Do Women Have To Be Vulgar To Be Considered Equal To Men?

Why is vulgarity traditionally masculine, and why should feminism have to capitulate to this historically masculine trope to gain equality and respect?

I’m tired of raunch culture representing equality for women.

With a recent surge in women directors, writers, and actors embracing raunchy, vulgar and “unladylike” behavior for film, critics and essayists are quick to applaud the raunch-femme genre as a gain for feminism and leveling the Hollywood playing field.

Maureen Dowd of the Sunday New York Times praised the “vulgar truth” that women can be as gross as men in her article “Dirty Words From Pretty Mouths,” calling the trend all but a feminist revolution via cinema. Citing the fact that viewers of film and television have historically few outlets to watch women acting less than ladylike in decorum until recently, there is a knee-jerk praise-filled reaction to projects like Bridesmaids, “Girls,” and “Broad City” when the content challenges Victorian norms of feminine decency.

In Bridesmaids, the women shit and puke themselves on camera. In “Girls,” Lena Dunham intentionally keeps her feminist lens trained on actors mid-masturbation, sitting on the toilet, and vomiting. All of this behavior acts as a banner that reads “Women can be as gross as men!” Just as we have bodily functions and mishaps, a sex drive, and a crew of close friends, this behavior on screen is praised as a feminist victory for its visibility.

But my argument is this: Why is vulgarity traditionally masculine, and why should feminism have to capitulate to this historically masculine trope to gain equality and respect?

I am a proud feminist, but ultimately a prudish one. I find gross-out culture, well, gross. Am I repressed, Victorian, overly religious or damaged? No, none of the above. So any argument about shame or repression in regards to my personal prudishness is incorrect.

I am also married to a man who similarly registers low on the gross-out spectrum. In her article, Dowd cites Judd Apatow as a veteran of both gross-out culture and leveling the playing field for women in film and television. To Apatow, lewd, non-pornographic sexuality, warts and all, is “emotional honesty.” And it is that honesty, he argues, that is titillating.

I agree. Sort of.

Emotional honesty is titillating. If Bridesmaids is about “women telling stories where they’re 100% honest about their experience,” why does it assume that to be truly honest as a woman we must strip away a woman’s dignity or privacy? To be entirely honest, and arguably empowered, women in the media must reduce themselves to base corporal responses—scatology, messy sex and its aftermath, digestive woes and all. How is this, alone, feminist?

True empowerment, or a truly level playing field in entertainment, will happen when men and women applaud a movie that is honest and emotional and real, without pandering to an arguably juvenile trope of bodily humor. Remember the landmark film of female friendship in the 1980s, Beaches? Could any director stage a film like that today and call it an “honest portrayal of women’s experiences?” Not unless Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey have to get down and dirty with faulty plumbing in their cold water New York City walk-up.

One film that didn’t pander to male viewers with a raunchy platform was Obvious Child. While the protagonist, Donna, discusses sort-of icky things about being a woman as part of her stand-up comedy act, the film never uses gross-out body humor or even raunchy sex scenes or dialog to endear itself to its audience as an “honest” feminist movie. In fact, the premise of the movie, a young single woman who chooses an abortion with a clear head and little regret, is arguably one of the most feminist narratives in any film. Donna is an imperfect but lovable character who values her friendships and carefully tries to guard the feelings of her sort-of suitor. There is sex, kind of, and a woman sitting on a toilet, and drunkenness. But none of this is played to comic extreme, more like establishing shots to the main premise of a film, which (surprise!) is about a woman’s right to choose.

Perhaps film critics and journalists like Maureen Dowd will come to recognize a film as a feminist revolution when the film is about a feminist revolution. Luckily, we have just that film making its way across the country right now. Filmmaker Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a brilliant documentary about the rise of the modern feminist movement in the 1960s and ’70s. The film is honest in its depiction of the growth of a movement, and doesn’t shy away from the obstacles the women’s movement faced from both the country at the time and from within the groups fighting for equality.

This film is honest—it shows women struggling to understand each other, and struggling to be understood. Women fight each other, catcall back at men, have sex and unplanned pregnancies. There are moments when the viewer cringes, but that is because the fight they were fighting is messy, and continues to be. Were this film to get the kind of reception as raunchier films receive, I would consider it a victory.

Tina Rodia is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She grew up in Connecticut, and has a B.A. in creative writing and women’s studies.

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