Manners & Misdemeanors
The Rebirth of Locker-Room Talk-and the Demise of Polite Conversation
The concept of "polite conversation" is officially dead. And is that really such a bad thing?
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Right after I moved to California for graduate school in 1964, students at Berkeley staged huge demonstrations to demand the right of political advocacy on the campus. All that fall, most of the faculty turned out to defend what became known as the Free Speech Movement. But then three students and six other demonstrators were arrested for saying a forbidden word and displaying it on a piece of paper on the Berkeley campus. They aroused little local enthusiasm, and one had just shown up from New York, but, hey, it was spring, and they were quickly dubbed the "Filthy Speech Movement."

Some of the university's Regents demanded the expulsion of the students. At an academic dinner party, a curious faculty wife asked the other guests what word was written on that paper. I was starting to say "fuck" when my red-faced host sprang to his feet and signaled me to stop. "There are children asleep in this house!" he declared in outrage.

Maybe we just need strong language and expletives along with Xanax to get through a day, a week, a month, or even a year in the 21st century.

That dinner party seems now to have taken place on a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away, where there were serious repercussions for cussing even at liberal universities, faculty wives (I was one myself ) far outnumbered female professors, and the charge of sullying the purity of infant airspace, even when the little ones were sleeping, could silence a room full of grown-ups with Ph.D.s.

Nowadays those tots have been settled in their beds by weary parents reading Go the Fuck to Sleep after several mind numbing iterations of Goodnight, Moon, as their grandmothers self-soothed with adult coloring books filled with elaborately designed four-letter words tailored for the granny market—and the kids have probably heard these expletives plenty of times by the time they get to kindergarten.

Maybe we just need strong language and expletives along with Xanax to get through a day, a week, a month, or even a year in the 21st century. I haven't seen fuck in a needlepoint pillow kit yet, but I'm sure such a thing is available.

And yet there was a distinct cultural frisson on October 7, 2016, when the New York Times printed the words fuck and pussy, among other sexually explicit terms, in reporting on Donald Trump's 2005 video tapes. Its decision required extensive editorial discussion and revision of its style book, and was a news story in itself. Not all newspapers and programs opted for full disclosure. Some bleeped, some used dashes, some used asterisks; others used euphemisms, circumlocutions, emojis, or warnings. The Wall Street Journal cleared pussy but not fuck.

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In short, lots of pussyfooting about the language ensued, as if that were the issue. Would it have been more acceptable if Trump and Billy Bush had expressed themselves in the stately, mustache twirling language of Edith Wharton's rich "connoisseurs" of femininity in old New York? "Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up," one old voyeur murmurs, ogling Lily Bart dressed up as a Reynolds portrait in a tableau vivant in 1905's The House of Mirth, "but, gad, there isn't a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it."

In any case, it's hard to imagine the New York Times reader who would be shocked to see these words in print today. Still, definitions of offensive speech are changing so fast that we're unsure where to appeal for an authoritative judgment. Is it a question of etiquette? Legality? Custom? What the NYT finds fit to print? Even the terms we use for the unspeakable and unprintable reveal all kinds of preconceptions, connotations, and assumptions about class: vulgar or risqué, obscene or naughty, crude or lewd. And none of them seems quite up-to-date.

But much more significant than the language was Trump's half-apologizing for, half-excusing of his remarks as "locker room talk." That label aimed to redefine and justify the language of the men's-only locker room as boyish male bonding—harmless, playful, and even a bit old fashioned. A new verbal arbiter had appeared.

And indeed, right on schedule, the locker room has made a comeback, not in scandals in professional sports or at the Y but in incidents at elite colleges and universities, places traditionally for gentlemen, in which men's varsity athletic teams have been discovered to have a widespread practice of grading and degrading female team members, fellow students, campus workers, and almost every woman or girl above the age of 12 within range of The Room.

There had always been rumors among women that such secret lists existed, cherished by fraternities, inscribed in college lookbooks, and passed around with the beer, and no woman who might have been a target was that keen to know what they said.

But now, with the internet and social media, nothing is secret anymore. At Amherst the men's cross-country team sent e-mail chains in which female students were described as "meat slabs" and "walking STDs." At Harvard "scouting reports" by soccer players rated the women's team, and then the Harvard cross-country runners came forward voluntarily with their spreadsheet of sexual ratings for female athletes. The ratings were both lewd and racist at Columbia, from the wrestling team, and at Princeton, too, from the men's swimming and diving teams. So much writing! It's like a parody of the admissions application. Administrators censured the teams and canceled their seasons, but no one was arrested.

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It's not the words, it's the attitude, a double standard of gender that many thought had disappeared.

Some anonymous commenters responding to press reports asked whether these universities were overreacting to the language used by their male athletes if the American public accepts the words used by the president. But it's not the words, it's the attitude—a double standard of gender that many thought had disappeared. Testifying in 1959 at the obscenity trial after the American publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover, which established legal standards for permissible language in a literary work, the writer Malcolm Cowley said that four letter words had long been part of "a secret language of men," used in the "smoking room" and the "bar room," but "no woman was supposed to know them unless she was…utterly degraded."

That secret language, he declared, "has been abolished."

Well, not quite. Women sportswriters fought many legal battles to get into men's locker rooms, and the exclusion of women is implicit in the idea of locker room talk. American women writers have long been expected to maintain schoolmarmish standards of linguistic propriety, although telling an aspiring novelist, playwright, or poet that she can't use a major part of the vocabulary is like telling an aspiring painter of nature that she can paint a garden but she can't use green or blue.

When Betty Smith wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in 1943, she was inspired by the hard-boiled school of James T. Farrell, but her editor at Harper & Brothers insisted she remove some of the "strong language" and change "shut your fuckin' mouth" to "shut your lousy trap." Joyce Carol Oates wanted to capture the "forcefully crude" language of migrant farmworkers, including women, in her second novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), but her editors objected. In 2002 she restored and expanded it in a new edition for Modern Library. Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1973) made it acceptable for women writers to play with sexual language the way Mailer or Roth did, although she was punished for it by reviewers with a lot of locker room insults.

Ever since I started teaching contemporary literature, I have made a point early in the semester of reading aloud a line with dangerous language. One of my favorites is the triple play of Donne, Hemingway, and Vietnam from Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers: "It tolls for thee, motherfucker." It was important for me to say it, and analyze it, not only because it is a great line but to show students what they could say in a discussion, so we would not awkwardly stumble around like guests at an old-time polite dinner party, where there were children sleeping upstairs. And it was especially important for them to hear a woman professor use this language; my male colleagues had no inhibitions and never even thought about it.

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Is the language of the locker room moving into the drawing room? I hope so, if that means there are women in the room as well. No more secret language of men, no more tedious feminine pretending to be shocked or amused by it. 

I suspect that the revival of men's locker room talk will lock out women, and that any woman using what Mailer long ago called "the language of men" in public will risk being insulted, with the pretext of protecting delicate femininity. As male standards loosen, female standards could tighten, because male grossness works only in the face of assumed female purity, and male sniggering is fun only behind women's backs.

Is the language of the locker room moving into the drawing room? I hope so, if that means there are women in the room as well. No more secret language of men, no more tedious feminine pretending to be shocked or amused by it. It would be more honest and adult. As one of my icons, Joan Rivers, used to say, "Oh, grow up!"

If you're keen to get shut up or thrown out of a dinner party, racist, sexist, or ethnic slurs will get you there, at least for the time being. But in the age of social media, the quest for the shocking and offensive will only escalate. How quickly it will happen, and in what form, I couldn't possibly predict.

Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English at Princeton, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London, and a winner of the Truman Capote Prize for Criticism.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Town & Country.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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