The first time that I heard it was in 2019, when we rang in the new year on the heels of some of the most candid public discourse we have ever heard from a politician. I refer, of course, to the then-newly elected member to the House of Representatives, Rashida Tlaib, and her promise to “go in there and impeach the motherf—er.”
This is a new phenomenon in public culture, and I can’t quite decide if it is a nadir or a zenith. As I think more about it, perhaps it’s both, and as such, it has fascinating implications for anyone involved in public presentation.
Congresswoman Tlaib represents a new wave of leaders and perhaps a new wave of thought. She is certainly not the first one to drop profanity on the public and very few people have standing here to cast too much judgment. The collective media kind of freaked out over it, more stately members of both parties feigned disdain over it, and even the president at the time, the Cusser-in-Chief saw fit to describe the comment as “disgraceful and disrespectful.” Oh my.
So why did everyone lose their sh-, um, lose their minds over this? Tlaib uttered the now-famous epithet at a party—not quite a private event, but something far removed from House chambers. And again, modern history is replete with profane commentary from public figures—what made this one different?
It seems pretty obvious to me: Rashida Tlaib is a woman, and women just can’t get away with that sh-, um, that kind of thing. I wish this weren’t so completely obvious to me; I wish I could point to even a whiff of deniability. But I don’t have to look much further than my own reactions, as recently as my December binge of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Perhaps I am naive to think that people in 1958 didn’t drop so many F-bombs. And when Midge did, I said out loud “you mean even the women swore back then??”
In her recent book, “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.” Rebecca Traister writes, “Like anger itself, cursing has been discouraged in women, as it is considered unladylike and masculinizing. But in fact it’s useful precisely because it is an outlet for all that pent-up anger.”
It’s true, profanity has value. Studies have shown that people who curse are seen as more passionate, more persuasive, and more likely to be believed. If you Google “studies on profanity,” you will find dozens of findings, but I found only one that speaks to the obvious gender gap.
This is pretty shi-, um, pretty lousy that we men can swear in public and actually reap a reward while women are criticized for it. And this has far-reaching implications for how we present ourselves in public. If everyone has to draw this line for him or for herself, where do you draw your line?
For years, my line has been drawn at a consistent place, and I recall how it first became clear to me. I was leading an all-day presentation skills workshop with an audience of about 30 people, and we were well into our fifth hour together. My sleeves were rolled up, I knew most of the audience by name, and at our mid-afternoon break, one of my audience members returned from the hotel lobby with a pitcher of beer. So things were pretty friendly and informal by now.
Someone shared with me her struggles with nerves and how her friends and colleagues all tried to help by telling her that “there is no need to be nervous.” To this I replied: “I’m sorry, but that’s just bullshit advice,” and everyone laughed.
I am convinced of two things: First, if it were 8:30a and we were all just getting started, that remark would probably have been greeted differently; and second, if I had simply said “I’m sorry, but that’s bad advice,” it would not have carried the same weight. My use of profanity clearly added gravitas to the statement.
Even more interesting, as I study this, my line in the sand is drawn at that exact word that I used. I feel that adding “bull” in front of the expletive actually softens it a bit. It is rare that I say “sh-t” in public, but I will say “bullshit” if I feel that the context and the setting are appropriate.
The question for me going forward is this: as the cultural line in the sand moves, will I move my own line? As audiences become more accustomed to hearing profanity in public, could I use it to better effect? And as my audiences become younger—and believe me, having raised two of them, I know how millennials drop F-bombs—should that be my new year’s resolution, to consider swearing in public more often?
I’m going to say no for two reasons. The first is an homage to two of the more skilled public speakers of our era, Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld, both operating in an arena in which profanity is practically expected. These two comedians have reached the pinnacle of their profession without employing profanity or raunch, and while eschewing all moral judgments about that, it shows remarkable discipline and expertise in their craft. I should aspire to such heights of public discourse.
And the second reason is because of how my consciousness has been raised in researching this article and discovering the degree to which gender discrimination exists in the profanity space. If women can’t get away with it, why should I? I will consider the use of profanity only when my female colleagues can, as well.
Until then, well, that’s just fu-, um, that’s just really messed up.