How Pussy Riot Became P***y Riot: The FCC’s Sexual Obscenity Rules Are Bullshit

Near naked women "Pussy Riot" protesting FCC profanity rules

When George Carlin released his famous monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” in 1972, it didn’t include the word “pussy.” Although his list didn’t reflect all the words you couldn’t say on TV at the time, the ones he chose were enough to incite the wrath of the FCC and became fodder for a subsequent Supreme Court case on the government’s right to censor and control broadcast “indecency.” He later expanded the list to over two hundred words commonly deemed inappropriate, which he read aloud to audiences from a long scroll.

Seven Deadly Words

These days, Carlin’s original seven words aren’t all universally banned from television, although many remain taboo. But which ones are they? No official list of words banned by the FCC exists because each use is considered in context: you can “blow someone’s brains out” but you can’t “blow them.” Buzzfeed helpfully compiled a list of sixty-eight words you cannot currently utter during primetime hours on network television, but their list is by no means exhaustive. In the United States, broadcast decency laws are consistently more puritanical than those in place in much of Western Europe, Great Britain, and – in some ways – Russia. Which brings us to the question of how our news media is meant to reference the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, their anti-Putin protest and subsequent sentencing of two-year prison terms for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

American newscasters are tasked with navigating the catch-22 of Pussy Riot coverage. The sentence against Pussy Riot has been roundly condemned by almost all of American media; after all, we’re the home of the free. We’re not jailing anyone around here on charges of hooliganism – though we did beat the shit out of some Occupy protesters or whatever. And yet, we can’t say “pussy” on television. So, how do we promote the idea that our system encourages freedom of self-expression and opposes the tyranny of Putin’s regime while operating under a tyranny of censorship around sex, sex acts, and sex parts?

The caveat in the FCC’s regulation of the word “pussy” is this: you can actually say the word, but you must be insulting a man for being effeminate, weak, and possibly gay. It’s cool to call some dude a pussy because he’s being a bitch, but you can’t have a pussy, and it certainly can’t be “moist” (the word “moist” is also forbidden when used in a sexual context).

The use of “pussy” to refer to female genitalia is thought to originate from Low German puse(“vulva”) or Old Norse puss (“pocket, pouch”). It was used to refer to women in general as early as the 16th century, but didn’t enter the lexicon as a term for the vulva until the 19th century. Only in the 20th century did it take on its FCC-sanctioned definition as an insult for girly-boys.

As media coverage of Pussy Riot has expanded, more media outlets are willing to utter the unmentionable vagina reference on air, but many anchors – notably Fox News anchors – still refer to the word in a bizarre Voldemort, one-who-shall-not-be-named style. The Huffington Post compiled a series of references to the band, both here and abroad:

Too Pussy For Pussy Riot?

The reticence to defile the minds of American youth with references to sexual anatomy euphemisms – or vulgarities, depending on how you look at it — like coochie, pink (meaning vagina), poonani, poontang, snatch, twat, and, of course, pussy is at the heart of America’s strange cultural history with sex and sexuality. It’s seemingly the task of the Internet, where we can say Pussy Riot all day long, to honestly discuss the band’s political transgressions and absurd punishment. When VICE interviewed Pussy Riot, they explained the significance of their name:

VICE: Why ‘Pussy Riot’?

Garadzha: A female sex organ, which is supposed to be receiving and shapeless, suddenly starts a radical rebellion against the cultural order, which tries to constantly define it and show its appropriate place. Sexists have certain ideas on how a woman should behave and Putin, by the way, also’s got a couple thoughts on how Russians should live. Fighting against all that – that’s Pussy Riot.

The members of Pussy Riot are talking about being women and being rebellious. They’re talking about how expectations of propriety facilitate oppressive regimes. When we take the pussy out of Pussy Riot, it’s just vulgar.

Follow Kelly Bourdet on Twitter: @kellybourdet.

How Pussy Riot Became P***y Riot: The FCC’s Sexual Obscenity Rules Are Bullshit | Motherboard.

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2 comments for “How Pussy Riot Became P***y Riot: The FCC’s Sexual Obscenity Rules Are Bullshit

  1. cheryl gifford
    August 28, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Well, this rule is worthless!. How many times have you heard these on TV, sometimes on the same show and in the same sentence?

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