Is Profanity Unladylike? And Should We Give a Crap?

In a recent interview, Nicki Minaj says the people who ask her to stop using curse words are being sexist. What do you think?

May 1, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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My dad has always been the captain of my own personal language police. Most of the time, after he’s read something I wrote, he will first offer praise. Then he will invariably comment on my use of various curse words.

“You don’t need to say ‘fuck’ so much, you know. It affects how people hear your message,” he has told me. 

Alternatively, “You have such an impressive vocabulary. You shouldn’t need to rely on curse words to make your point.” I like that one because it’s a criticism wrapped in a compliment.

Or, in instances in which I have barely cursed at all: “You didn’t say ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ even once! And you still made a great argument! Good job!”

If I’m honest, I appreciate his input; my dad is a smart guy, and not every writer can say that their parents read most of what they write, no matter what it is. So I count myself lucky that he wants to know what I’m up to. And to his credit, my dad is entirely capable of unleashing strings of expletives when called upon to do so -- he just chooses his moments carefully.

But if I’m honest, even at 35, I pretty much always disregard his profanity-related writing advice.

I like curse words. I always have. I like the fact that they startle people. And unlike words that are offensive slurs used against individuals, or stuff that is outright racist and which therefore causes measurable damage, curse words are jarring for mostly arbitrary reasons -- we have decided that certain words for certain things are “bad,” for no other reason than it’s something we’ve all agreed upon as a culture. 

Why is “poop” acceptable but “shit” not? They mean the same damn thing. It’s random and that’s what makes it fun.

In a recent interview in The Guardian (and I do recommend you read the whole thing, if only to witness the magnitude of the subject’s badassery), Nicki Minaj went on a bit of a tear about people asking her to curse less, ostensibly because she has a surprising (or maybe not so surprising) number of youthful fans.

"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? I did an interview the other day and when I saw it back I'm like, why the hell did she make the interview all about some goddamned kids? It was crazy. Five-year-old children shouldn't be the subject of a Nicki Minaj interview."

[...] I'm tempted to say that Eminem and Lil Wayne don't have such impressionable fans, but I don't think that's actually true. "Because it's a sexist world out there and we apply different values to women?" I offer.

"So make sure you put that in your article. Cos we're getting this on tape."

[...] And now there's no stopping Minaj. "On the one hand you have people saying, 'We want her to be hard and raunchy and explicit', and on the other hand there's, 'Nicki Minaj, would you stop swearing for the children, please?' It's like, what d'you want me to be? How many different people can I fucking be?" She's flowing so fast, she's almost rapping.

The madonna/whore dichotomy has been well trod ground in the analysis of pop culture for a reason: Culturally, women are expected to be alternately chaste and filthy according to the demands of their environment. Dudes find it sexy? Better crank up the raunch to keep them happy. Kids might hear it? Ladies best clean it up before they get slammed as bad influences on innocent little girls.

Minaj supposes there’s a double standard here, and while people do occasionally ask dudes like Eminem to be less grotesque, the pressure on him is arguably less simply by virtue of his gender -- a guy who insists upon being inappropriate is just a guy being true to his art, but a woman who does so must deal with the additional specter of being morally suspect for failing to demonstrate an investment in shaping the minds of millions of anonymous children.

If an adult dude artist acquires young fans, it’s unlikely that anyone would ask him to change his output only to suit those kids, especially if he had no intention of drawing a young audience. The blame for childhood exposure to Eminem’s oeuvre is probably going to be placed on parents, who should be “shielding” their kids from “bad words” and explicit content, and not on Eminem himself for creating it in the first place.

However, a lady artist who inadvertently draws attention from little girls, even against her will, is courting a whole heap of worried handwringing, in which the public frets that her example will taint the sacred innocence of girlhood. Both Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus have been subject to this, ostensibly for daring to stop being little girls and grow into young adult women willing to exploit their sexuality in their work. But in Nicki Minaj’s case, this pressure makes even less sense, as Minaj was never a child star, and has never attempted to promote her work to kids. 

The Guardian piece even makes a point of linking to video from an episode of Ellen in which two of Minaj’s tiny fans, somewhat famous on their own for “clean” YouTube covers of her songs, are surprised by a visit from the lady herself. Their glee is overpowering, and even when Minaj promises them copies of her album, she specifies “the CLEAN version.” Minaj herself seems a little taken aback by their enthusiasm. But is she responsible for it?

What do you think? Is this double standard a real thing, and is it unfair, or totally justified?