What's a dirty word for uterus? I found myself pondering that over the weekend, after reading a glowing article in the New York Times on the filmmaker Jill Soloway. Her new movie, Afternoon Delight, is described in the paper's subheadline as "sexually frank." Which made it all the more ironic that the article's kicker was so prudish:
“The movie’s so much about femininity and sexuality and motherhood,” Ms. Scheckel said.
As Ms. Soloway advised her team, but in less prissy language, film and edit “from your uterus.”
After rejecting the very few options that came to mind (babymaker?) and considering just what the authorial voice of a uterus might be, I began to wonder if, in service of not offending the delicate sensibilities of its readers, the paper hadn't wound up conflating some of their delicate bits instead. I reached out to Soloway, who confirmed that the advice she gave her team (both male and female) was to edit from their "pussies." As any middle-school boy can tell you, that means vagina (or vulva). As those middle-school boys who haven't dozed off in sex-ed can tell you (and really, of all the classes they sleep in, that is not the one), the vagina and the uterus are not the same thing. It turns out that Melena Ryzick, the article's author, had asked Soloway if there was a word she cared to substitute in for the unprintable one. They went back and forth and settled on uterus. "Editing from your uterus was ultimately a better message than editing from your vagina," Soloway told me in an email.
Despite Soloway's willing participation, the substitution irked me. Is there something inherently offensive about the idea of a woman's perspective being informed by her vagina, but less so about it being informed by her uterus? Why is it that someone who throws around the word pussy would feel weirder about seeing the word vagina in print? It makes sense that the Times wouldn't print that particular slang, but why not use the anatomically correct substitution? The Arts section has used it plenty of times, as it has the word penis. If they were looking for other words to describe a vagina, perhaps Soloway and Ryzik could have referred to this 2007 Times article on the then-trendy word "vajajay," which quotes John McWhorter saying that "It sounds warm and familiar and it almost makes the vagina feel like a little cartoon character with eyes that walks around." (That sentence alone is a masterclass in why Soloway might have preferred an anatomical substitution, even an incorrect one, to a euphemism.)
The "vajayjay" article includes an anatomical description of the vagina ("the canal that leads from the uterus to the outside of the body"), making it clear that someone on the paper, at some point, understood the difference. But there is also an explanation for what was to come: psychology professor Steven Pinker explaining that "because sexual subjects are always 'emotionally fraught,' ...each new euphemism eventually 'gets contaminated' and prompts 'the search for yet another euphemism.'” Including, apparently, uterus.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer at the New Republic.
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