Published in the Spring 2008 issue • The Last Word
A few weeks ago, I was crossing the road when a silver SUV came speeding around the corner, the driver too busy chatting on his cellphone to check for pedestrians. As I jumped back onto the curb, a shout escaped my lips: “Watch it, douchebag!”
In the moment, it was a profoundly satisfying thing to yell. But like many profoundly satisfying moments, it was followed by a sense of shame. Should a feminist word nerd like me be calling people douchebags?
Literally speaking, douchebag refers to a piece of equipment used to rinse out the vagina using a water-, vinegar- or chemical-based solution. The word douche comes from the French term for shower.
But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, douchebag has also been used as derisive slang since the late 1960s, when it was used to mean “an unattractive co-ed” or “by extension, any individual whom the speaker desires to deprecate.”
These days, douchebag (or just “douche”) is a common insult in Canada, the US, Australia, the UK and New Zealand. Generally used to mean that someone is a jerk, a loser or an idiot (sometimes all three), it seems to be directed more often at men than at women.
But why are we saying this? It’s likely that douchebag gets its power from emasculating the person being criticized. In this screwed-up world of ours, the biggest insult you can hurl at a man is calling him womanlike (see: sissy, pussy, throwing like a girl). Douchebag goes a step further, suggesting the person in question is not even the female sex organ itself, but simply a tool used to clean it.
From this perspective, douchebag seems like just another one of those insults that gets its sting from its connection to women. But consider this: douching is bad for you.
For decades, douche has been marketed to women by telling them that their vaginas are dirty and smelly and need to be sanitized with a chemical solution. Although the medical practice of douching dates back to the time of Hippocrates, it wasn’t popularized in North American homes until the 1920s.
A creepy Lysol ad from 1948, when the household cleaner was being sold as a feminine hygiene product, warned women: “Wives often lose the precious air of romance, doctors say, for lack of the intimate daintiness dependent on effective douching.”
These days, doctors advise against douching because it changes the delicate chemical balance of the vagina, which can make you more susceptible to infection. Of course, this doesn’t stop certain manufacturers from selling products designed to make your genitals as “fresh” as summer rain.
If douche is a product that’s bad for our bodies and sold to us through shaming, perhaps calling someone a douchebag is the ultimate feminist insult. Blogger Amanda Marcotte (http://pandagon.blogsome.com) thinks so. She writes, “After all, it’s a bag full of douche and we good feminists know that douche is definitely a Tool of the Patriarchy.”
Then again, blogger Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff (http://womenspace.wordpress.com) argues that “when we use the word, the patriarchists we intend to insult are insulted not because douchebags are bad things, but because of the revulsion over women’s bodies.”
Shameless’s publisher, Stacey May Fowles, brought the debate to our own blog, noting, “Ironically I use [the word douche] most often to describe individuals who are sexist, mysogynistic, antiwoman and anti-feminist. (Which, when used literally, also sums up my feelings on douche of the store-bought variety.)”
Clearly, the term douchebag comes with some, ahem, baggage. But as long as marketers keep telling us that our vaginas shouldn’t smell the way they naturally do, maybe it’s a good thing that douche is a synonym for jerk.
Melinda Mattos is the co-founder of Shameless and a professional word nerd. She’d never once uttered the word “douchebag” before joining the staff of Eye Weekly.