misused to enforce transphobic systems of domination. Transphobia is often expressed when a person refuses to address a transsexual or transgender person by his or her current sex or gender, respectively.

Language also creates and reinforces racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and all of the other isms you can think of. Let’s look at the history of how American society has “othered” black people through language. As a society, broadly, “we” have never been chosen to just call black people, “people.” Rather, there has been some other word that eradicates personhood altogether (what we now call “the n word,” and “negro”) or a pronoun is used to denote difference (“colored,” “African American,” and “Black”). I am not suggesting a post-racial society, but I am highlighting one way in which words have been used to reinforce systems of domination. To put this last example in another way, there is no other word for “white person” (at least not a widely used term) and the adjective “white” is rarely used when referring to a white person. Often, when I describe myself to others for first time meetings, I say that I am a “white woman,” but I am guessing if I just said “woman” the white part would be implied.  In American culture, language works so that white people have the privilege of not being named. Everyone else gets an adjective. In the words of Michael Kimmel,

“Privilege is invisible.”[2]

I can go on and on about how language oppresses. My point is that language matters. A lot. Douchebag is a derogatory term and a douche bag, literally, is associated with women’s genitalia.  I know, you don’t think of that when you say it. But that is my point. You should think of it. We let the degradation of women pass, uncritically, into our language; so much so that a term like douchebag has become a colloquialism.

Douchebag is not a feminist phrase

This brings me to the second retort I so often hear in response to my pleas against the d-word: If douche is bad for women, douchebag is appropriately feminist as a derogatory term. Yes, douche is a tool of female oppression. Douches are intended to cleanse the vaginal canal and eradicate odor, but it turns out that most women’s bodies are very good at regulating this without any help. Using douche can actually create a host of health and odor problems all of its own. Douche is bad. But that is not why people use douchebag as the new “it” phrase. Find me one person who thought: “Douche is a tool of female oppression. In order to highlight this I am going to use the term “douchebag” to refer to those who negatively impact the world, since a douche bag is an instrument which holds the fluid that can negatively impact a woman’s vaginal health.

I am sure all of the people who have ever brought this up as a justification for using douchebag developed this reasoning after the fact.

Delete, don’t replace

Finally, I hear: But what phrase would you use in its place?

Really? Is it necessary for me to figure out a new, original word that people can use to insult each other in order for my objection to the use of douchebag to be valid? Don’t we already have too many words to degrade, denigrate and disempower others?

[1] I put this in quotes because douche is actually very unhealthy and does not promote health or cleanliness.

[2] Micheal S. Kimmel, (2000), The Gendered Society.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2010 12:15 am

    I don’t think people use the word douchebag because of the ‘icky vagina’ cliche (I’m not saying that this cliche doesn’t exist – it really does. People are always linking the vagina with disgusting imagery.)

    I’d like to offer another viewpoint. The douchebag is a famous item that utterly fails; it was marketed under the ‘vagina’s are icky’ idea and it ended up causing a ridiculous amount of health problems:

    From Wikipedia:

    “Many health care professionals state that douching is dangerous, as it interferes with both the vagina’s normal self-cleaning and with the natural bacterial culture of the vagina, and it might spread or introduce infections. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services strongly discourages douching, warning that it can lead to irritation, bacterial vaginosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Frequent douching with water may result in an imbalance of the pH of the vagina, and thus may put women at risk for possible vaginal infections, especially yeast infections.[1]”

    Apart from the fact that the word ‘douchebag’ sounds offensive phonetically, I think that douchebag was appropriated as a slander, because it is a product which is useless, a failure and it caused a whole bunch of bullshit that could have been easily avoided. Basically, it’s a famous fuck up and to call someone after it is a ‘you suck that much’ insult.

    • March 30, 2010 8:43 pm

      goldnsilver, i think you are totally correct in your conclusion that people don’t say the d word with the notion that vaginas are gross behind it. however, as Newspeak reiterates, i think that it is a very poignant reflection of the ease with which sexism slips into our daily lives. (to be clear, i also try to avoid using words like “dick” and “prick.”)

  2. Newspeak permalink
    March 28, 2010 10:21 am

    Most of us live in a culture that is fundamentally based in domination and oppression: it is racist, sexist, heterosexist, speciesist. It is a culture that hates the wild, hates women, hates children, hates nonhumans. It is a culture that teaches this hatred, exudes its poison. And it infects the best of us. Our society’s enculturation process is largely a contamination process. If we come to realize this, we must also realize the Empire’s grip is total; a ‘full spectrum domination.’ (“It was like trying to make a move at chess when you are already mated.”) It includes every aspect of our lives, especially language.
    Vegina does a wonderful job highlighting the potential for linguistic domination. She says, “No word is ever just a word. Language is one of the most important tools we have. Language can liberate and language can oppress.” She then gives examples of language that reinforces oppression. She notes, “Language also creates and reinforces racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and all of the other isms you can think of.”
    This blog post is important because it points out, beyond the consciousness of the individual using a word (and a word, like everything else, is political), there exists an objective social context in which that word fits. Beyond the subjective, there is the very real objective. Our choice of words can either reproduce the oppressive social realty that we live in, the culture of hatred, or it can be a libratory linguistic rebellion; a precursor to a freer and more loving world.

  3. disidant permalink
    March 31, 2010 11:14 pm

    “No word is ever just a word. Language is one of the most important tools we have. Language can liberate and language can oppress.”

    Of course, a word IS actually just a word, it has the exact effect you want it to have on you. You can let it flow over you and disappear into the mists or it can strike against you like a bullet and rip your heart out. The purpose of a word is to describe. Good or bad. We do not live in a world of hate! I do not believe that words take sides, I do not believe that words hate. Words and their meanings come and go with time and the societal reflections of the age or culture in which they exist. The timing of a word can also intensify the relationship between the word and what that word creates in the mind of the listener. In the end all a word does is describe a feeling, thought or object that exists in our perception of the world around us. The way we perceive a word will differ greatly by the changing beliefs we have ensconced within ourselves. A liberal, a conservative, a feminist, a racist, an abolitionist, an Englishman, royalty, southerner, etc… will all view a word based on their beliefs and perception of the world.
    The argument that society degrades with words is of course true, but not in the way fathomed in this essay. Their are numerous derogatories for all races, genders and creeds. There are also simple descriptors that we all use; “who is John Galt” – “he is the white guy sitting in the front row with the bald head”. Derogatory? No more derogatory that “he is the black guy in the 2nd row with an afro”. Obviously less moving than “he is the peckerwood in the front row that has a no hair problem” or ” he is the nigger in the 2nd row with ugly fro’ed out hair”. Or my favorite: ” he is the douchbag in the front row with a head like a dick”. Obviously still descriptive, but not of a kind or neutral nature.
    Words will always be used to elicit certain responses, that is why they were created and that is why the number and various uses of words continues to grow day by day. Most often it matters less exactly what is said than how it is said…..

    A word in and of itself will not make a better or worse world, because, well…. its only a word.

    • April 2, 2010 12:57 pm

      disdaint, thank you for your comment. I do think that it is valid to recognize that some words can be mundane. You say, “The way we perceive a word will differ greatly by the changing beliefs we have ensconced within ourselves. A liberal, a conservative, a feminist, a racist, an abolitionist, an Englishman, royalty, southerner, etc… will all view a word based on their beliefs and perception of the world.” I think you are right that the amount of harm a word can do is tempered by the positionally you take. This is precisely why I encouraging a feminist, anti-speciesist, non-racist reorientation of language.

      Today I heard a talk in which the speaker said: “Word play came before sword play throughout history.” I agree with this. It takes rhetoric to convince people to abuse. To add to this, I think that words exists as a mirror of the current injustice in society and they also exist as proof of past exploitation. They are the garbage, the pollution of a history of exploitation. That pollution can pile up into a heap that can once again rise to the heights which bolster swords. Words provide the foundation and justification of exploitation and they also serve as reminders of the current social biases and entrenched ideologies of exploitation.

      Douchebag is just a word. It is a word that reminds us our society embodies a history of the repression and subjugation of women. It is a word that reinforces and reflects how women’s sexuality is restrained and violated on a daily basis. It is a word that bolsters the ways in which sexism is woven into the fabric of our society.

  4. May 24, 2010 9:55 am

    I had the same debate a few months ago…can’t stand the word in terms of both connotation/insult of the female anatomy and oversaturation.

    I propose WOS in it’s place (Waste of Space abbreviated).

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