The unofficial acronym for the South Lake Union Trolley has generated a year's worth of jokes, with SLUT references appearing in media both hither and yon, and SLUT T-shirt sales brisk. The story, most likely apocryphal, is that officials made haste to change the train's name from "trolley" to "streetcar" too late, after missing the obvious public relations gaffe. Reminds me of the old story (also apocryphal) about Chevy trying to sell the Nova in Mexico without realizing that "no va" conveyed to Spanish-speaking people that the car would not run.
The key to the SLUT joke's popularity is that it's a swack at Seattle City Hall. A lot has been said about what the streetcar does and doesn't do, and the beauty of this yearlong running joke is that it's such an easy way to express one's frustration with the city. The acronym was right there, and for a city notorious for its political correctness, the naughty mirth seemed like a fresh attitude.
But somewhere along the way, as the volume of SLUT jokes grew, the original good-Seattleite-turned-cheeky spirit got replaced by something shrill, annoying, and borderline offensive. The jokes now resemble the kind of behavior that gave rise to the political correct movement itself as a reaction against expressions of hatred, cruelty, and intolerance in our society.
Lest readers now write me off as a feminazi, whatever that is, know this: Two of Crosscut's many references to SLUT are mine (here and here). There's no going back now; the streetcar is the SLUT even though what we embraced in order to make fun of our elected officials is now being used to make fun of us.
Nonetheless guilty of using the reference myself, what's alarming to me is the glee with which so many journalists invoke it, yes, most notably here at Crosscut. Just this week, we ran the headline "Seattle, you ignorant SLUT." We've explained why Seattle should embrace the name. We've even used it as an occasion to talk about famed prostitutes in Seattle history.
Crosscut reader Paige Weinheimer wrote to us this week asking us to analyze our own and others' use of the acronym, the "delight many folks still take in it," and how an "uncritical use" of the name might "create an environment that is hostile toward women." The reader was haltingly apologetic, going to great lengths to let us know that she respects Crosscut and is a fan but genuinely desires a treatment of the issue.
The thing about the word slut is that it isn't gender neutral. On the rare occasions that it is used to refer to a man, it must be qualified: "male slut," "man-whore." The jokes undeniably come at the expense of women.
Part of the allure, one could argue, in using a word like slut is that you can re-appropriate the word, take a derogatory term that's been used against you and turn it into a badge of pride. Some say it's done with the n-word, but I don't buy that. Like Richard Pryor once realized, it's been used far too often to inflict pain. Once I had to console a distraught student who'd been screamed at, her verbal attacker, a white adult male, using the n-word to intimidate her. I never saw anyone hurt so much by a single word. Part of her pain came from the shock that someone in her day and age could use it against her. She was a young college freshman, and this was 2003.
It takes time for words like these to pass into casual use, for their sting to cease. I doubt that will happen with the n-word in my lifetime (much easier to spell out "slut," for example). The word "bitch" has successfully been reclaimed by feminists who use it as a power-mantra, even as the title of a popular magazine. Bitch had wider meaning, however, beyond its role as an epithet, most importantly as a verb meaning to complain aggressively. Its path to power word was a short one. Slut is different, and not just because it's only use is as a noun (unless you're Swedish) and not a verb. Yes, it's used to refer to aficionados ("book slut"), but the jokes about Seattle's streetcar take us right back to the epithet, as in the T-shirt's slogan: "Ride the slut."
Kapow! coffee's decision to sell T-shirts immortalizing the streetcar doesn't so much bother me. I'm loathe to push for censorship in any situation, let alone a harmless ribbing directed at city leadership. But I'll pass on the shirt myself.
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