Getting to Know the Word "Douchbag"
By Wil Forbis
Feb 1 2019
Not long ago, a friend of mine consulted me with a particular problem. He is a great lover of using the word ‘douchebag’ (Hell, who isn’t? Well, we’ll soon see.) but his new girlfriend objected to the term, claiming that it was insulting to women.
Upon hearing this, I groaned. If you have the keen awareness of cultural trends that I do you know that some modern commentators allege that the inequities that plague society are encoded into our language. According to these word-police, we need to examine every phrase we utter and cleanse it of the taint of sexism, racism, homophobia etc. Even the animal rights people are getting into the act. The PETA organization recently provided a list of phrases that exhibit "species-ism" (the belief that one’s species is superior to all others, most commonly seen in cats). These phrases include such clichés as "beat a dead horse" or "bring home the bacon."
Despite my skepticism, I do feel we need to engage seriously with new ideas so I asked myself, "Is ‘douchebag’ insulting to women?" I realized that to answer I first needed to clarify what a douchebag literally is. A quick visit to Google revealed...
a small syringe for douching the vagina, especially as a contraceptive measure.
Huh. I had to confess I was unaware about the contraceptive part. But the rest matched most everyone's understanding: a douchebag is used to clean lady parts. Of course, in more popular parlance, it's an insult for a particular kind of worthless creep.
So what logic would imply that ‘douchebag’ is sexist? First, we should note that ‘douchebag’ is almost always an insult for men. By slandering them so, you are feminizing them by equating them with a feminine product. But there's more to it. You are effectively connecting the target of your insult with the "unclean" parts of a woman, and unclean women have been a bete noir since the beginning of time. Beyond that, you are really saying this guy is not even equivalent to a woman but rather to a device she uses to clean her unclean places. That's pretty low.
Wow… it didn't long for me to convince myself that ‘douchebag’ is sexist. But while talking about this with another friend, I heard the following objection: "What about ‘scumbag’? Is that sexist to men?" The thrust of this argument is that, if correlating feminine products with a negative valence is insulting to women, then doing the same for masculine products* must be so for men. This is an interesting point and in thinking about it I started to suss out some distinctions as to how we use the two terms (as pejoratives.)
* It's easy to forget that scumbag refers to a condom.
‘Scumbag’ and ‘Douchebag’ are both very useful insults but really have different implications. A scumbag is a loathsome and degenerate person who carries an element of threat. A pedophile is perhaps the best example, but any outcast lurking in the shadows waiting to defile polite society would qualify. If you call someone a ‘scumbag’ you are saying "this guy is a problem we need to deal with." A douchebag, however, is an inconsequential person, someone who attempts to garner more attention than they are worth. A middle-aged man who buys a flashy car in an attempt to attract women half is age would be a douchebag. He's an annoyance who can be dismissed with a wave of the hand.
We tend to associate threatening behaviors and violence more with men (and the statistics make clear we should) while we tend to associate lack of threat and passivity with women. Because of women's avoidance of raw violence they are viewed as less consequential, more "ignorable." And we pass these traits onto the target of our insult by associating said target with a masculine or feminine product.
My point here isn't to judge the fairness of the language, but merely to highlight how intrinsic gender is to these insults. The terms carry the taint of negative characteristics associated with a particular gender and apply it to their (almost always) male target. Of course, we should again note that these are products associated not just with a gender but with the sex organs of each gender and that somehow amplifies their sting. If we instead associated a douchebaggy person to some other female associated product, say a hair curler, it wouldn't have the same impact*.
* Having said that, I think that term could have its own belittling effect. "What did you think about the way Bob pranced about during that Power Point presentation?" "Oh that guy's a real hair curler."
At this point, my mind was piqued to explore how gender is associated with our various insults and curses. My mind turned to the big daddy of all swear words. My mind turned to "fuck."
We use the word all the time to imply negativity. A bad situation is "fucked up." We tell people we don't like to "fuck off." At first this seems curious. The term describes the act of sex which most of us consider quite pleasurable. You would think that when someone tells us to "go get fucked" we would reply, "Thanks! I hope I will." But we all know that isn't how it works. I would argue that ‘fuck’ really means rape. When you tell someone you “hope they get fucked” you aren't wishing them a pleasurable night with an attractive consort, you're wishing them defilement. (Well, you may not be actually wishing that, but that's what the implication is.) When you say, "this situation is fucked" you're saying the situation has been damaged in a way so serious that it's akin to sexual violation.
Of course, we're not really conscious of this stuff when we use these and most other curse words and insults. These connotations of gender and sexual violence swim underneath the surface where they are not explicitly observed. As a result I think we can fairly question how damaging the words really are. Let's say etymologists suddenly discovered that the word "jerk" had some particular offensive racist or sexist meaning. Would you be beset by guilt over all the times you called someone a jerk? Of course not; at those points you had no idea of the word's meaning and neither did any of your targets. Now, this isn't entirely true with ‘douchebag’ and ‘scumbag’ and ‘fuck’ and so many others---we can glean their meanings with a little thought---but most of the time we are using them as off the cuff remarks thrown in anger.
I'm sure there will be people, in coming years, who will argue that we should cleanse our language of these offensive words. And they might even succeed with ‘douchebag’, maybe even ‘scumbag’. But any attempt to remove fuck from our vocabulary will be, I suspect, quite fucked.
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.