An Alphabet of Feminism #24: X is for X
X is for X is unique among Alphabet posts in that the letter does not stand in for a word – like A for Amazon and B for Bitch – because, in fact, the letter is the word.
Yet this word – simultaneously standing in for itself and existing as an independent unit of meaning – is possibly one of the most widely-used symbols of all. How exactly this might be relevant to a consideration of feminism will be herein considered, but I hope my indulgent readers will excuse a slightly cheeky use of theoretical thinking. We all know each other well enough by now, don’t we?
The most straightforward significance of X is, as Latin-fans will know, ‘ten’ / ’10′ (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X). Two tens side by side is XX, or twenty / 20. How many tens can you think of? Ten lost tribes of Israel, ten commandments, ten plagues of Egypt, ten dimes in a dollar, ten years in a decade. It’s a pleasingly round number, and an easy times table, even if it frequently loses out to ‘twelve’ / ’12′ in mystic significance.
But x is not simply a linguistic unit: it is also a visual one. Two diagonal lines; two Vs touching each other; a crossover; a cross; a cross-roads. Like ’0′, which means ‘oh’, ‘o’, ‘zero’ and ‘nothing’, it represents one of its meanings aesthetically: it is a cross. Thus King’s X and Charing X (this last was named for the Eleanor Cross built on the site by Richard I to commemorate the funeral procession of his wife) – but, perhaps because of its relationship to the Greek letter ‘Chi’ (‘Ch-’), which is the first letter of ‘Christ’, x can also signify he-who-died-on-a-cross (‘X-mas‘), although it actually looks more like the St. Andrew cross, which makes up the Scottish flag.
In numerical terms, though, x can also take on the role of an unknown quantity – ‘Find the value of x‘, where the x is italicised to mark its distinction from ‘x’. It is ‘unknown’, not ‘multiply’, an absent value rather than a pluralised one. Here too, we bump into a common significance x has: it represents absence. It is the legal signature of the illiterate (‘I cannot write; here is the x that represents “yes, I agree” but also “no, I cannot write”), and the standard stand-in for a quantity that is unknown or not yet provided (‘Dear X’).
The unknown or unstated quantity has also fed over into censorship: an X-rated film is one only suitable for those aged over 18. It was replaced in 1982 by the ’18′ certificate, but such certificates have frequently been seen by directors as more of a target than an impediment: Hitchcock’s extremely grim Frenzy (1972) was conceived to coincide with the USA’s revised R-rating so that the Master of Suspense could claim his place in the pantheon of horror with a badge of censored honour.
This was his penultimate film, and the only one to carry an ’18′ certificate in the UK or receive an ‘X-rating’ after the age restriction was moved up to 18 in 1971. It’s about a rapist serial-killer. If the accusation of misogyny leveled at him impedes your appreciation of Hitchcock’s films as a whole, I would not recommend this one. It features an extended rape scene shot with a disturbing emphasis on its supposed eroticism, and some true masterpieces of misogyny in the dialogue.
There’s also this scene, which features Babs’ death: from the moment Rust enters the frame we know she’s dead, and the line which precedes the attack, ‘You’re my kind of woman’ (whose results we have already seen in graphic form on his previous victim) precedes one of Hitchcock’s most underrated panning shots: the camera backs out down the stairs and out into the street in what the director himself dubbed ‘Bye Bye To Babs‘. This is the second of the film’s rape-murders and one no less disturbing for being ‘exed out’ – its self-censorship makes its own point.
There is a beautifully dark irony in how this most censored of Hitchcock’s films is also one focused almost entirely around silencing and deleting women – exing them by using the Latin prefix ‘out of, from, utterly, beyond’ (ex), thus, in verbal form, ’to delete, to cross off’ (as in ‘to x‘, to ‘cross’, which can also be ‘to thwart’ – ‘Don’t cross me!’). This is the x-form that gives us ’ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, ex-wife‘, so that the x acts as a negative, canceling out the word that follows it, making the spouse a stranger, and the act of so doing is, in fact, an act of deletion – ‘exing‘ someone, crossing them out (indeed, we frequently drop the specifics altogether, don’t we? ‘My ex’.)
If you buy the theory that Hitch was himself a Horrible Misogynist (which, with regret, I think I must – in this film at least) – the fact that he chose a kind of Jack the Ripper style return to his London roots for his attempt on the R-rating is a masterpiece of gyno-negation (yes I made that compound up, but I’m running with it):
Solicitor in Pub: Let’s hope he slips up soon.
Doctor in Pub: In one way I rather hope he doesn’t. We haven’t had a good juicy series of sex murders since Christie. And they’re so good for the tourist trade. Foreigners somehow expect the squares of London to be fog-wreathed, full of hansom cabs and *littered* with ripped whores, don’t you think?
Heart Skipped A Beat
It is, then, fantastically dark yet undeniably fitting that x is frequently appropriated as a symbol of sexytimes: XXX (thirty) means ‘extra strong’, via an x homonym extra. Thus it is an identifier for pornography and x-rated movies, and, in the form .xxx is a ‘sponsored top level domain’ (what?) intended as a voluntary option for porn sites (instead of .com, .co.uk etc), to allow clear classification and prevent The Children accessing such sites ‘by accident’. The difficulty here, of course, is that it requires binary identification of What Is Porn and What Is Not (of which more presently).
In lower-case form, xxx connects love and lust: most people know of x = kiss (I’ve always wondered if there’s something in ‘k’ being an ‘x’ that may have hit a wall), but Wikipedia claims ‘xxx’ means ‘I love you’ through the power of three. Like ‘heart’, which is a very different thing from ‘love’ (‘I heart NY’), ‘X’ is frequently something distinct from ‘kiss’, and rarely a simple representation of it. Just look at Holly Valance, whose 2002 single ‘Kiss Kiss‘ (and its predictably lips-obsessed video) repeatedly blocks out what comes after ‘my…’, replacing it with a ‘mwah mwah’ which is frequently not even mimed in the video, and, as the song progresses, gets increasingly mixed out, blanked out and fragmented.
Don’t play the games that you play
‘Cause you know that I won’t run away
Why aren’t you asking me to stay
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna give you my (mwah mwah)
- Holly Valance, ‘Kiss Kiss’ (2002)
Where this is all leading is, of course, ‘tonight I’m gonna give you my XX’… which is also ‘my XXX’. Add to this the traditional association of mouths and vaginas (whose natural endpoint is the vagina dentata, whence a man ‘always leaves diminished’) and you have a really rather porno-tastic song all round (yet one that would never come with a domain name culminating with .xxx).
By contrast, xoxo means ‘kiss, hug, kiss, hug’ (less sexual all round) and is another way of using letters as symbols for something else – O is ‘hug’ because it enfolds itself, yet that self-enclosure also makes it 0 = nothing. To borrow the assumptions of the seventeenth century, this ‘nothing’ is also equivalent to ‘cunt’, since it is an empty space (as in Rochester’s poem ‘Upon Nothing‘, which describes ‘nothing’ as ‘a great uniteD What‘ (pronounce ‘what’ to rhyme with ‘cat’ to get ‘pussy‘)). Similarly, in Hamlet, Ophelia tells the protagonist she thinks ‘nothing’ – which, he replies, is ‘a pretty thought to lie between maids’ legs’, and (given that ‘th’ was frequently pronounced ‘t’ in the sixteenth century), in the light of this you may wish to reconsider the meaning of Shakespeare’s title ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. There is a curious irony here in the use of ‘x’ and ‘o’ side by side: one crosses out and refuses, the other is ‘nothing’ in the first place.
You have all been mighty patient, but here I draw towards a conclusion: x is a letter so many-layered as to refuse any comprehensive analysis. But this is itself quite appropriate, because those of its meanings I have looked at here all hinge around negation or deletion. That these should happen to focus around sex and (specifically) the vagina is not necessarily something intrinsic to the letter, but it certainly tells you a lot about how that letter is used. Blocked out, crossed out; rendered titillating or exciting; exclusive or exclusionary – exit, stage right.
NEXT WEEK: Y is for Yes