Thursday, October 07, 2004

I'm Not Certain That Sponge Bob Square Pants is Long Dong Silver's Bitch, But At Least You Can Speculate About It in the Newspaper Sans Asterisk

A couple of days ago I wrote about how Hemingway retreated to indirection through generalization to euphemize the grand old insult, "I piss in your mother's milk." Today in the Chronicle, Leah Garchik engages in the following evasion:

Hearing of the death of Vernon Alley, The Chronicle's Jesse Hamlin recalls writing a profile when Alley turned 70. The jazzman called afterward to thank him, but complained, "Why did you have to print my age? You're going to cut into my supply of young (boot-wearing feline that plays with yarn balls).'' "But Vernon,'' Hamlin said, "you look just great. How do you stay so young?'' "Young (boot-wearing feline that plays with yarn balls),'' said Alley.

I teach reporting every semester -- in this context it may be appropriate to say every friggin' semester -- and one of the little digressions I indulge in to entertain les petite batards (and that ain't what you think) is an examination of the various ways newspaper editors protect the tender minds of their lowest-common-denominator readers by spelling it out without spelling it out.

Sometimes the newspaper uses what I call variant spellings of the incendiary word. Thus, we have sh*t, g*dd*am, **** you, f*** you, f**k you, f*ck you and -- I hope someday to see -- *u** you. All these are, of course, immensely stupid, since every literate reader turns the marks on the page into the appropriate word. They read the word. At best the more innocent reader runs through a laundry list of obscenities and indecencies before settling on the correct one.

And we always settle on the correct one, don't we?

I assume newspapers are delighted to avoid discussion of this tactic since the lightest touch of common sense would collapse it. As Samuel Johnson said, "Hyprocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue." It is hypocrisy, all the more delicious for its transparency

Now, what Garchik is doing, though perhaps less common, is far more fun for the newspaper and the more raffish among its readership. We turn the objectionable word into what seems to be a genuine puzzle by defining it, though almost always these circumlocutions are tongue in cheek. This can give more freedom to quote as we move into the realm of the feature story, the realm of those entertaining bits in which the inflammatory is not necessary information so where's the jusfication for dragging the reader down into the bubbling gutter?

The word in question here -- drum roll, or should I say jelly roll? -- is pussy. Perfectly nice word. Not like cunt, not used to insult a strong woman, though an article in Salon three years ago said cunt was being rehabilitated and pussy should be. Pussy is most often used to insult a man, suggesting he is a coward. It seems quite affectionate when applied to a woman, though my wife doesn't care for it. Still, I don't think of it as hostile.

But I'll wager my lunch money that no Chronicle editor would have approved the phrase "young pussy" or even "young p*ssy," nor would Garchik have written either of these phrases in the first place. A writer knows her voice and her audience, and she knows the degree to which the implication that writer and reader are too fastidious, too fragile, too refined to deal with a term the connotation of which is the promise of imminent sexual engagement is the kind of sweet sendup writer and reader positively savor.

(Also, the description makes us think of Shrek 2, of a cartoon cat, for those readers subject to disturbing visualizations. I loved that kitty very much.)

It's one of the funniest little dances there is, when newspapers say the thing without saying it. It's sniggering, it's naughty, it sums up all our embarrassment, it explains why "The Vagina Monologues" is the "Our Town" of the contemporary women's movement.

It makes me think of Pussy Galore, a powerful woman, a real cunt in the very best sense of the term.

1 comment:

PKD said...

Your blog is awesome. I mean, the way you write, the things you say - all of it. Just amazing. Nothing has ever gotten me off this fast. Keep it up.