The “Shit Cis People Say” Alphabet: C is for “Cis is a slur”

Welcome to another episode of the Shit Cis People Say Alphabet! Today:

C is for “Cis is a slur”

Ok, this one is admittedly a little complex. First and foremost, cis (which is short for cisgender) is a descriptor – saying that someone is cis just means that they identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, simple as that! For the most part, it is just a word that means “not transgender”. It’s creation and original intent and usage were definitely not slur-like.

I admit that is not sufficient evidence that a word isn’t a slur, though. So, I want to take the claim that it is a slur seriously enough to probe at what makes people object to the term.

When people object to being called cis or cisgender, it usually comes with one of a number of reasons (and if you drill down, it’s usually not actually that they think cis is a slur). I’m going to try to address the ones I’m aware of here, though if I miss some, please let me know!

There doesn’t need to be a word for that! That’s just normal

It is true that an overwhelming majority of people are cisgender. But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful or important to have a word that encapsulates that particular aspect of gendered experience. Most people are also heterosexual, and in fact we didn’t get around to making a word for that until we had already come up with the category of homosexual – it is a function of categories that if as long as you are assuming everyone is the same, you don’t need a word for that sameness.

It is only when one begin recognizing and naming different experiences that it becomes apparent that there needs to be a word for the ‘sameness’ against which those differences are being identified. The only way to truly make linguistic room for the idea that all of these experiences are equally valid is to have words for all of them, not just the rare or ‘weird’ ones. We all have a relationship to the gender we were assigned at birth (if we were assigned a gender at birth), even if it’s a relatively uncomplicated one that we haven’t ever really thought about, as is often the case with cisgender people.

But I *don’t* really fit the gender I was assigned at birth!

I never quite know what to do with people who don’t like being called cisgender because (of course!) they don’t perfectly fit into the box associated with the gender they were assigned at birth. The thing folks making this claim seem to miss is that cisgender absolutely does not mean ‘conforms to the gender they were assigned birth’, it just means you identify that way. It is totally fine and great to be a gender non-conformist cis person. It just doesn’t make you not cisgender.

But If you really don’t identify as the gender you were assigned at birth, then that’s another thing entirely, because then you would be trans. And then you’d be right to object to being called cisgender, because it would be inaccurate. But continuing to claim you’re not cis while simultaneously living a dysphoria-free life in the gender you were assigned at birth – and benefiting from the privileges that come with that – isn’t going to fly.

You don’t get to decide what labels to use for me!

So, most of the time when I see this one get pulled out, it’s straight-up trolling – the person making the argument doesn’t believe in their own premises in the first place and it’s pointless. But I’m going to go ahead and assume someone somewhere has made this argument and meant it and address it anyway.

I guess the major thrust of this argument is that it is hypocritical for a group of people who have fought – and are continuing to fight – very hard for the right to define the words that are used to describe them, to then turn around and choose words to describe other people.

The thing is, though, that there is a false equivalency going on here. In terms of questions like the general rejection of the word ‘transsexual’ in favour of ‘transgender’ is a question of the words’ accuracy to what it is describing. While transsexual is a word that some trans people find to be an accurate description of their experience, many of us experience our trans-ness as specifically related to our gender and may have little or no dysphoria around or desire to change our sex/sexual organs. I, for example, am transgender, but I am distinctly *not* transsexual. ‘Transgender’ is simply a better descriptor for most trans people’s experiences.

Cisgender meanwhile, as I said above, is simply a word that arises naturally as the linguistic ‘opposite’ to transgender, and it really does just mean ‘not transgender’. As I said in the previous, if a person is NOT not transgender (i.e. is they’re not cisgender according to that definition), then of course they can object to being called cisgender, because they’re not.

However, barring an actual objection to the word’s accuracy in describing he people it is applied to, this argument is pretty facetious.

But the word is used as a slur!

So, here’s the thing. A slur is a word that it used to oppress or dehumanize marginalized people. A word used to describe those in a position of privilege can’t be a slur in that sense – it simply doesn’t work that way.

I do understand that sometimes trans folks use the word ‘cis’ as a sort-of insult, though more particularly it is usually in an exclusionary way (as in ‘you’re not one of us’ – which, for the record, is true.) I am honestly not really sure what to say about that though. I think that most people understand that when, for instance, a straight woman who is dealing with heartbreak gets her lady friends together to talk about how all men are trash, that is just perfectly reasonable and understandable venting, and that no matter how many times it happens “man” isn’t going to become a slur. To be honest, I think the reason this same venting use of any of the other markers of privilege (white, rich, cis, etc.) doesn’t get as easily read that way is that people in general are less understanding of the very real pain and frustration that various marginalized people are dealing with.

And listen, I’m not going to pretend that no one has ever actually wanted dehumanize and eradicate cis people. It’s just, that’s such an irrelevantly small number of people with – let’s face it – no power whatsoever, that it just doesn’t rate.

Cis isn’t a slur. It is sometimes used in a way that is meant to discredit people, but it’s level of insulting-ness is more along the lines of something like calling someone ‘weird’. Weirdness is often considered to be something that discredits people, but it can also just be a true description of a person, as long as their comfortable with their weirdness. If you just understand that you are cis, and that’s ok, then being called cis shouldn’t be an insult to you, really, even when it is meant as such.

And honestly, if it makes you uncomfortable to be reminded that your relationship to your birth-assigned gender isn’t the same as everyone else’s, that’s actually a manifestation of your cis privilege. So deal with it.

Check out the rest of “Shit Cis People Say” alphabet!

More on gendered insults

After I wrote my take-down of the word “bitch”, I started wondering about other explicitly gendered insults. More to the point, are there any primarily masculine-gendered insults that function in any way resembling the true horror of “bitch”?

And I started thinking about the word “prick”. This is an insult that is pretty exclusively applied to men. And I wondered: does the application of this insult mirror the use of “bitch” as a way of tearing down women.

To reiterate: the thing about calling a woman a bitch (in the sense of “overly-aggressive”) is that you’re actually accusing her of some sort of magical form of over-aggression that apparently only women are capable of (as indicated by the fact that overly-aggressive men do not get called “bitches”). And this is a patently false, and extremely sexist/gender-policing way of looking at overly aggressive women. It’s disingenuous, and unfair.

So, is the use of the word “prick” similarly unfair? Does it reify some culturally assumed male-only character flaw that is actually just a more general, genderless flaw that we already have a gender-neutral word for? What does prick mean, anyway? And when do we choose to use it rather than some other, less gendered insult?

My instinct is actually that there may be some room in discourse for explicitly gendered insults against males (hear me out, people!) – something related to taking male privilege for granted or abusing the power that it gives men, for instance. This is a thing that men sometimes do that women definitely never do, because they don’t have that privilege. An example might be a dude pointing out that women shouldn’t complain about being objectified, ’cause he’d totally love to be objectified, donchaknow! (If you’re a dude who seriously thinks this, um, here)

But, then, unacknowledged privilege is not solely a male failing – and I don’t think that a failure to check one’s male privilege is substantially different from the failure to check white privilege, or ability privilege, or size privilege, or whatever else. And anyway, we do already have insults for people who fail radically in these ways; they’re sexist, or racist, or otherwise bigoted. So then, there’s a good chance that “prick” is problematic in ways that are similar to (some of) the ways the “bitch” is terrible. Let’s judge it on its own merits, then.

I think that perhaps the most literal interpretation is that calling a man a “prick” reduces him to nothing but a penis. So I guess it means that he’s thinking/acting in accordance with his penis alone? This is a really common way in which men are demonized – it relates to slavering beast theory, in which rape is just a force of nature that overtakes some men sometimes. It ignores men’s actual autonomy, their ability to think critically and to understand their actions. And it’s pretty not ok.

Like with bitch, when we call someone a prick, the actions that we mean to criticize may legitimately deserve calling out, but if we take this meaning of prick, it’s definitely not an appropriate method of making the call-out. It’s actively destructive to the conversation, because it basically says that the dude isn’t worth listening to anyway – and it also has the even worse implication that he’s ultimately not even responsible for his actions in the first place. He couldn’t help it!

Once again, there is absolutely nothing good about any of this. It’s unfair to men, while at the same time excusing them of responsibility for the shitty things they do. That’s an impressive superpower, but definitely not one I want to support.

So yeah, just call dudes that are behaving badly assholes – it’s a body part everyone has, and it’s not one that ever gets accused on controlling people’s actions.

Say it with me: why use a sexist term when “asshole” will do?


These days, I don’t think I ever use the “bitch” unless I am characterizing some of the standard sexist attitudes expressed in the mainstream culture.It’s simply no longer part of working vocabulary. And I’ve so successfully excised it from my thought patterns that I’m honestly taken aback when people I’m close to use it in earnest. It’s a fucking useless word, people! Or rather, its only uses are pretty fucking terrible.

Seriously folks, this word and its usage in our society is such a powerful tool for the reification and binarization of gender. It’s fascinating and horrible and sometimes I just can’t look away.

When we call a woman a bitch, at its heart, the insult is usually criticizing her for being aggressive. To be clear, the underlying accusation of aggression may or may not be reasonable, and certainly sometimes women are called bitches when they do things that are worthy of being called out. But here’s the thing: whatever the very specific quality is that renders women to be seen as “bitches”, it’s very clear that it’s a very particular kind of aggression we’re talking about, in that men seem to be immune to the particular character flaw in question – I’ve never heard of a man being called a “bitch” for being too aggressive (though men are sometimes called out on their aggression, it doesn’t take this form).

So, really then the word “bitch” is specifically employed against women to put them in their place with respect to aggression, and mainstream society, in using the word in this lopsided way, implicitly tells us that aggression in women is specifically wrong in a way that aggression in men is not.

Clearly and blatantly sexist.

But wait, sometimes men do get called bitches!

Yes, this is true. I’ve only said that “bitch” in the sense of “overly aggressive” is an epithet used only against women. But bitch has another meaning, too; one that’s used against men.

When a man gets called a bitch, he is usually being criticized of being weak, submissive or passive. But, that’s the opposite of what it means when it’s applied to women. And this is where it gets really interesting for me.

When we call a woman a bitch, we are calling her out for trying to exercise some form of power, but when we call a man a bitch, we are calling him out for relinquishing some form of power. The way that we use the word “bitch”, then, implies the following social power taxonomy:

1) Men. They the most powerful.
2) Bitches. This group contains the weakest men and the strongest women.
3) Women. They have no power?

So implicit in the dual meaning of bitch, we have the idea that all women are weaker than all men, except for those perverted dudes who relinquish power, who might be weaker than some women, but even the bitchy men aren’t weaker than real women.

For reals, when you use the word “bitch” in either of these gendered senses (the word can of course be correctly use to refer to female dogs; this is not problematic), you are implicitly playing into a picture of gender that is exactly this extreme.

– If you use it against women, you are policing them for not being feminine enough.

– If you use it against men, you are policing them for not being masculine enough.

– When you use it in either sense, you’re reifying the idea that the differences between men and women really are absolute, and black-and-white.

There is literally nothing good about any of this.

So, if you’re a person who uses the term to call out legitimate abuses of control or over-aggressiveness, the next time that you find yourself thinking of a woman as a bitch, remind yourself that in fact that woman is really just an asshole (just like you would think a man in her position was).

And honestly, I’m not sure that the way “bitch” is lobbed at men is ever based in a legitimate criticism. So, the next time you think about calling a dude a bitch, maybe remember that it’s not cool to be an asshole who looks down on people who don’t fulfill the masculine ideal all the time?