The cover of the November 2011 issue of Glamour featured Kristen Stewart, her toenails painted black and the slightest beginning of a smile (maybe?) on her face, surrounded by pitch lines, enticements to read what was within: "Guys Talk Sex!" "A Twilight Exclusive!" "6 Health Problems You Can Fix Youself." And ... "12 Ways to Get Your Sh*t Together." Wait, what was that the word we thought we saw?
It is not surprising that this inclusion of a previously forbidden word on the cover of Glamour captured the interest of The New York Times, a media organization whose standards policies last year prevented the use of the initialism "STFU" while discussing a website called STFU in its pages. In a piece published today (more than a year after the appearance of that vulgarity) titled "50 Shades of Vulgarity," Christine Haughney takes us through what exactly happened in order for a magazine in the business of lady glamour to start tossing four-letter words onto its covers: "Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour, was searching for the best way to draw readers’ attention to an article in the November 2011 issue about how women could better organize their closets and bank accounts," she writes. “'12 ways to get your act together' didn’t have much punch. '12 ways to get your stuff together' also fell flat. So she decided to substitute act with a word unprintable here and waited for the angry letters to pour in. They never came."
The shock is not about the word itself, it's that, shit, no one cared.
Articles about how cursing has lost its impact (and usually, therefore, society is doomed) are perennials in this world, in which language is ever-evolving, typically in ever more casual ways. While certain four-letter words are now heard on television (and nearly everywhere else) as frequently as they're not, others, the most ostensibly offensive —and keep in mind, offensive is a characterization we give to words, not something they are born with, necessarily — retain a certain power, though for how long remains to be seen. The New Yorker's Mary Norris wrote a piece for that paper last year in which she began, "Nothing is so debilitating to a copy editor as having to lavish care on illiterate tweets laced with obscenities." I wrote back then, "The satire or performance-art element of the piece is that Norris then goes on to use the f-word herself at least 11 times, including to commend New Yorker writer John McPhee this week for breaking "new ground...by using fuck—as verb, noun, adjective, and interjection—fourteen times in a single paragraph." Once upon a time, however, Pauline Kael had had to struggle to get the word shit in the magazine. So, yes, we're changing the words we use; phrases which once had a certain shock value are now commonplace, trotted out by our 4-year-old cousins, said on prime-time TV, used as verbs and adjectives and nouns too, and then tossed aside when they lose the power they once had. Sometimes we still use them, but with other meanings: Damn is now probably uttered more frequently to convey a sense of admiration than to "damn" someone, for instance.
Once a curse word appears in a new place once, it's likely to do so again (it's the swearword slippery slope!), and of course this is not the only instance of a curse word appearing on a women's magazine cover. The meme "Shit Girls Say" got a mention on the cover of Glamour's September 2012 issue — "The full title begins with a four-letter word; Ms. Leive used it, with an asterisk in place of one letter," and another lady-bible, Cosmo, has used at least one vulgarity in a headline inside the magazine. But there are limits. A "vulgar word" was kept off the cover of Glamour's November 2012 issue because it seemed rude to place it next to an Obama interview, said Lieve, and Real Simple's managing editor Kristin van Ogtrop told Haughney she'd never put a curse word on the magazine's cover (though an "obscene abbreviation" has ended up inside the magazine, causing some people to complain).
What does it mean that a curse word could end up on a women's magazine, media land of long-held traditions against such vile things, where people speak like "ladies"? Well, it may not be everything, but it's not nothing, either. Lieve's staffers, she says, speak this way, and so do celebrities. That a magazine would hope to sell issues by speaking to its readers is simply good business, and if the celebrities readers want to read about express themselves in curse words, and so do the editors of that magazine, it's easy to imagine that those readers would use such language, too — and certainly wouldn't look askance at a weak little throwaway word like shit. “'When you’ve got people like Bloomberg cursing in public, and Chris Christie cursing in public, we have changed as a culture,' Ms. van Ogtrop said," writes Haughney. Not always not for the better (see the most recent case of political f-bombs), but we've changed nonetheless.
Perhaps this is even a kind of feminism, given the history and construct of lady mags: We can all say sh*t now! (With an asterisk, because that shields our innocent eyes nicely.) According to Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whom Haughney quotes, "Women cursing had long been considered 'dangerous,' because these words 'express anger and act as a substitute for a physical expression of anger.' It’s now more acceptable for women to curse, she added, and for men to express emotion, as President Obama did when he grew tearful when speaking about the Newtown school shootings."
Whether sh*t or even a fully spelled-out profanity offers all that much in the way of sincere emotional release or anger, however, is another question, but it is true that complaints about cursing are fewer and further between, and that those that do exist start to seem distinctly out of touch. Someday, maybe, not only will we be able to get rid of the asterisk, a kind of pasty-for-curse-words (we all know what's underneath, you guys), but also put a stop to all those lingering discussions on what curse words are doing to our culture. (They're all just words, and the point is expressing oneself, and the best way to do that, not whether anyone's going to get his or her mouth washed out with soap!) Unless, of course, one is an editor at the New York Times, where great pains were taking to avoid using any sort of vulgarity in an article about the increasingly common use of vulgarities. Where's that article on irony?