06 August, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: A-Holes, Whores, and Things You Just Don't Say to Your Friends

Marvel used the word "whore" in one of their movies, and I'm really not okay with it.

Let me back up.

When I was sixteen, I called my best friend a whore, and it ended our friendship.

Okay… let me back up some more.

At the end of my sophomore year of high school my best friend and I, like a teen movie cliche come to life, met a pair of boys who were also best friends and became a perpetual double date. It felt natural and normal-- we were teenagers, this was the next step, and the fact that we were taking it together made it feel safe. Whatever I did or didn't do, my friend (let's call her Rachel; I was definitely the Monica) would be right there with me. Like Anne and Diana, I could see the path of our lives together unspooling before us, heading toward the horizon of a double wedding and our kids riding the same bus to elementary school.

But there was a difference I hadn't quite perceived and couldn't possibly appreciate. My boyfriend and I were abstinent-- not from everything, but from sex. That was off the table-- he was saving it for marriage, and I hadn't yet put together the fact that the reason I was okay with waiting was because I wasn't actually interested in sleeping with boys.

I don't know why I assumed Rachel was waiting, too. But you know what they say about assumptions: they blow up in your fucking face.

I can't actually remember how I found out. What I do remember is the feeling of betrayal-- the shock, the anger, the overwhelming sense of loss. That road we were traveling together, she'd gone on ahead-- and worse, I had to own up to the fact that I didn't want to catch up.

I got bitter. Sex is the one true binary in the social murk of high school, and I resented like hell that it had separated me from the person I was supposed to be closest to. There was now a gulf between us, ever-widening, made more treacherous by the questions I was being forced to ask about myself.

I didn't have any good answers to those questions, and it took me another couple of years to put all the pieces together and understand why I'd felt so estranged from the entire conversation about sex. But my queerness was a still-distant revelation back then; all I knew was that my best friend was repeatedly ditching me to have sex with her boyfriend. I got real bitter. If the phrase "bros before hoes" had been coined, I would have had it tattooed across my knuckles.

Things came to a head. There was a party for someone's birthday, Rachel and her boyfriend showed but then disappeared again, and I lost it. I stormed through the banquet hall until I discovered them sitting against a wall outside, kissing. In the grand scheme of things it was pretty innocuous-- yet it was confirmation of my worst fears. Nothing was important except sex-- once you'd had it, it ruled your life-- and now, like a body-snatching alien, sex had taken my best friend and replaced her with someone who couldn't even show up to a party for a few hours without sneaking away to get busy.

I exhorted the two of them to get their asses up and come eat cake. Good-naturedly, they did. I stalked ahead, gritting my teeth; Rachel kept pace with me. I can't remember if she said anything to me. All I remember is my fury, bubbling up hot in my throat, the suppressed terror and confusion and sorrow hitting the lid on my inner pressure cooker and boiling over, poison spilling from my mouth in the most hateful words I could think of.

"You whore," I hissed through my teeth. "Couldn't keep your hands off him for an hour? Unbelievable."

I can only imagine-- and I have, many times through the years-- what it felt like for her, hearing that word from me. Even admitting it is agonizing, the shame of it scalding, no less potent for all the time that's passed from then to now. Shame, and grief along with it, because in my desperation to put things back the way they had been, I raised a second wall between us, one that could never be torn down. I had no understanding then of patriarchy or feminism or the terrible weight behind the word; I just knew it would hurt her feelings. To this day I think I'd take vicious joy in slapping my sixteen-year-old self in the mouth. Stupid, jealous, miserable, teenage me, who didn't understand anything except that I was different, that I was always going to be different, that even my soul sister, my kindred spirit, was leaving me behind for something I didn't understand and didn't want.

I was naive, too. I had always thought our ties would need a blowtorch and a diamond file to cut through. But nursery rhymes lie-- words do hurt, and this one cut keenly through five years' worth of friendship and left it tattered on the floor.

That's the thing about "whore"-- it only has one meaning. You can call a friend a bitch, a bastard, an asshole, a motherfucker, no harm done. But "whore" is a bridge you don't cross. If you're male, you won't understand. There is no equivalent insult, no single word so demeaning and dismissive. "Whore" is irrevocable and irredeemable-- the binary come to life. Calling a woman a whore is the quickest, easiest way to reduce her to a thing, and a useless thing at that.

"Whore" is not funny. It's one of the worst insults there is. It's not a word you use on your friends.

Which is why I couldn't laugh when Drax used it on Gamora toward the end of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Maybe my sense of humor is unfairly biased because of my experience, but I'm not sure that's true. Objectively, I can appreciate the bait-and-switch aspect of the joke; Drax says something shitty about Gamora, then gets pissed when Nebula appears and does the same. But why that word, Marvel? Why that word?

I feel pretty confident in saying there were more swears per capita in Guardians than any other Marvel film so far. They only pulled the plug on a-holes and the f-bomb, as far as I remember. It's the least kid-appropriate film in terms of language that the MCU has put out-- yet it's also the one kids are most likely to end up seeing. And I'd be the least popular nerd parent ever, because I wouldn't want any kid of mine seeing it. Not because of "holy shit" or "what the hell", but because Drax calls Gamora a whore and gets away with it.

If you, for some reason (like, you live under a rock, IDK) aren't aware of the culture of slut shaming in this country or the arbitrary and nonsensical method by which these words are applied to women or, worse, of the damaging effects these words have on women's psyches… educate yourself.

This is not an okay word to throw around. It's not one we should be modeling for our peers or our children; it's a word we should be working to erase from the English language. And I'm having a really hard time accepting it in the middle of what was otherwise the most enjoyable movie I've seen since the MCU offered up The Winter Soldier in April.

Rachel is married now. I know from Facebook, which is where I've learned every other important detail of her life since we graduated high school. I miss her. I miss our rituals, cooking together, consuming M&Ms by the bagful, Saturday sleepovers with as many scary movies as we could fit in before we passed out. I missed her when I was in college, breaking up with my boyfriend and coming out, scared and wishing there were more people I trusted standing by me while so many others walked away. I know she would have-- she was always the stronger one. She knew who she was and didn't let anyone tell her differently-- not even me.

I know I can't take it back, that awful word that ruined things between us. I've lived for over a decade with the shame of that moment when I treated my friend like she was disposable, and it's one of the worst feelings I know. So do a favor for me and every woman in your life: don't say "whore". It's not funny, and no matter what Marvel wants us to think, it never will be.

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