In a splashy scene in Elizabeth Gilbert’s frothy, best-selling new novel, City of Girls, Peg Buell—a grande dame theater owner in the 1940s—shouts at her trusty secretary: “Goddamn it, Olive—how much money do I have to pay you to stop talking about fucking money?” The exclamation—and the F-word in particular—brings the whole cast to hushed silence.
“May you remember...what a powerful impact the word ‘fuck’ used to have in our society,” says the narrator, Vivian Morris, looking back from the present. “To hear it come out of a respectable woman’s mouth? This was never done.”
Seventy years later the F-word still maintains its negative cultural charge. It’s bleeped out on TV—old-school, nonstreaming TV, anyway. Kids are forbidden to say it, alternately shuddering or tattling over the “F-curse.” In polite, mixed company too many F-bombs would indicate a dirty, crass mouth, particularly it seems for women. (As an effing Long Island native who went to college in the South, where even the word curse is swapped out for cuss, I would know.) Even now, in this very story, there’s an impulse to asterisk it away with a diplomatic f***. Then again, in the midst of a banner moment for the F-word, with high-profile people boldly dropping it into mainstream news headlines, I am otherwise inclined to say “fuck it.”
It began with Beto O’Rourke, responding to a rhetorical question from a reporter about whether there was anything President Trump—whose racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric might have possibly inspired Saturday’s deadly mass shooting at a Wal-Mart in the border town of El Paso (an attack in which the shooter wrote a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto citing a “Hispanic invasion of Texas”)—could do now to make the situation better. O’Rourke’s instantly famous response: “What do you think?...He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck?” (O’Rourke has given no, ahem, fucks on the taboo term since his Senate-race concession speech, when he told supporters: “I’m so fucking proud of you guys.”)
Gwyneth Paltrow carried the torch forth in a recent Instagram Live Q&A, when the author of five cookbooks had her culinary skills called into question. “Do I actually cook? Yes, I fucking cook!” Paltrow exclaimed, according to ET. “Fuck that person.” Yes, Paltrow may have single-handedly made yoga, the most zen of all exercises, happen. But she also grew up in New York, where a popular tourist T-shirt (one a friend gifted me, given my own affinity for the word) reads: Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck.
Paltrow also called to mind Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib, who in January, shortly after being sworn in, told the crowd at a MoveOn event: “When your son looks at you and said, ‘Mama, look, you won—bullies don’t win’...I said, ‘Baby, they don’t because we’re gonna go in there, and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!’ ” Nose wrinkling and pearl clutching over the impropriety of it all soon followed: “I don’t really like that kind of language,” said Representative Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee and Tlaib’s Democratic colleague.
But like it or not, fuck just may be the word most befitting of our current, chaotic times. Pretending it’s even a question that the president’s hateful rhetoric is influencing mass shooters? Fuck no. Shutting down anyone who dares to doubt Paltrow’s ability to steam clams? Fuck yes. It’s no coincidence that both O’Rourke and Tlaib dared to drop F-bombs at political speeches and rallies: The public fucks are flowing freely because for many people, in a clime that has reached fever pitch, a freak or an eff simply does not capture the emotion of the gun-violence epidemic or the humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border. There is a sweet, satisfying release that only the F-bomb can bring.
Sure, saying “fuck” on the national stage could be a gimmick—one that suggests a certain edge or a cry for relatability that a politician or celebrity may want to cultivate. But the recent stream of F-bombs also matches the urgency and outrage of the current moment; no censorship, no bleeping. And as the president has shown us, there are so many more hateful words than fuck. Here’s a few: “Go back where you came from.”
“I will always speak truth to power,” Tlaib tweeted in January in response to the outcry over her choice of word. But did she apologize? Fuck no.
Originally Appeared on Vogue