Christmas Cringe

A Fairytale of the F-Slur

You can tell a lot about a person based on how they react to the opening piano notes of 1987’s Fairytale of New York, the popular yet hotly-disputed Christmas classic from The Pogues, featuring Kirsty MacColl. Recently unveiled as the United Kingdom’s favorite Christmas song based on two decades worth of sales and streams as monitored by the Official Charts Company, everyone knows the song—and almost everyone has a strong opinion regarding the song’s use of a slur aimed at homosexual men.

“You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy fagg*t” is, of course, the line in question.

In the late 80s and early 90s, the offensive nature of the line was paid little regard, either through blissful ignorance or complete apathy. But in a 1992 performance of the song for Top of the Pops, perhaps as a reflection of a changing society—groups taking more direct action combating anti-LGBT sentiment were beginning to form at this time, adjacent to the rise of the Act Up movement across the pond— MacColl changed the lyric. The more airtime-friendly “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” swap was still fitting of the song’s quarreling couple, but more understanding of the damage such a slur can inflict.

Since then, UK radios have considered and reconsidered whether to air the censored version of the track. Often pressured into reinstating the f-slur-fueled original by alt-right commentators who have been vocally critical of any censoring, the slur can still be heard on UK radios. Of course, there’s a middle ground to be found here. But as with most online clashes, the amplification of the two sides—those taking massive offense to the hatefully-charged word and others seeing the upset as a depressing, enraging signal of cultural wokeness— make it a particularly exhausting argument to return to every twelve months.

Year after year we have the exact same conversation, with no added nuance and the same snobbery and stubbornness from a sector of the population lapping at the chance to put gay people on trial again.

In circles we go, the frenzy never-ending. In fact, PinkNews referred to the constant relitigation of “Fairytale of New York” as “the worst festive tradition” and it’s hard not to disagree. Year after year we have the exact same conversation, with no added nuance and the same snobbery and stubbornness from a sector of the population lapping at the chance to put gay people on trial again, made to defend their own existence. What really is the problem with an alternative version of a song, sanctioned by the artists, that no longer harms or offends?

Looking at the etymology of the f-slur, there’s no clear answer as to when it was weaponized as an insult against gay people, with a handful of meanings that changed from era to era, culture to culture. But weaponized it was and, particularly here in the UK, the main association of the word (alongside a type of meatball) is with bigotry.

The F-slur is a word almost every LGBTQ+ person will have had hurled at them in some point in their life to demean, diminish and frighten them. Worse still, it can be the final words a person remembers before a violent attack, as many reports over the years, from country to country, have shown.

There have been plenty of attempts to reclaim the word by the community, actions also seen with other communities who attempt to reclaim language once used to oppress, dehumanize and demonize them. It’s a process of reclamation and of resistance for the community; it does not grant permission for those outside of it (ally or otherwise) to use the word freely.  And for those who may understandably be triggered by the word—perhaps a trauma response from the victim of a hate crime or a more mature member of the community who can recall the root of the word at its most dangerous—even this reappropriation is a step too far.

When the f-slur comes out of the mouth of someone who has, intentionally or not, the power for it to harm, it has to be seen as power flex, their reminder to you that you are inferior, that they can maim with their words.

Because it’s not the word itself; it’s the power that the word holds by the people who yield it. In the case of “Fairytale of New York,” it’s usually a crowded room of merry, mostly straight and definitely drunk people who find a special sense of jubilation in shouting the word at the top of their voice. It’s hearing a word rooted in viciousness and hatred spoken under the guise of festive spirit that feels particularly troubling. There’s so much that goes into it. On the one hand, there are the poorly-educated people telling you that you’re spoiling the fun because a needlessly-used word your community hears as they take a beating is somehow needed in a Christmas song. On the other hand, there are the members of our own community, desperate to align themselves with straight folk through their own internalized homophobia and often saying some variation of “I’m gay and I don’t care that you’re shouting fagg*t!” It’s about empathy – or lack thereof.

It’s incredibly disheartening to witness a word with such painful connotations used so flippantly and with such little regard for those it may harm. When the f-slur comes out of the mouth of someone who has, intentionally or not, the power for it to harm, it has to be seen as power flex, their reminder to you that you are inferior, that they can maim with their words.

It’s incredibly disheartening to witness a word with such painful connotations used so flippantly and with such little regard for those it may harm.

Earlier this year, whilst at work and completely unprovoked, I was the victim of a hate crime. I was physically assaulted and verbally abused—the f-slur was just one of many slurs thrown in my direction. The suddenness of the attack, in a space I once considered safe, and the subsequent reliving of it for a lengthy police report (they later dropped the investigation) definitely shook me up. The slap mark faded quickly, but the furious charge of that word lingered. “Fairytale of New York” will probably sting a bit harder this year.

Ultimately, I was fine. But this was in 2022, a year in which just a few months later, many would be rolling their eyes at any who dares suggest a Christmas song shouldn’t use the f-slur.

If we collectively need anything for Christmas this year, it’s compassion. Maybe then we can move on from a tiring debate and stop the need to use our energy writing articles and arguing at Christmas parties in defense of our own existence. ♦


Nathan Osborne (he/him) is a UK-based contributor specializing in film, television and music. His work can be found on Perks of Being Nath, Jumpcut Online, and Film Inquiry.
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