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Don’t Say ‘Vagina’

Michigan State Rep. Lisa Brown Utters the Word on Michigan’s House Floor


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

It was the “vagina” heard round the world. Michigan State Rep. Lisa Brown was on the House floor, speaking out against a bill that would restrict abortion access, when she uttered these bons mots:

“And finally, Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”

From that place of interest, a great controversy was born. Republican House leaders barred Brown, a Democrat, from speaking in the state legislature the following day for trouncing on “the decorum of the House of Representatives.” They called into question her “maturity and civility.”

Starshine Roshell

And feminists—as you might imagine—blew a flipping fuse. Brown and other women lawmakers performed The Vagina Monologues on the Capitol steps before 3,000 Michiganites waving signs like “MI-gina” and “I have a vagina, a voice, and a vote.” Their point, and it’s a good one: How can you dare legislate a body part that you can’t even speak of aloud?

But it’s disingenuous of Brown and her supporters to pretend that her speech wasn’t sexually charged — wasn’t explicitly, if a little deliciously, designed to make old men squirm.

Vaginas are well worth discussing, and certainly defending, in the hallowed halls of government. The bill in question was described by Planned Parenthood’s Michigan branch as “the biggest assault on women’s health in our state’s history.” And Brown’s speech had some brilliant moments.

But whipping out “my vagina” wasn’t one of them. “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina” isn’t inspired rhetoric; it’s a naughty party trick guaranteed to get a rise out of your audience. I ought to know, as I’ve now dropped it twice into this column.

In some ways, vagina is a magnificent word. I happen to adore the giggle-inducing awkwardness of it, the way it refers to something private and potentially pleasurable but in an utterly unsacred, flagrantly unsexy way. There’s no other word that primes an audience for the irresistible combination of indelicate silliness, unapologetic boldness, and potential titillation.

On a more poetic level, though, I don’t much care for the string of letters describing the girly bits. Did you ever meet someone whose name doesn’t suit them at all? Like, “I’m sorry, but you are the least Norman person I’ve ever met.” Well, my vagina is the least Norman person I’ve ever met.

The word smacks of angina, which is unpleasant. It wants to be a blues lyric, the next line of which inevitably ends in North Carolina. It’s a red-headed phonetic step-child with a gaping long vowel in the middle that makes you open your mouth so wide that it’s … well, it’s unladylike at best. My friend Mott, a linguistics savant, says the offending sounds are an affricate followed by a diphthong, which may be the only English words uglier than vagina.

“It’s so harsh sounding,” says a girlfriend of mine. “We need to pretty it up with something softer sounding. Like falestia or silsie.”

Other friends suggested lana or fembloom or chi-chi-bop, all of which would be preferable to me.

I don’t know how they’d go over in the Michigan House of Representatives, which has other issues to fret about these days. As if Brown’s saucy quip weren’t enough to fluster the elected suits, Rep. Barb Byrum suggested a cheeky amendment to the anti-abortion bill that would make it harder for men to get vasectomies, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit has now asked women to boycott sex with their partners until the bill is voted down.

I don’t know how many shades of gray are left to cover on the House floor of the Great Lakes State, but I’ll tell you this: If someone shows up in a diphthong, I don’t want to see it.

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Starshine Roshell is the author of Wife on the Edge.