Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for season 5 of House of Cards.
There’s a scene in the latest season of House of Cards that you may have missed amidst the cloud of election fraud, murder, and general intrigue that tends to follow the Underwoods wherever they go. It’s a quiet moment, which takes place roughly at the 46-minute mark in episode 5. The senate is about to vote on a vice president after the mayhem of election day, and Claire confronts Donald Blythe as he’s about to enter the chamber. He tries to placate her, telling her that she must be patient and wait her turn — her time will come, in four years. It’s patronizing, sure. But her response is ice cold — bringing up his “dumb, dead wife”? Ouch.
Blythe has always been a bit of a wet blanket, so I was especially shocked by his next words: “You know what I just realized? Your initials. They’re missing an ‘N’ and a ‘T.'”
Claire Underwood’s initials are C.U. Add in “N” and “T,” and you get the word “cunt.”
FCC regulations are strict when it comes to swearing on network shows, which are prohibited from using profane language, defined as “so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a nuisance,” between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. But with the rise of prestige cable and streaming TV, swearing has become commonplace. Hearing “shit,” “bitch,” “asshole,” or “dick” is barely even worth batting an eyelash over. “Fuck,” and all variations thereof, is more surprising, but not all that rare.
If you look up “cunt” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll get the following definition: “A woman’s genitals,” followed quickly by its related use, “an unpleasant or stupid person.” (Fun fact: “Cunt” was left out of the first edition of the OED, published in 1928, despite having legitimate linguistic roots. In 2014, four different new variations of the word were added.)
Derived from Middle English with Germanic origins, the first English use of the word dates back to 1230, when London’s center of prostitution was designated as “Gropecunt Lane.” Seriously.
Interestingly, it wasn’t always so taboo. Shakespeare has Hamlet and Ophelia banter about “country matters.” In Canterbury Tales, Chauncer tosses around the word “queynte,” the Middle English version. But eventually, it became, as feminist writer Germaine Greer put it, “the most offensive word in the English language.”
Over the years, women have tried to reclaim the word — take The Vagina Monologues, for example. In 2013, Jezebel ran an essay called “Cunt Should Not Be A Bad Word,” which asked: “Why do we let ‘cunt’ retain so much negative power? The only possible explanation is because so many people still think the worst crime a woman can commit is to be unapologetically sexual.”
But still, the stigma persists. Greer offered an explanation while hosting an episode of the BBC’s “Balderdash and Piffle” (please watch it, she literally paints the word on a wall in red paint): “For years, men identified female sexual energy as a dangerous force. And unlike other words for female genitals, this one sounds powerful. It demands to be taken seriously.”
But maybe it’s just because, as Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon says in a classic episode of 30 Rock (for more on that, check out the following slideshow): “There’s nothing you can call a guy to come back. There is no male equivalent to this word.”
So, let’s celebrate that! Click through for a brief overview of the most memorable C-bombs on TV.
Jane Fonda on the Today show
Jane Fonda appeared on The Today Show in 2008 to celebrate the anniversary of The Vagina Monologues, along with Eve Ensler. When Meredith Viera asked a fairly generic question about how she got involved in the production, then 70-year-old Fonda dropped a C-bomb.
“I live in Georgia, okay? I was asked to do a monologue called cunt,” she joked. I imagine that behind that nervous laughter, Viera was quietly screaming.
Sex and the City, “The Power of Female Sex”
30 Rock, “The C-Word”
Fun fact: You never actually hear the word in this episode, based on Tina Fey’s real-life experience of being called a “cunt” by one of her writers, later revealed to be Colin Quinn.
On Howard Stern, Fey admitted that she felt confused by the experience.”I was trying to help him with a show that he was working on. I think his anxiety about the writing of the show spilled over. Because it was very random. I was like, ‘What?’ He left me a message and he said that… I couldn’t even guess why. Usually if someone calls you that, you’re like, ‘I know what I did.’
At the time, Colin Quinn tweeted out an apology, which read: “Statement: It’s all true. I have used profanity when I’ve been angry at people. When I was wrong (as with Tina) I’ve said sorry to them.”
The two have since made up, and the whole thing led to a great episode of TV. Win-win, I say.
(Since I can’t show you the entire episode, I’ve included a montage of everyone yelling at Lutz. Enjoy!)
Ryan Murphy shocked viewers by having Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) use the word “cunt” to describe Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) in the very first episode of his new FX series. (Since FX is cable, it operates outside FCC guidelines. What’s more, since the show aired at 10pm, the strict rules wouldn’t apply.)
The Parent’s Television counsel spoke out against the show, noting “that FX would use such severe dialogue demonstrates that the network has no standards…. If one FX employee used the ‘c-word’ term to describe a female co-worker, that employee would be summarily fired.”
But showrunner Tim Minnear told The Hollywood Reporter that the use of the word had been carefully considered: “It was gratuitous coming from the mouth of the character but it wasn’t gratuitous in terms of the story that we’re telling. One well-placed epithet like that is like a bracing, toss of cold water in the audience’s face and it says something. Not if you’re dropping it every five seconds. So that’s why it’s there; it’s there because that’s the ugly soul that we’re exposing a little bit.”
The Larry Sanders Show, “The Hankerciser 200”
Jeffrey Tambor ad-libbed this line on The Larry Sanders Show, in which his character, Hank, refers to Larry’s wife as a “cunt.”
House Of Cards, “Chapter 4”
And here, we come full circle. House of Cards has used the word before — three times in fact, and in the very same episode. In the show’s first season, Tom Hammerschmidt argues with Zoe Barnes, who has gone against his instructions to refrain from giving TV interviews, and turned down his offer to be White House correspondent.
“I think you’re an ungrateful, self-entitled little c—,” he starts.
Zoe counters with: “Little what? Little what, Tom? Say it!
“Cunt,” he finishes. “You’re a cunt.”
The incident is later alluded to in season 5, when Sean Jeffries nods to a picture of Zoe in Tom’s office, and asks: “Is she the one you called a —?”
Earlier in that episode, Margaret Tilden, owner of The Washington Herald, makes a joke which ends with — you guessed it.
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