Thursday, July 29, 2010

Do me a favor. Don't say "panties."

Today's rant is on the topic of a word I detest.

Because it's summertime and random effluvia float through my vacation-besotted mind, and also because I spent yesterday at the glorious wonder of the world that is Coney Island lolling on the sand and frolicking in the wet (and surprisingly cold after all this heat) embrace of Miss Atlantic and a day of gazing at bodies and beachwear brought this to mind, may I have a moment of your time to appeal to you to never again let the non-word "panties" pass your lips? Why, you ask? Well, I'm glad you did. Here are my thoughts.

When I was growing up, back in the 1950s and 60s, we wore underwear. As a little girl I wore two undergarments, one on top and one below. On top I wore an undershirt; actually, I still do, most days, one of those Jockey-knockoff tank tops, and though no one but me calls it an undershirt that's what it is and I see no reason to refer to it any other way. I don't wear a bra except on days when whatever shirt I'm wearing would likely expose me to harassment; call me old-school feminist if you like, but I see that device as pure misogynist torture (except, perhaps, for some women with very large breasts, who report that carrying that weight without a bra can be painful, though I'm convinced that, were profit not the only factor determining such things,a better solution than the bra would be devised). Anyway, that's on top: an undershirt. On the bottom, I wore, as all us little girls did, underpants. I should qualify that phrase "all us little girls," because of course  I don't know for sure that my experience is the same as that of all girls of all nationalities and every class circumstance in this country. I'm pretty sure, though, that at least in Detroit and its environs, at least at that time, the word was underpants for most girls across racial, ethnic and class lines. Now then: I wear underpants still. And so do most women in this culture as far as I know. What we wear down there hasn't changed since we were kids, except for variations in style for some. We wear underpants, whether they're skimpy and frilly or ample and comfy, and of course you can guess which variation covers my tushie.

We wear underpants. Yet at some point we--no, not me, but many if not most women, and, more to the point, most men and the whole of this bourgeois patriarchal society, every organ of its media and so on--at some point we started referring to our underpants as "panties." I'm not sure if this change took place at a particular point in time, perhaps some time in the 70s, or if the tyranny of the panties is an older phenomenon culturally that imposes itself on each individual of us at a certain point in our coming of age. That is to say, I'm not sure whether I noticed everybody referring to the undergarment I'd always known as "underpants" as "panties" some time in the 1970s because I'd entered womanhood then and somehow this horrible word tries to assert itself on each of us at that point in our lives--or if the word somehow became ubiquitous at that time and has since continued its quest for world domination, in concert with all the rest of the ever accelerating societal assault on women's personhood via the media, cosmetics and fashion industries, the mandatory sexualization of musical artists' performance styles (no more could women simply sing on a stage, no matter how beautiful their voices or brilliant their compositions, no, they had to wear the skimpiest possible outfits, smear the brightest possible paints onto their faces and so on if they sought any commercial success), the sad, disturbing sexualization of little girls (and it ain't just poor dead JonBenet, check out girls' clothes, accessories) and so on and so forth.

That said, that I don't know whether this panties business has been going on a long time and we each become aware of it as we grow up or it's only reared its misogynist head in recent decades, either way I hate it and would love to see some young woman lead a crusade against it.

Panties. When I was a child, it was used as a put-down, a taunt, to imply childishness, immaturity. What a babyish word: panties. Only a baby would wear panties. Big girls wore underpants. Then came the perverse switcharoo 10 or 15 years later: somehow now panties are supposed to be what denotes your adulthood. Women wear panties. Only children wear underpants.

Really? Rather, the reality, I believe, is that whether this term is nowadays used for children and then carried on for adult women or imposed upon girls as they hit physical maturity, "panties" is the word for women's underpants and is ubiquitous in all media, advertising, fashion and so on precisely because of its infantilizing connotation. Infantilizing and, at the same time, sexually objectifying. Panties as in: women are girls. But also panties as in: women are sex objects. Both the objectification and the infantilization are degrading, demeaning to women. Which is exactly the point. For sexist society, a frisson of sexual excitement made all the more exciting for its inherent affront to women.

Is the word "panties" a major, central aspect of the whole construct of patriarchal capitalism? Even though I've got mine all in a twist, no, I'll grant that it's not. Is it a symptom? Oh yeah, baby. If you don't believe me, believe the definition and etymology, which I've confirmed in several sources. The word means "underpants for women and children." It can also be used, and has been for over 150 years, as a derogatory reference to a man's underdrawers. So basically, women are children. And for men, as is always the case, the worst possible insult is to be likened to a woman.

Coming soon: another word rant. Do me a favor. Don't say "partner" to refer to my same-sex lover. Also, more on books I've read and art I've looked at during my vacation.