LIKE MANY STANDUP COMEDIANS, Cathy Carlson has a signature line in her act: “You cum like a girl.” Though not as suit-and-tie quaint as Rodney Dangerfield’s “I don’t get no respect,” it’s all hers. Or at least she’d like it to be. Carlson has emblazoned her five favorite words in pink letters on tank tops, T-shirts and spanky pants, which she sells at outdoor street fairs and via her Web site (www.youcumlikeagirl.com). Several months before she started the apparel line, she attempted to register her catch phrase with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). What she got in return was a resounding NO! and a sizable porn collection on her computer hard drive, compliments of our own federal government.
Carlson discovered the unusual gift of porn one morning two months ago when she found four separate pieces of correspondence from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in her personal e-mail account. In each were literally dozens of photographs of women covered in ejaculate and no letter of explanation.
“What does this have to do with my shirt?” Carlson remembers thinking.
Maybe, she thought, the sender — Patrick Shanahan, the examining attorney in charge of her case — had mixed up his prepositions. “It’s not ‘You cum on a girl’s face,’ it’s ‘You cum like a girl,’ you know?” says Carlson. “He’s completely missed the point of this shirt. So something that’s harmless and funny, he’s linked it to pornographic images? I don’t have photos on my shirt. I don’t have pictures of girls being ejaculated on their faces.”
The following day she received a fifth e-mail, which apparently had been sent with the others but somehow got lost in cyberspace. This time, there were only words. Citing Section 2 (a) of the Trademark Act, Carlson’s application to register the phrase “You cum like a girl” had been refused on the grounds of being “scandalous” and “vulgar,” with the phrase’s offending verb defined as a “vulgar slang term for ejaculation at the time of orgasm.” Shanahan provided examples of similar rejections and explained why other attempts to register phrases with “cum” passed muster and Carlson’s didn’t. He also suggested why the word “orgasm” might make a suitable PG-13 replacement. Shanahan did include one small conciliatory detail in the haze of constrained legalese: an expression of discomfort at having to send an avalanche of visual aids — unearthed by way of a Google search — to “illustrate the predominant connotation of the term ‘cum.’?”
“He said he knows this is considered distasteful, but he’s sending them anyway,” Carlson remembers. “He could have sent one picture. He sent 10 megabytes.”
Of course, if there is such a thing as a Homestead Act for catch phrases, Carlson already has ownership. Back in 2000, she hit upon the saying as a conversational starting point with audience members. “I’d look at a guy and say, ‘I’ll bet you cum like a girl,’ then everyone would laugh,” she says. “It worked for me.”
Carlson, a red-haired, tattooed one-woman cottage industry — she’s a comic, an actress, an occasional personal assistant, and co-producer of the BBC America comedy series The World Stands Up — also liked that the phrase might be empowering to some women.
“Facials, pearl necklaces, happy endings, those are actually things that are precious to women, and guys have taken them and used them pornographically,” says Carlson, sitting in front of a Starbucks in Hollywood on a recent afternoon in ripped jeans, flip-flops and lavender sunglasses. “So I started taking phrases and using them so they couldn’t have them anymore. ‘You cum like a girl’ was one of those things.”
It’s easy to envision Carlson in a rented booth at Gay Pride events employing her preferred mode of selling: shouting “Hey!” at passersby and then holding up one of her bumper stickers when they turn their heads. She really felt she was on to something last June at San Francisco’s famous Gay Pride free-for-all, where she not only sold all of her stock, but her bag of samples was stolen too.
All this has made Carlson eager to fight back. In February, before sending her the results of his thorough Google search, Shanahan had denied Carlson’s registration application on the grounds that according to the American Heritage dictionary, “ ‘cum’ refers to semen, and is thus scandalous because the mark [the trademark] implies that the consumers of the goods are those who orgasm like a girl.” In response, Carlson sought the advice of patent attorney Matthew Jodziewicz. By going to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site and checking phrases that the government does consider permissible, Jodziewicz helped her put together the appeal that led to Shanahan’s visual aids and final refusal.
“I was shocked and surprised. Just think of any obscenity and run it through [the USPTO search at www.uspto.gov] and there they are, out there and registered,” he says. Jodziewicz and Carlson crafted a rebuttal that, among other things, provided examples of currently protected phrases that she regards as not just blue, but profane, including “Evil Pussy,” “Wimpy Dicks” and “Just Suck It.” She also pointed out that a company that distributes prerecorded DVDs, video CDs and VHS tapes featuring adult content called “Cum Together” got okayed.
“A lot of times, for the right reasons or wrong reasons, the double-entendre will take it out of the totally vulgar category,” says Shanahan, reached last week by the L.A. Weekly at his Alexandria, Virginia, office. “Now, the term ‘cum-furt,’ ” he added, using an expired trademark for illustration, “that’s just a different spelling of ‘comfort.’ ”
Shanahan’s voice over the phone is matter-of-fact, not defensive, like a schoolteacher having to tutor one more student in his area of expertise. Asked to explain why so many triple-X-rated pages were sent to Carlson, Shanahan frames his answer as a case of USPTO protocol: He has to make his argument as complete as possible in case it goes before the Trademark Trial Appeal Board. “I personally have never sent them in the 15 years I’ve been doing this . . . I wasn’t happy to do it.”
But why images of women being ejaculated on instead of actually having an orgasm? Shanahan didn’t pause before answering, “I don’t think that really matters. What does that phrase mean otherwise?”
Well, there is a difference between what testicles create, and what you do in a moment of ecstasy. Noun versus verb. Shanahan’s misreading is just one element that puts Carlson on firm ground for an appeal. A case can also be made, says civil rights attorney Patty Bellasalma, that there are other meanings for “cum” besides the one Shanahan sourced in the American Heritage dictionary. In Latin, “cum” also means “together with, plus.” “I’m sure that the American Heritage dictionary says that this term can be used as a vulgar phrase, but I’m sure that it also doesn’t say that ‘cum laude’ is vulgar,” says Bellasalma. “You could make a very credible argument that it is a double-entendre. That it means that you’re ‘with’ a girl.”
Recently, Carlson went to the ACLU for help while attorney Jodziewicz mulls over the best avenue for an appeal. In the meantime, her merchandise — she’s expanded her minibrand to also include “I cum like a girl” — is now being sold at Hustler Hollywood, a somehow fitting touch, given that the 12-store chain is owned by First Amendment–rights pioneer Larry Flynt. And of course, Carlson knows that Shanahan and the Patent and Trademark Office have given her all sorts of new material for her act, like the fact that Shanahan was on the clock when he surfed the Net for porn, or that the name “Dykes-on-Bikes” was deemed scandalous and offensive for three years before federal property rights were granted to the lesbian motorcycle group. She’s also printing an excerpt from the rejection in tiny type on the inside of her T-shirts. In the end, though, she just wants to own her silly, shocking and profitable five-word phrase.