The perceived danger of utilizing controversial words is normally that hearing them desensitizes our initial shock-value to them. This is the customary reasoning behind implementing word restrictions on television and other mass mediums. In 1972, George Carlin did a stand-up routine on the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Of Carlin’s seven chosen words — shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits — any of them can now regularly be heard on either late night cable or paid-subscription channels like HBO or Showtime.
Part of this argument is certainly true; becoming desensitized often stops us from questioning a hurtful word’s original implication. This is the point Crom argued to Louis: his frequent use of “faggot,” though often hilariously playing against common connotations of the word, ignores the past pain that it is capable of triggering. Crom says: “You might want to know that every gay man in America has probably had that word shouted at them when they’re being beaten up. Sometimes many times. Sometimes by a lot of people all at once. So when you say it, it kind of brings that all back up.” This is also the ideological viewpoint that GLAAD and Jack Shears come from in their criticism of Banks: that the word should never be used because of its ability to hurt. But there does exist another ideological camp on the use of controversial words.
In 1990, Dr. Dale Bauer, professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote “The Other ‘F’ Word,” a treatise on how feminism is used as a dirty word. Her point was that the insistence on a politically neutral classroom prohibited constructive conversation, that educators were choosing complacency over true progress. If merely saying “feminism” caused uproar, how would the ideas of gender equality behind it ever come to light? This side of the argument makes the attempt at use and reclamation: that purposefully using or repurposing a definition can impair a word’s ability to cause pain or controversy. This is perhaps best seen in the reclamation of the word “queer,” which was once a derogatory term for gay men, but now is proudly used as an umbrella term for all non-heteronormative identities (much quicker than explaining what LGBTQQIAAP stands for).
Reclamation also has its downside: it is a process not easily completed. It also raises the question of who has the right to use the word and who does not. “Faggot” is a Pot-Kettle term. Like the idiom “the pot calling the kettle black,” there is an unwritten rule that similarly identified people can use reclaimed words. For example, a queer person can use “faggot” regardless of intent simply because they themselves are queer. In the case of Banks, her being an out bisexual woman — a point noted in the resulting media coverage but rarely discussed — would make her use of “faggot” acceptable.
The bigger question is that if reclamation is meant to be empowering, is using “faggot” in the same hurtful way that it has been used in the past really empowering? Historically, “faggot” was specifically aimed not at homosexuality in general but at effeminacy within gay men. When Banks justified her use of “faggot,” she was, in fact, using it as it always had been, attacking Hilton on his most readable quality: his femininity. Banks’ repurposing of “faggot” was far from empowering.
Most recently Banks used the word against music producer Baauer, whose latest single “Harlem Shake” has become an Internet meme sensation. She further clarified her definition of “faggot” against more backlash: “Faggot means coward, liar, backstabber…… Energy stealer, blood sucker.” Instead of using it to demean men who, in her opinion, act like women, she meant it pejoratively against all negative character traits. Does she think backstabbing and lying to be inherent to women?
Despite Banks being a bisexual woman, her identities do not justify her use or repurposing of “faggot.” She is a bully and her use of the word is reprehensible. But even in light of this, it is essentially a good thing that Banks continues to use the word. The controversy she feeds brings to light how divisive and misunderstood “faggot” is, making the better point of revealing what its use means over its mere shock-value. It also raises important questions of identity politics: who gets to claim what constitutes a New Yorker; why could Haze call Banks a “charcoal skinned bitch” and what that means for women of color; and most clearly, why do we demean Banks for bullying Hilton when he himself is a bully (who once infamously called wil.i.am a faggot)?
The question is not whether “faggot” should be used or not: the idea that an existing word could cease to be used at all is a pipe dream. It is also not a question of ethics, dictating who has the right to use “faggot” or not. A realistic approach — akin to Dr. Dale Bauer’s point of purposefully using the word “feminism” in the classroom — suggests that if we try to hide a word in an attempt to dismiss tricky and uncomfortable discussions, then we stop ourselves from learning anything. Using “faggot” does not reclaim its ability to cause pain and it does little to empower those it hurts. What does justify the use of the word “faggot” and empowers its victims is attempting to understand its history and why we continue to use it.