We have a lot of funny rules in society today when it comes to our entertainment media. The things we can and can’t say or do or show are always in flux, often shifting by the moment (or by the release, or by the latest ban inflicted on whichever industry is most relevant) and sometimes not appearing sensical in the least.
For example, in general, we as a culture seem mostly okay with violence. It’s on television, it’s in the video games, it’s in the books, it’s in the music. Some may complain, some may strive to purge the vile filth, but it’s there and it seems pretty intent on setting up shop and sticking around and for the most part, we seem content to allow it to.
On the other hand, we have sex. To a limited degree, we condone it. We can have scantily-clad silicone ladies selling us beer, cars and sports memorabilia. We can have ripped men wearing a towel and a smile sell us deodorant or save our heroines from certain doom. But if we show a female nipple, or anything below the waist, or any actual physical contact between two parties (seemingly regardless of the gender, gender roles or relational context between the pair), ruh roh. We better bump that rating up a notch. Or two. Or three. And those who scream and yell and call for the might of the ban hammer seem to get their way more often – or at least are accorded more notice and respect – in this department.
We’re okay with some curse words… but not others. Drop a “damn” or even a “goddamn” in there, you’re okay. Even on prime time. “Shit,” well, you’re gonna have to ask the censors, and those with more sensitive eyes or ears are liable to set your book aside. Drop an F-Bomb, and you’re now one of “those people.”
You know, those folks who can’t express themselves properly. The low-brow, unintelligent, unwashed peasants of the literary world. Those vile creatures who seem to think that some people talk that way, when we all know that nobody ever says those filthy, nasty words. Except for those who do, but they don’t count.
Have a hero, anti-hero, love interest or other sympathetic protagonist use the word, and some people will be readying the hatchets to explain how your work is now instant trash. The only comparable phenomenon I can think of is cigarettes. Thirty years ago, every anti-hero and about half of heroes smoked. Now I see websites saying things like “only villains or unsympathetic characters should smoke, if anyone smokes at all. It serves as an indicator that the person is not to be trusted.”
I’m not going to get into sex and violence today. But the cursing thing… that’s really bothering me. I just spoke with another author who was looking into an opportunity to be reviewed and interviewed on a book blog. They turned her down because her manuscript contained 8 instances of that lovely f-bomb (almost all of them with the sexual connotation, which seems to be important to some folks, like the MPAA, who allow as many as 10 non-sexual uses in some instances while maintaining a PG-13 rating, but one sexual use is insta-R, apparently). I like kicking hornet’s nests, so I sauntered on over and submitted my own; for the record it contained 7 uses of f–k (all non-sexual), 29 instances of s–t (also non-sexual, in case you had to ask. Ew.) and a peppering of goddamns, damns, assholes and other such language. Totally shocking when they rejected me, right?
It’s not like I didn’t expect that. I was just curious to see if they were concerned about that sexy/non-sexy usage thing. But then I went browsing, and discovered something hilarious. They had done a retro-review of Stephen King’s It. You know, the one with the clown that eats little kids. Gave it a shining review, in fact. Anyone who’s read King knows he is quite liberal with his cursing. I don’t have an e-Book version handy, so can’t check, but I am fairly certain there are several hundred “fucks” in there, both sexual and not, and most of them spoken by characters between the ages of 11 and 13. That wasn’t mentioned in their review. They did caution that it wasn’t a book for children – no, really? Though I did read it and get in a great deal of trouble at school for doing a book report on it when I was 11 or so… – but were otherwise seemingly okay with the level of violence. My favorite thing is they didn’t bring up what’s probably the most objectionable part in the whole thing – at least, if you’re an objecting sort, which I most assuredly am not.
What’s that, you say? Oh, just a scene where an 11 year old girl has sex with six 11 year old boys, one after the other and we’re treated to a flowery description of her orgasms. Yeah, it’s in there. But this was not mentioned.
Moving right along, I also tripped over a review of a vampire romance novel that I had been exposed to some time ago. It was given a shining review, speaking of how “intensely arousing” the sex scenes were and the superb interaction between the protagonists. Now, this I found interesting (going back to my earlier comments about what’s okay and what isn’t) because these characters do… well, pretty much everything. There’s some BDSM, there’s plenty of blood play with some extra cannibalism and vore references just for fun, there’s oral and there’s anal. All of it multiple times. The thing that stuck with me most is a passage that was brought specifically to my attention by the person who originally exposed me to the book: “His tongue darted around her anal pucker, thrilling her to climax.”
Now, to be fair, there’s not a “fuck” to be found in those 500ish pages, but I don’t see how constant graphic depictions of the acts involved are okay – and we won’t get into the violence, which at one point basically has the vampire with a laser pistol shearing off CIA agents’ limbs and drinking from them as she beats others to death with the severed appendages. Yeah. It’s a weird book – and talking about “anal pucker” is okay… so long as nobody says “fuck” or “shit.”
I don’t get it. They’re just words. If you’re okay with reading about a young woman essentially selling herself into slavery to a power-hungry sociopath with mommy issues, and you’re okay with hearing about just what his butt-plugs do “down there,” and you’re okay with his former lover holding his new (pregnant and with fresh strop-marks on her breasts) lover hostage at gunpoint and a rape scene or two, how can you be so prudish if at any point, one person uttered a short little word that starts with “eff” and rhymes with “truck?” You can discuss “anal puckers” and tongues going into and out of them, but get all queasy if someone says “shit?” Taking it to the extreme, which some do, you can have a novel where an individual literally skins his victims and wears their faces for jollies – including a scene that heavily implies masturbation – and that’s fine, but he’d better not say “damn” or it’s everyone out of the pool!
Like I said. I just don’t get it. But then again, to me they’re just words. No word has an intrinsic moral value to me. They’re all tools to be used. Some have more specific (and potentially unpleasant) uses than others, but every one I can think of has a time and place where it might just be the perfect word for what you’re doing. As George Carlin used to say “there are no bad words.” There are words that can be filthy, racially-charged, violent and/or sexual depending on how the writer uses them, but if they’re used properly – to convey an emotional or thoughtful reaction to a given event – then they’ve done their job. And a writer who wants to go outside the box can take a nonsense word or a word that seems placid, healing and inclusive and use it in a way that becomes violent, sexual or demeaning. That’s the neat thing about words; you can change what they mean, to yourself and to others, by the way you use them.
So what about you guys? Think cursing is okay, but we need to clean up that smut? Think “sex sells, baby!” but we need to scale back the violence? All for the blood and guts, so long as nobody clamps a hand to their mouth, murmuring “oh shit” just because they blow their lunch? Or do you think the whole thing is just silly? Let us know in the box below. Until next time…