On Sunday, October 9, whether you browsed social media or watched TV, the buzzword of the night was “pussy.” While I wasn’t aghast, but absolutely entertained. In the span of two days, a word, cringe-worthy by contemporary standards, had received a significant re-assessment of its meaning by women fighting the (patriarchal, chauvinistic) power of the media and savagery politics.
As the second Presidential debate was upon that day, media outlets had already released transcripts, audio, and footage of a 2005 conversation between Donald Trump, current Republican Party runner for the November election, and Billy Bush, recently suspended TODAY correspondent and then Access Hollywood co-host. In the three-minute clip, Trump admitted to wanting to “fuck” a married woman (despite himself being married to Melania Trump) and needing Tic-Tacs on stand-by, in case he met a beautiful woman en route to the set of Days Of Our Lives. (He was filming a cameo and Access Hollywood was there for the occasion). With Bush cackling at his classmate that he knows is going to get in trouble, Trump continued yapping, only to expose the now infamous vantage point of: “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” Trump was speaking in general terms on how he manipulated women. But it was revealed that he was referencing (actually, disrespecting) Bush’s co-worker Nancy O’Dell.
The famous billionaire, who’s made past cameos in 1994’s The Little Rascals, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, and Sex and The City, re-launched his profile as a xenophobic tyrant when he announced his run for the American presidency in June 2015. And for years, reports of his sexist behavior were swept under the rug as he became more of a pop culture icon with his reality competition show The Apprentice. But this particular behind the scenes recording provoked passionate outrage from women across multiple cultures and races. As well as the GOP, officially embarrassed by Donald Trump (though many maintained their endorsement).
“Grab them by the pussy.” Extremely graphic, but also uncomfortably laughable. The language was so vile, it had to be addressed on a national platform, the reality of how (some) men really talked or felt about women when they weren’t around. Another ugly truth being those type of men are rarely held accountable for spewing such contempt.
Based on Trump’s latest scandal, Shaun R. Harper, a professor and educational director at the University of Pennslyvania (Trump’s alma mater), shared his observations of men talking crudely in an Op-Ed published by The Washington Post: “I have even seen men stand aside and engage in this kind of talk about moms at kids’ birthday parties. Unfortunately, the kinds of words we heard from Trump are commonly spoken when men are with other men. Those who participate in this “banter” are rewarded. Those who choose not to engage, and especially guys who critique such statements, have their masculinities questioned and risk being placed on the outskirts of social acceptance.”
When Trump tried to pacify his comments, in a video apology, as “locker room talk”, responsive sighs were as impactful as Hillary Clinton‘s infectious shimmy from the first debate. The excuse of “boys will be boys” cannot ascend anymore. Not when privileged (White) men like Brock Turner can rape a woman behind a dumpster and not be thrown in jail for years, but instead three months.
Prominent athletes rejected Trump’s locker room association. To quote Brett Anderson of the Los Angeles Dodgers:
In brainstorming how the media was before “pussygate” happened, I imaginatively sat on the witness stand in the court of popular culture and noted how some of the greatest comedies, dramas, hip-hop songs and rock music artwork aggressively contained and alluded to pussy. Often directed towards belittling or subjecting women to only their sexuality, but also used as a diss to an enemy. I then remembered Entourage, the HBO series that followed “the boys from Queens” living the Hollywood dream. I began to feel ashamed because I was huge fan of the show (I still got the DVDs) and Entourage blatantly featured lines such as: “Do you how much pussy I got in this town I didn’t deserve?” (Granted, that quip earned the clap back of “All of it.”)
Blistering when characters like Tony Soprano said it. In any given scene from a Scorcese classic. Outrageous when DMX rapped “Looking like some brand new pussy that’s about to get fucked.” Next to Entourage, I’ve only tolerated pussy in entertainment when impossibly enjoying Josie and The Pussycats reruns on Cartoon Network. Grace Jones‘ memorable “No Man Can Turn Down This” monologue in Boomerang, and female rapper verses, including the guilty pleasure Iggy Azalea mixtape track “Pussy” that sampled Jones in the beginning.
What Trump, his followers, and camp have chosen to overlook is that when running for a position as eminent as the President of the United States, you are held to a higher standard than a fictional character or lyrics.While voters aren’t looking, or shouldn’t be vouching for perfection, they should want and stand for common decency. How can our President speak in front of dignitaries worldwide with the same mouth that made light of rape culture?
Leading up to the second debate, female social media users, as well as celebrities, posted memes with roaring and growling cats, ready to report for anti-Trump/Dump Trump duty.
These memes were great. They shifted the air of Trump’s misogyny and rallied for everyone everywhere to openly object sexism and get out there and vote on November 8. What a difference it made that a retort was done with a little dash of humor.
As the second debate broadcast aired, sites had quick posts up about Melania Trump’s top. Though completely unintentional according to her rep, the fuschia Gucci blouse she wore to the debate was listed as a “Pussy-bow silk crepe de chine shirt” on shopping site Net-A-Porter for $1,100. The irony was apt. As Trump tried to rid of the puss on his face during the debate post-video, his wife was wearing a blouse bearing one of the more traditional uses of the word “pussy.” Talk about a field day for the press. My mind raced for its sartorial history.
When the debate ended at 10:30, HBO premiered Insecure, the new show birthed from Issa Rae‘s Awkward Black Girl webisodes on YouTube. Now a full-blown cable series, the honest and hilarious pilot featured the female leads casually uttering “pussy.” Later on, Rae delivered a raunchy open mic rap at a downtown LA club. Her bars were unkind, abrasive, and childish. No one could escape the power of the pussy that October 9.
Back to Melania’s uproarious top. Where did the name of pussy bow come from? Fashion historians point to the bows ties gently wrapped around the necks of cats and adorable kittens.
Over at People.com, a colorful recap of its fashionable legacy was covered. Melania’s version is a much refined from its days as big floppy bow that overborne the front of any blouse. The pussy bow can be traced to the dawn of the Victorian era and illustrations of the imagined, idealized “Gibson Girl” by Charles Dana Gibson. Gibson based his drawings of White, sophisticated, city women on his wife Irene and her sisters. In some of his art, you can see elongated styles of the bow.
Per VOGUE.com, the pussy bow was described in 1934 as: “[a] cunning bow that ties high under the chin and looks for all the world like those we put on Pussy Cat when company’s coming.” VOGUE clarified that: “Essentially, it’s a variant of the scarf-neck blouse; the flamboyantly-knotted bow draws attention upwards to the face.”
Into the decades of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, Coco Chanel wore huge pussy bows from her line. Hollywood costume designer Omar Kiam accented tops with pussy bows, as seen in films such as 1937’s A Star Is Born. Yves Saint Laurent had them for his legendary, mid-70s French cool “Le Smoking” sleek suits.
The pussy bow really achieved worldwide status in the late ’70s and in the “She Works Hard for the Money” age of the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher wore them all the time as England’s first woman Prime Minister. Eventually regulated to the cubicle, it again gained notice in the 2000s on Gossip Girl and Mad Men that took place in the advertising world of the 1960s.
For their on-going series Makers: Women Who Make America in 2013, PBS aired a segment on how women gained employment post-World War II and during the rise of Women’s Liberation. In Part 3, the pussy bow made an appearance but was not called by name. Meg Whitman, a CEO of Hewlett-Packard, recalled as a then newly-appointed Procter and Gamble worker (in 1979) that:
“[Women] used to dress in suits, with a skirt and a jacket with button down shirts and a little bow-tie. Because that was sort of our interpretation of the man’s tie. I look back at those pictures today and I think, ‘What were we thinking!’ But it was our attempt to be feminine but fit into what was then a male world.”
In 2016 context, maybe it was also called a pussy bow because the low draping slightly resembled the shape of a vulva (I saw this theory hinted at online). Cats are also heavily associated with women, which remains an esoteric connection. (Is it because cats reflect a woman’s sense of delicacy and no bullshit attitude?) Put those thoughts together and you’ve got some major pussy bow magic.
Thanks to Donald Trump’s flagrant sexism, the evolution of the word pussy was televised. His words were a trigger for survivors of sexual abuse, assault, and unwanted touching (prompting the hashtag #WhyWomenDontReport), but the utter callowness gave way to those cheeky memes and amazingly perceptive critiques, such as First Lady Michelle Obama‘s latest stirring speech. Against Trump, she delivered at Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire rally on Thursday, October 13 and there was no mincing of the severity of the GOP nominee’s flippancy.
“This wasn’t locker room banter. This was a powerful individual speaking freely and openly about sexually predator behavior.”
And the pussy bow blouse? Welcome back into the fickle yet influential landscape of popular culture. It looks as though you really have arrived. Now witness the normalization of “pussy” for the better (?) and overused worse.