Euphemistic tulips | Photo: sunshinecity, CC BY 2.0
Alright boys and girls, today we are going to talk about vaginas. I know, I know, you don’t want to. “But Elle,” you might be thinking, “You talked about vaginas last week. Do we really have to talk about them two weeks in a row? Or if we do have to talk about them, can’t we at least call them something else, preferably something that associates vaginas with flora, or fauna, or food?” Yes, we’re going to talk about them again. No, we will not be using any euphemisms involving beavers, gardens, or muffins. We are going to talk about vaginas because recently, a woman got fired for doing so.
A substitute art teacher from Michigan named Allison Wint was “let go” from her position for daring to admit that yeah, Georgia O’Keefe paintings look like vaginas. Specifically, she was fired for saying the word “vagina” out loud to middle-schoolers. Because God knows, middle schoolers never have sex or even think about body parts. Wint was trying to address the elephant in the room—that the things Georgia O’Keefe paints look like genitalia. By saying the word vagina she was, in fact, trying to keep students from feeling more like perverts. She was trying to normalize what should be a normal thing. According to the Detroit Free Press,
At some point, Wint remembers saying: “Imagine walking into a gallery when (O’Keefe) was first showing her pieces, and thinking, ‘Am I actually seeing vaginas here, am I a pervert? I’m either a pervert or this woman was a pervert.’”
‘“I thought if I used a euphemism, that would make it into a joke,’ she said. ‘And I don’t think that’s a word you should be afraid of.”’
In a sane world, this frank acknowledgement of a reproductive organ depicted in artwork, and this rather normalizing attitude towards genitalia, would be rewarded. In our actual world, Wint got fired. Wint claims that she was fired specifically for saying the word “vagina,” in the words of the principal, ‘“without previous approval.”’ Silly me, I didn’t think you needed to have a form signed in triplicate to name a body part that roughly 50% of the population possesses. The school administrators claim that Wint was only in trouble for going off-curriculum and teaching about artistic controversies in the first place (which isn’t at all comforting, either) and for unspecified other violations. Which I think is administrator-ese for “We promise we have a good reason for firing this person, which we invented for the purposes of not looking bad in the media.” It doesn’t help their case that they initially told news stations that Wint was fired because teachers must get permission before discussing reproductive health, as if acknowledging that vaginas exist is the same thing as discussing reproductive health.
Wint’s final word on the matter is basically perfect: ‘“Being afraid of the word … creates an aura of shame around the body part.’” This. All of this.
When we have a shoddy sex education program, media representations of sex and gender that are idealized and plasticized, and the inability to even say the word “vagina” in a public setting to the very individuals who need to learn that sexual organs are normal, is it any wonder we have a rising number of teenagers having labiaplasties?
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to explain all the things wrong with firing teachers for talking about rather common body parts, she studies gender in popular culture.
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