Once seen, lexicological sexist hypocrisy cannot be unseen.
I think about writing a lot more than I actually write, a trait likely shared with at least a few million writers. I tell myself I’m going through a process of pre-writing by composing something in my head so that when I eventually do sit and write, fully realized sentences and paragraphs and pages will flow from brain to screen in a seamless manner catalyzing personal joy and soaring feelings of accomplishment while minimizing the tick-tock-tick of wordless shame.
The results, at best, are mixed. My writing process is rarely seamless and only occasionally joyful. But without this neurological preamblic stroking, I suspect it would be worse. Of course, distinguishing an outcome of enhanced productivity from its insidious twin of rationalized procrastination in my pre-writing phase is impossible. How would I design a test to prove veracity of productivity? One cannot unthink nor can two people plan to think and not-think simultaneously in ways such that an objective outsider could compare quantity and quality of word output.
I’m doing it again.
As part of this warm up, I also cruise websites. I was rambling around the worldwide universe looking for places to submit my still-coming-into-being-literary-creations when I had a look at the guidelines for The Rumpus. On the very informative and easy-to-use submission site, and across other pages as well, the editors kindly provided a bit of free advice to would-be Rumpusians: Write like a motherfucker.
That got my attention. Presumably this suggests I should aim to write like my father. He is a writer and he has fucked my mother (I’m the living proof), though he hasn’t done either for some time. He used to write for an oil and gas trade magazine and he was extremely good at it. (Did you know gasoline additives that profess to clean your car engine are useless? He broke that story.) But what I’m aiming to write these days isn't journalistic, so writing like my father doesn't make sense. Through the years, men other than my father also fucked my mother with her enthusiastic participation, of course. My mom and I were always close, so I pretty much know the who, when and where of all those dudes. None were writers worthy of emulation.
Those thoughts bounce off my neuron rails and careen through my synaptic highway before I am even aware of their existence and then crash into each other and gain wobbly substance in my consciousness like an off-kilter tune coaxed from piano keys of an unpracticed novice. The tune is stuck, rocketing around in my brain. I am suddenly hyper-aware of the phrase itself.
Write like a motherfucker. A mother fucker. Write like you fucked your mother. A fucker of mothers.
Hey, you know what? That phrase is sexist as hell. So, so sexist.
Write like a motherfucker. What the?
Now that I see the words in this naked light, I can’t unsee them, like the first time you walk in on your parents, well, fucking, and it becomes a permanent electrical brain tattoo. My pre-writing brain sent me a jolt and I’m awake.
For clarity, it’s not only the write like a motherfucker phrase that slapped me across the side of my brain today. All the myriad ways this phrase is used to connote positive outcomes or traits or feelings also snuck in to my brain through some sort of trap door I didn't know was there.
“Man, you made that motherfucking shot!”
“I love you, motherfucker!”
“Blend that tofu like a motherfucker
A story pops spontaneously from my brain's basement. I once knew a a man who was a motherfucker and a writer.
I was fifteen years old. My friends and I used to hang out at a coffee shop near our high school. A mother and her adult son owned the shop. His name was Lloyd. I only knew her as “Lloyd’s mom.” She was mom-frumpy. Lloyd was cute with a mop of brown hair and playful eyes. He occasionally slipped me a free glazed donut.
My own mother picked me up after school at the coffee shop one day. Mom was single, with three children, divorced in an era when it was still ostracizing. She was often sad and usually lonely, but too busy keeping a home afloat to wallow much. She was a young mother — eighteen when my older brother was born and 21 for me — pretty and sexy and a little scared all the time. Hourly, I seesawed through worship and fear of my mom, like any mostly normal adolescent, but back then I saw her only as my mother, not a woman.
Lloyd did not make that mistake. Next thing I knew, worlds collided and Lloyd was in our living room waiting on the light blue sectional couch to take my mother on a date.
“Your mother is beautiful,” he said. “You are lucky. Any man interested in you will know you’re gonna age well, ups your value.”
I believe that may have been the first time in my young life I uttered the phrase “what the fuck?” but inside my head, not out loud.
After they had been dating a while, Lloyd invited me to visit his family farm one afternoon. My mom was working. I assumed he had cleared it with Mom but I didn’t ask specifically. I was bored, out of school for a holiday or something, and went along for a car ride into the countryside on a lovely fall day.
At the house, his thickening mother offered me a generic can of ginger ale. Lloyd suggested he and I walk through the ragged, picked-over cornfield and told his mother to pack us a picnic. In the kitchen, they whispered.
“Please don’t Lloyd,” she said in a pleading voice.
He patted her billowy ass.
Don’t what, I wondered, as I downed the ginger ale.
We pushed and sorted our way through the crackling brown stalks. His mother watched from the picture window until we were out of view. Lloyd carved out a spot and spread out a blanket. Encircled by a corn fortress, we were invisible to the outside world. He invited me to sit. I sat. He opened a bottle of wine. Wine! I was excited. He must see me as an adult, I thought.
Lloyd took off his clothes. All of his clothes. Shoes. Shirt. Pants. White underwear. Athletic socks.
“I like the sun on my skin,” he said, stroking his penis.
I was shocked into silence.
“Come on,” he said. “Take off your clothes.”
I said no. His penis waved of its own accord, like a scarecrow. I looked up at the sky. Puffy cotton balls against blue. I refused his entreaties. I pushed his hand away. We sat, for more than an hour, or who knows how long, in a fucked up version of an Andrew Wyeth painting.
He gave up. He dressed. We walked back to the house. His mother was crying but I saw relief wash over her face when she saw me unharmed and fully dressed.
I don’t know why he didn’t try to force anything on me, nor do I remember why I didn’t leave, or punch him. Later, I told my sweet boyfriend about it. He wanted to knife Lloyd in the belly but I made him promise not to. I eventually told my mother. I don’t know what she did but Lloyd never came around again.
Looking back, I can surmise that Lloyd and my mother had consensual relations (before she found out about his cornfield antics) making him a motherfucker and hindsight (or a vivid adolescent imagination) suggests he may also have been fucking his own mother. Lloyd wanted to crown those achievements by becoming a daughterfucker too. Really, his goal was to be a familyfucker, I guess. But his gateway drug was motherfucking.
These memories are messed up, and my brain is not currently my friend but I remember now why they slunk out of its inky depths. The reason for this digressive anecdote is that Lloyd aspired to be a writer. He told me about it that day in the cornfield. Maybe his exploits with my mother, his mother and me were fodder for what he envisioned as a lurid American gothic dysfunctional sex memoir.
I am now listening in shuffle mode to the album Fatherfucker by Peaches interspersed with Lou Reed’s Sex with Your Parents.
They are so cool, and I suspect, way ahead of the rest of us in fucking around with language and cultural taboos.
Stuck in this maddening neurological groove, the next step of my pre-writing is to complete the requisite superficial online search for the etymological origins and cultural context of the phrase motherfucker. Maybe a little learning will help me unglue it from my brain today.
And so I learn. The original aim of motherfucker was to demean its target, with origins in the classic “your momma” insult trope. Embedded in its use is an assumption that the absolute opposite of the most-interesting-man-in-the-world is the man who fucks his own mother.
I learn more. The phrase began to lose its shock as a vulgarism in the countercultural 1960s according to the absolute authority of Wikipedia. Kurt Vonnegut got things going when he put it in the mouth of one of the soldiers in Slaughterhouse Five, causing an angry backlash among librarians and mothers. His response was entertaining: “Ever since that word was published, way back in 1969, children have been attempting to have intercourse with their mothers. When it will stop no one knows.” Kudos to Vonnegut and others at the forefront of the battle for assuring cultural accuracy in literary dialogue.
Over the years, Vonnegut-style usage morphed and today there’s no shortage of motherfucker in the artistic world, especially music lyrics and videos. Simultaneously, it gained currency in everyday language to both call out poorly behaving individuals and as a means of expressing anger. For example, last night my husband could not get a video to play on his laptop and he snarled, motherfucker! In addition to venting technology frustration, this type of usage is high during rush-hour traffic.
While still an insult, its shock has worn off somewhat coincident with its massive usage. Today, it seems the phrase is used in relatively equal parts as an insult, to express anger or frustration, or to telegraph a hip/radical/anti-authoritarian posture.
I keep on learning. Freud articulated what came to be known as the Oedipus complex, theorizing with zero evidence that a normal aspect of development occurs when a boy becomes sexually attracted to his mom (for girls, the same thing with dad is the Electra complex). According to him, a child must pass through this phase to become sexually mature. Boys who don’t make it, well, these wannabe motherfuckers turn into deviants, I guess. And for girls, these thwarted fatherfuckers are … wait, what are they?
Hmmm. Synaptic activity begins to crystallize. It is difficult to conceive a fatherfucker as an actual thing because we default to an assumption that the man is the actor in any deviant sex act that, in turn, is inflicted on a passive woman without agency. In other words, the woman is invisible. In the imaginary land of equivalency, a fatherfucker would be a daughter who does it with dad but what this conjures instantly is not a messed up daughter seducing her dad but rather a predatory man lurking around his sweet girl. Who would use such a phrase? But the question I’m puzzling over is why does motherfucker not similarly offend us?
The neurons lurch into a recognizable pattern. A question surfaces. Is the phrase motherfucker sexist? Is that why it's stuck in my brain?
i’m going to deploy a different tool as I think more about this: a back-of-the-cocktail napkin mathematical proof framework.
Given: Motherfucker originates in its literal meaning of a son fucking his mother but we allow for its expansion to mean fucking any mother.
Given: Motherfucker literally presumes a violation of a woman by a man.
Given: Motherfucker originated as a grave insult aligned with its literal meaning.
Given: Motherfucker has no male equivalent.
Hypothesis: With constant usage, the phrase motherfucker has transcended its literal definition. Just like you blow or you suck no longer mean oral sex. That means it's harmless, like these other phrases, more or less.
Refutation: You blow and you suck could mean other things. Like: “Hey asshole, you can suck a lemon,” or “You can go blow a bubble for all I care.” or “This blows my mind.” Motherfucker can have only one meaning.
Conclusion (Part 1): We have casually adopted a word into common usage that at its definitional core accepts violence against women. This is sexist language.
Conclusion (Part 2): When used as an insult, it retains some legitimacy because, well, fucking your mother is a bad thing.
Possible action item: Use of this phrase as an insult should become interchangeable with the equivalent term of fatherfucker.
Hey fatherfucker, stay in your lane!
Get your fatherfucking hands off of me!
You suck, you fatherfucker.
(Stepping away now from the proof framework.)
I am reminded of a somewhat similar situation. A decade or so ago people got all up in flailing arms about the phrase “He (or even she) has balls.” Often adjectified as giant balls, balls of steel, brass balls. Someone’s brain (likely a procrastinating writer) got slapped one day and he or she woke up and started asking why our language reinforces the idea that sensitive male body parts should describe courage. In response, feminists (myself included) tried out the replacement phrase “She’s got ovaries.” It was a big flop. But since then, from purely anecdotal observations, these past few years, the phrase “got balls” as a stand-in for bravery is on the decline.
Once seen, lexicological sexist hypocrisy cannot be unseen.
How weird does fatherfucker sound? Probably as ridiculous as “That badass has ovaries.” And that’s okay. My thinking is it won’t take too long for the rest of the world to wake up as they experience the jolt that comes with hearing or using the phrase fatherfucker. I'm raising my hand to get started using the phrase. Said out loud, it's actually kind of fun.
But circling all the way back to the beginning of my pre-writing activities that threw me down this useless path: What about when the phrase motherfucker it’s used in a positive way?
Like eat that ramen like a motherfucker or write like a motherfucker.
I decide to expand on the transcending literality argument in the above proof and see where it lands but I’ve run out of cocktail napkins so this is less structured.
Reasonable people can and do argue that when a nasty word or phrase transcends its original negative meaning, it’s empowering. Throw off the shackles and claim the word as our own. The use of previously banned or insulting words can represent a radical moment, a moment when intentionally or instinctively artists and others challenge prevailing power structures, as Vonnegut did in the 1960s. These are exciting ways to use language in the arsenal for liberty.
Similarly, reasonable people, along with revered authors and content providers, use motherfuckery specifically to encourage strength and courage when approaching a story one has to tell. What’s wrong with that? Seems like a harmless contemporary update on the whole advice-to-young-writers gig. So what?
Here is the so-what: Given our examination of the inherent sexism in the phrase, its leap to the broader positive contexts comes at a cost.
When the words mother and fucker in sequence hit the category-keeping parts of our brains, we hear them for what they mean, even if just for a single unconscious flicker. My flicker for some reason became conscious today. But in either mode, conscious or non, we throw sustenance to the still-lurking word-creatures laid down by culture and genetics, stored within the gray matter twirls of our brain structures, always at the ready to influence our behavior, even without our awareness. We should be starving those creatures, not secretly feeding them. By using this phrase in a positive context, we avoid the harder work of excavating and eliminating those sexist concepts. Words have power.
Across the landscape in my brain where memories lay in wait, I see another example sprouting: In the 1980s or so we woke up to the fact that “man” was not a stand-in for “human” as in all men are created equal. Slowly, but with certainty, our American English language has shifted to exorcise what now seems an obvious case of embedded sexism. We are aware of the gender of our pronouns and professional categories; for example, we may now say police rather than policemen. One day, maybe our country’s founding documents will be revised to read that all humans are created equal.
Given my gender, the last thing my brain throws at me is anxiety about upsetting anyone. The requisite pre-apology spills out. No! My words are not meant to bust the balls (whoops!) of any individual or group or artist using motherfucker in a positive way. My favorite vegan cookbook drops the phrase as often as “salt to taste” in all its recipes. But in this Trumpian era in which previously hidden sexist messages are full frontal, introspection of unintended contributions to this toxic climate is a must.
I don’t want to write like a motherfucker. I don’t want to write like my mother’s fucker Lloyd. I’m content to write (or think about writing in my case) like a plain old fucker.
And now with my brain properly exercised and vacated, I return to my regularly scheduled warm-up pre-writing. Next topic? The word “mistress.” Why does a woman who cheats have her own label? I’m pondering mastress as a solution of equivalency. But first, I'm going to drive in rush-hour traffic and yell fatherfucker at anyone who cuts me off. And then, yes, then, I’ll be ready to write, you know, real stories and stuff.
Contributed by Kathleen McFall