“Mummy,” asks my eight-year-old son, pointing at the French Connection gift set in Boots, “why have those people spelled ‘fuck’ sillily?”
I pause, considering my response. I could pretend not to have heard. I could tell him it’s because they’re fcuking idiots. I could even go for the derail option, laboriously explaining that while “fcuk” isn’t a real verb, “sillily” isn’t a real adverb, either. Alas, I do none of these things.
“It’s ironic,” I say. “Sort of.”
“It’s like a joke but not a joke. It’s basically emblematic of a self-referential zeitgeist that’s so busy being amused at its knowing, almost carnivalesque childishness that it doesn’t pay heed to its own inherent conservatism.”
“There was a lot of that about in the Nineties, just before I met your dad.”
My son does not ask any further questions. I later find, however, that he has understood the 1990s meaning of “irony” when, in the frozen foods aisle at Sainsbury’s, I tell him to stop hitting his brother.
“I’m not really hitting him. I’m being ironic.”
Thank fcuk for that.
Nineties irony was always based around a kind of implausible deniability. This might look like the word “fuck,” ah, but is it? This might sound offensive, but is it really? What if I’ve rearranged the letters? What if I have my fingers crossed? Living in a student house with young men who referred to all women as either slags or prick teases, I knew never to accuse them of sexism, because they knew they were being sexist, therefore they weren’t. Or something. The point was that if everyone could, potentially, be in on the joke, then everyone had to laugh as a way of subverting an only superficially conservative paradigm. Or at least they could pretend to laugh (I was always pretending, but in a self-aware manner that permitted me to theoretically transcend my own prudish resistance, or so I liked to think).
The FCUK slogan T-shirts that were so popular back then seemed to me to typify that double bind. Based on the premise that the biggest taboos of the day remained swearing and references to sex – and not, say, inequality and male violence – they set about vanquishing pearl-clutching enemies who didn’t really exist. You couldn’t say that you found the joke tired and old without risking being considered too tired and old to get it. Indeed, if you didn’t have a deliberately misspelled “fuck” emblazoned across your chest, how could anyone be sure you weren’t the kind of woman who would be offended by a deliberately misspelled “fuck”? Far better to make it clear to everyone that you were one of the initiates. You got it, even if the uptight masses didn’t.
It is for this reason that, unlike Metro and Cosmopolitan, I’m less than thrilled that the classic “looks like it says a rude word but doesn’t” T-shirt is making a comeback in French Connection’s SS16 collection. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I’m not, personally, “cool as fuck” or even “too busy to fuck” (or perhaps too tired, if I’m honest, but I’m not sure they do that one). It’s just that if a T-shirt is going to say “fuck”, I want it to say “fuck” properly. Otherwise you’re playing that pointless game in which your own rebelliousness relies on the presumption and maintenance of other people’s conservatism.
We live in an age when sincerity is taken for stupidity and cleverness is making sure that no one can ever pin you down. Nothing must ever be tangible, lest you be exposed as the kind of idiot who sees politics as something more than mere wordplay. We pretend that words, letters and pronouns are shocking, not bodies, blood and fists. We can, we tell ourselves, change the world by jiggling a few letters around, or failing that, at least turn it into a self-aware joke. Coolness is a swear word at one remove and you’d better fcuking believe it.
I know that fashion is cyclical, if unfailingly creative in its resistance to change. Right now an industry that has spent the past century making countless women ashamed of their breasts and hips is boldly promoting its embrace of gender fluidity (you mean to say that rather than starve away our curves, we can just dismiss them as a construct? How novel). But where is the wit, the warmth, the inclusivity that isn’t based around defining oneself as an elite group, the people who “get it”? Where is the rule-breaking that doesn’t rely on the promotion of the same old rules?
“Convincing my mother that ‘FCUK’ was a perfectly innocent acronym for French Connection United Kingdom was the finest moment of my teenage years” one journalist reminisces. Well, sure. Mums are stupid like that. Or maybe they just know that this is one of those instances where you have to play the person who doesn’t get it so that everyone else feels better about themselves. It’s what I do when I pretend to my sons that I believe them when they say they’ve no idea what “fuck” means.
“Think of it as fcuk. Spelled sillily.”