December 2nd, 2005


Trouble at the in

In the double bind of the Virgin-Whore complex, women are supposed to be more pure than men – sugar and spice and all things nice. Yet when they fail to achieve this artificially high standard—especially when young, or drunk, or on the make—they're accused and castigated out of all proportion to their sins, which are usually no worse than the sins of anyone young, drunk or on the make.

One peculiarity of this tendency is that completely harmless tics and traits characteristic of young women are seized on, in a certain type of commentary, as harbingers of moral decline. Ever say "Really?" when someone is telling you something? We all do; it's a sign of respect to the person speaking, a sign you're listening, and an exclamation of surprise. Yet when young women say "Really?" it's suddenly an index of moral decline, a sign of inner vapidity, credulity, and spineless receptivity.

Commenting on my Helsinki street style piece the other day, Erkki Rautio of Tampere drew my attention to the phenomenon of pissis, the Finnish bling-bling girls who piss in the snow because they can't hold their drink like a man. (Finnish men also piss their vodka away in the snow, of course, but for some reason this isn't held to be proof of moral decline. Men, after all, are men, and aren't expected to be either better or worse than men.)

The term pissis, which reminds me of Picasso's series of paintings of pisseuses (picked up by Serge Gainsbourg in his song "Five Easy Pisseuses"), comes, Erkki explains, "from the fact that a stereotypical pissis does not have a shame to urinate in public; a typical pissis goes out with her friends on Friday night, drinks a lot of cider, and as a consequence of heavy drinking has to relieve her bladder in any nearby bush or stairwell."

What interests me in Erkki's article isn't so much the pissing — although obviously the genital focus, and the question of whether these young women have the right to control their own genitals, is central. What's odd is the emphasis on this innocuous word "Really?" as a hallmark of the pissis' moral turpitude. "Pissis is a sort of Finnish version of American white trash bimbo, who talks loud and obscenely in youth slang; every second word being "vittu" or "vitun", or "siis" ("so") or "oikeesti" ("really") or "siis oikeesti", and smokes and drinks heavily."

The focus on the word oikeesti reminded me of similar articles railing against the moral decline of young Japanese women. In the Japan Times, for instance, Kaori Shoji quotes ultra-misogynist Schopenhauer saying there's nothing more destructive than conversing with young women. Why? Because they say maji and maji de ("really?") so much, apparently. And this, apparently, is a sign that "the yamato nadeshiko (the Japanese flower who is impeccably graceful in everything she does and says) is dead. Fifty years ago, they were still around."

"You can tell a girl her brother's dying in the hospital and the response will be, "Maji?" You can tell her she won a cash prize of 10 million yen and she'll say, "Maji?" Actually, think of maji as the equivalent of "really" and you'll get the picture... Variations of maji include cho-maji (super maji) and gero-maji (maji till you want to puke) and majimajimajimajimaji."

Putting on my "psychoanalyist of society" hat, though, I wonder if these two recurring descriptions of young women behaving badly—pissing and saying "really?"—aren't related more closely than at first appears. When we say "really?" we're declaring ourselves open to, ready for, and penetrated by information. "Really" is a vaginal word, as pissing is a vaginal activity. The vagina—how and by whom it's controlled—is also what connects the Virgin and the Whore. The virgin is the one who doesn't say "Really?" but closes her ears, and her sex. The whore is the one who says "Really?" and opens them. Perhaps intemperate information intake (''reallyreallyreallyreally?") leads just as directly to shameless control of the vagina as intake of alcohol.

In an interesting article on Finnish profanity, the Wikipedia tells us that the other word used so much by the pissis, "vittu", is a "profane expression for the female genitalia... used with a similar emphasis to the English word fuck. The often used "fuck you" is often translated as "haista vittu" which means "smell (a) cunt". Often considered extremely profane, its usage is nowadays not only limited to teenager slang, but is often used as an emphasis in a forceful or frustrated utterance or expression. The term is also known to be the basis of a crude illustration of a vagina, the so-called "kirkko-vene" (church-boat), "hämähäkki väärinpäin" (spider on its back) or "vitunkuva" (vittu-image). As such it may come as a surprise that the word is actually quite ancient and it along with the aforementioned vittu-drawing was in fact used in a positive and respectful manner when referring to the female body."

Maybe the "spider on its back" (the whore) isn't so far from "the Japanese flower who is impeccably graceful in everything she does and says" (the virgin). The spider and the flower are the yin and yang of the female genitalia, that crucial social locus in the control of its owner yet open to constant negotiation, discussion, censure. The flower didn't disappear fifty years ago, and the spider wasn't born yesterday. They're both still there if you care to look at, listen to, taste or smell them. Really.