They were hard to ignore, those square-shaped pink knit caps carpeting the Mall in Washington and flooding the streets of New York and other major cities around the world. Weeks before the Women’s March, when I first saw organizers sporting these things, I thought they looked stupid, an awkward flop of pink atop the head. Then a crafty friend knit me one, and it not only kept me warm through a gray, blustery day in Washington; it empowered me.
The Pussy Hat Project is a classic example of appropriation, taking a term that has been used as a slur and turning it into a badge of group identity and cohesion. Queer, for instance, was a derogatory epithet, reclaimed by the LGBTQ community to mean not only homosexual but emphatically different in one’s very approach to sexuality. Of course, that word, like the word pussy, did not always or in all circumstances carry a pejorative meaning. I grew up with an Edwardian book, Queer Stories for Boys and Girls, on the bookshelf, and what we expected of those stories was a strange plot twist, perhaps some magic. Other epithets, like what we call the n-word today, however casually used, bore insulting overtones from an early moment — and not surprisingly, have been more problematic to appropriate.
Each example of appropriation, one might say, has its own story. Some, like feminists’ appropriation of nasty woman, are true examples of semantic inversion. Others retain several original meanings, including the pejorative one, even while being reclaimed. The pussy of pussy hat begins with a sound used to call a cat, or perhaps a rabbit. (I have owned both cats and rabbits and have never known either to respond to a call, but that’s another matter.) Slowly, at least in English, it comes to refer to the animal itself, and from there, to those who behave in ways associated with pussycats.
I say “ways associated,” because cats, of course, are predators, armed with sharp claws and teeth and apt to pounce when the prey is most vulnerable. But those aren’t the qualities evoked by the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition, “A girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp[ecially] sweetness or amiability. Freq[uently] used as a pet name or as a term of endearment.” Indeed, young girls in the 19th century often acquired the nickname Puss or Pussy, much as they might be called Kitty.
Just as the call for the cat evolves into a term for the cat itself, so the “amiable” quality of a girl called pussy becomes the term both for the most “amiable” part of that female’s anatomy and for the supposedly “girlish” quality of cowardice, e.g. “Don’t be a pussy.” At this point—which, again according to the OED, began sometime around 1699 — the term, like many sexually charged terms, owes its pejorative quality mostly to the context in which it is used.
Enter humor; enter irony. My earliest encounter with pussy as double entendre came in watching W.C. Fields’s brilliant evasion of Hollywood censors in the film International Hotel, where Peggy Hopkins Joyce finds herself “sitting on something,” and he reaches down to retrieve . . . a “pussy”:
International House W.C Fields Trailer by NilbogLAND
The pussy hats themselves respond to Donald Trump’s infamous bragging about sexual assault, but they do so with more ironic subtlety than Fields. The square corners of the hat, when it’s worn, vaguely resemble cat ears, but the hat itself is pink — hardly a cat color, typically “girly,” and slyly connoting private parts. The hat of Pussy Hat Project itself replaces the word cat in pussy cat, so that the kittenishness, if you will, can be put on and off, not an essential part of your identity. The vast majority of the hats in the march were handcrafted using traditional women’s skills, establishing an “ownership” of both the term and the object that goes beyond semantics. The predatory feline qualities overlooked during centuries of pussy references found expression in symbolic claws, shredded images of the new President, and references to cats’ “grabbing back.” Meow, indeed.
Finally, pussy hats appeared not just atop women’s heads during the march, but also sported by men — bald men, bearded men, old and young men. They thus appropriated the term as well. If “sweetness and amiability” are pussy traits, these men did them proud.
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