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On profanity and our very slowly changing views toward women and girls

A woman overheard in the supermarket is surely far from being alone in her thinking that it’s OK for boys to use the f-bomb but not girls.

Brandi Levy, a former cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, poses in a photograph provided by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Brandi Levy, a former cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, poses in a photograph provided by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Danna Singer/Provided by the ACLU/Handout via REUTERS

When I heard about Brandi Levy, the former Pennsylvania high school cheerleader who is the subject of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on free speech for students, I first thought, oh no, another example of American profanity making the news. But in this case, serious enough to write major history. I then thought about a Community Voices piece I wrote in 2019 about American profanity in Congress and elsewhere, in which I referenced the observation Adm. James T. Kirk made in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” about no one taking anyone seriously in the late 20th century unless swearing was a constant.

The afternoon of the court’s decision, I was on a mildly socially distanced line at the supermarket, site of some of life’s most ridiculous but also enlightening conversations overheard while trying to keep the frozen food together on the checkout belt. In this case of unavoidable eavesdropping, a woman who looked to be no more than 45 was discussing the Levy case with the cashier, a man of 25 at the most. She told him, “Well, I can understand boys using that sort of language, but that’s how boys are in high school. But I don’t go for girls talking that way, especially a cheerleader. I think the court is nuts to let the little (expletive starting with “c” deleted) off.” The cashier asked her when she last had been in a high school or a university among male and female students. She quietly said it had been quite a while. He said, “Welcome to Teenage Wasteland. Most kids swear all the time. She didn’t hurt anyone. Maybe the school deserved to be f’d off.” I turned away from my frozen shrimp scampi to look at cereal on sale to avoid being heard laughing out loud.

photo of article author
Photo by Aaron Fahrmann
Mary Stanik
I’m sure the disapproving supermarket woman is far from being alone in her thinking that it’s OK for boys to use the f-bomb but not girls. The first election of a woman vice president in this country clearly isn’t immediately ridding the mass of gender inequality that exists among women throughout the age spectrum. Though many of us are now more accepting of females as serious athletes and not just cheerleaders (and yes, I understand the greater athletic ability and gender equality that is now present in cheerleading at many high schools and universities, ability and equality that did not exist in large measure as recently as a few decades ago), top-level, female NCAA basketball players just this year had to protest something as easy to provide as workout facilities equal to those available to male players.

And while I concur with the decision reached by the court, I started thinking about why such a case even had to go all the way to the Supreme Court given the overwhelming presence of profanity at all levels of modern society. I almost wondered if I was reading about something akin to that which happened to me back in the 1970s when promoting the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a high school prom theme over “If” by the soft rock group Bread. I’ll never forget being hauled in for consultation with two teachers known to favor athletes and cheerleaders. They praised my academic achievement and even said I was “pretty enough to be a cheerleader.” Oh, thanks. But my taste in music clearly wasn’t flying at my suburban Milwaukee school and I was told that if I didn’t take care, I might end up at the “subversive University of Wisconsin at Madison with other radicals.” I remember even then thinking it was unfair that I was the one called a pretty subversive when (to my best knowledge) no handsome subversive boys who also supported a prom of strawberry fields were called in for questioning. And the funny thing is, I don’t remember any f-bombs or even any milder swear words being involved.

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Given the massive problems facing future generations, problems that likely will include at least a few profanities on the road to their solutions, it might be wise for educators and administrators to do a number of things. One is to consider their own use of cuss words. I can still recall the blue smoke that emanated from the teacher lounge at my high school, smoke that wasn’t wholly attributable to cigarettes. Two might be to become cognizant of research indicating teenagers shouldn’t be expected to act completely like adults since the rational parts of their brains don’t generally finish development until about ages 24 or 25. Three might be to consider more teaching about the origins of profanity. Once anything thought fun or wild becomes a scholarly subject including homework, it often loses its forbidden appeal. That works for alleged fully functioning adults too.

Those are just my thoughts. If no one likes them, well, they can just … use their imagination.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, recently moved from St. Paul to Arizona. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”

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