'Nasty': A Feminist History

Trump employed the adjective, in the final presidential debate, to insult his opponent. What he didn’t realize was that the word has long been a rallying cry.

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After Donald Trump referred to Hillary Clinton, during Wednesday’s final presidential debate, as “a nasty woman,” many of Clinton’s fellow ladies took it upon themselves to make an announcement: They were nasty, too. Just as nasty—maybe even more nasty—than the woman Trump had attempted to denigrate, via a weaponized mutter, before a live audience of millions of people.

Soon, the hashtags #nastywomen and #IAmANastyWoman trended on Twitter. The website nastywomengetshitdone.com got passed around, mostly by people delighted by the fact that the URL, via some hasty behind-the-scenes maneuvering, now leads to Hillary Clinton’s campaign website. The Huffington Post asked its readers, with only a trace of irony, “Are you a nasty woman? Let us know.”

Women have been letting them know—but their declarations have been addressed, for the most part, not to The Huffington Post, but to, well, everyone. “Nasty,” last night, was reclaimed and re-litigated and badge-of-honored, via tweets like this:

And like this:

The hasty embrace of nastiness is just one more instance of Trumpian low-going met with an attempt among the public to find higher ground. It was also, however, more evidence of the internet-diffused feminism that has come in response to the sticky parfait of misogynies that Trump has served up throughout this campaign. “Nasty,” as (m)uttered by Trump, wasn’t just an all-purpose insult, the negative version of “tremendous” or “very great” or “yuge.” It was highly gendered—so much so that “nasty woman” read, coming from Trump, as redundant. He had no need to clarify: Calling Clinton “nasty” is just one more way that Trump has attempted to use his opponent’s gender against her.

And, as Clinton has been saying on the campaign trail, women understood exactly what he was trying to do.

The exact origins of “nasty” are unclear; the word might be related, the OED speculates, to nestig—“foul” or “dirty” in Middle Dutch, and possibly connected to the messiness of a bird’s nest. “Nasty” might also be rooted in the Old French nastre, meaning “miserly, envious, malicious, spiteful”—a word that has itself been shortened from villenastre, connected to “villain,” and meaning “infamous” or more generally “bad.”

What is evident, though, is that “nasty,” for hundreds of years, has neatly combined the notion of physical dirtiness with filth of a more moral strain. Hamlet, via Shakespeare, used the word to combine sex with that infamously dirty animal, the pig: “Nay, but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,/ Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty.” Since the 1630s, “nasty” has also been used to describe bad weather, which affects both one’s physical being and one’s psychic outlook. Since the early 1700s, it’s been used to describe generally unpleasant things. And, as an insult to women, in particular, “it dates back to colonial times,” Caroline Light, a gender studies professor at Harvard University, told The Washington Post. “A ‘nasty’ woman is one who refuses to remain in her proper place, as defined by men. One who challenges male authority.”

In the 20th century, though, “nasty” took on another connotation, one that took it back to its possibly animalistic origins: “Nasty” came to be explicitly associated with sex. Not just with sex itself, though; with the particular kind of sexual adventurousness that can run afoul of Puritanical social standards. (“Cuz a this here’s another nasty song,” Lil’ Ru sang, “I love the way she freak with no panties on now I say.”) And with that sense came the rise of “so nasty” jokes, and “your mom is so nasty” jokes, and … yes. Even Destiny’s Child, whose members are today so deeply associated with the feminine fierce, endorsed the idea of nastiness’s shortcomings: “You’s a nasty (nasty) Trashy (nasty) Sleazy (nasty) Classless (nasty),” they sang, in “Nasty Girl”:

Shakin’ that thang on that man, lookin’ all stank and nasty
Swore you look cute girl in them dukes, booty all out lookin’ trashy
Sleazy put some clothes on, I told ya
Don’t walk out ya heezy without clothes on, I told ya
You nasty girl, you nasty, you trashy

In that sense, “nasty” for a long time functioned in exactly the way Trump seemed to want it to on Wednesday—as an efficient insult that impugns women prismatically. In referring to Clinton as “a nasty woman,” Trump was insulting her as both a physical and a moral entity: He was denigrating her looks, her personality, and her moral character. He was suggesting ugliness, and ickiness, and lasciviousness. He was replicating, essentially, the regressive assumptions that are rampant in a culture that still demands that women be, above all, pleasing.

What he missed, though, was the recent change that “nasty” has undergone. It’s an ugly word, perhaps—it requires the mouth of its utterer to catch and gape and hiss—but it is also, now, a hopeful one. When women, after Wednesday’s debate, attested to their own nastiness, they were echoing a reclaiming of the word that has already been taking place in pop culture.

Take Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit “Nasty,” which went, in part,

Nasty Nasty boys, don’t mean a thing, huh
Oh you nasty boys
Nasty Nasty boys, don’t ever change, huh
Oh you nasty boys!

And which continued,

Who’s that thinkin’ nasty thoughts? (Nasty boys!)
Who’s that in that nasty car? (Nasty boys!)
Who’s that eating that nasty food? (Nasty boys!)
Who’s jamming to my nasty groove? (Nasty boys!)

Jackson’s iconic lyrics would also be echoed by Britney Spears, whose 2001 song “Boys” built up to the chorus,

Sometimes a girl just needs one (I get nasty)
To love her and to hold (I get nasty)
And when a girl is with one (I get nasty)
Then she’s in control! (You like that? Here we go..)

Then she’s in control. Yes. Long before nastywomengetshitdone.com came along, women have been taking the dual senses of “nastiness”—physical foulness and moral—and reclaiming both of them. And they’ve been doing so on specifically feminist terms. In the songs that served as the unofficial anthems of the final presidential debate of this hard-fought campaign, it’s women who are in control: of their own bodies, of their own desires, of their own futures. In Jackson’s framing, it’s the boys who are “nasty”; it’s the women who are, as it were, going high. Who’s jamming to my nasty groove? she asks. And then she answers her own question: Nasty boys!

It seems appropriate that Jackson has explained “Nasty” not just in terms of power, but in terms of power that arises in response to attempts to take it away. “The danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street,” she explained, in a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone. “They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening.”

She continued:

Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down. That’s how songs like “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” were born, out of a sense of self-defense. Control meant not only taking care of myself but living in a much less protected world. And doing that meant growing a tough skin. Getting attitude.

Getting attitude: As Wednesday’s debate suggested, there’s nothing, at this point, nastier than that.