YA, Cussing, and Me

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A few people have asked if I’ve seen the latest round of “should-YA-books-have-cussing-and-if-they-do-should-there-be-warning-labels”, possibly because they anticipate I will be profane in my rejection of the idea. And they would be correct!

This round of “let’s officially censor teen novels” comes about after a recent BYU study published in peer-reviewed journal Mass Communications and Society that analyzed 40 YA books on bestseller list and discovered that on average they “contain 38 instances of profanity between the covers.”

Gosh, that’s a really high level! Way higher than I would expect!

Could it be because one of the books had over 500 usages, that being a memoir by Nick Sheff called Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines? I wonder if that altered the sample average in any significant way?

Of the other 39 books, 35 had “at least one instance of profanity” and four were presumably devoid of naughty words. I’m not positive what counts as “profanity” – can anyone with the latest issue of Mass Communications and Society tell me what words are considered profane for the purposes of this study? I’d like to know if swearing and blasphemy have been conflated, or considered separate categories. Is “oh my God” considered as profane as “fuck this shit”?

Andy Woodworth, who does have access to the study, writes in This YA Title Is Not Yet Rated (Yet) that the study selected bestseller lists from June 22nd to July 6th, 2008 to study, and asks how this period was chosen.

And Meghan Miller of Forever YA points out the weirdness of claiming that YA books have swearing rates twice as high as video games when there are so many more words in YA books in “Get the F*ck Out! YA Books Have Cussing?!?”.

My own books have swears, on account of I swear, swore as a teenager, and am happy for my teenage characters (all 16 to 18) to swear when I think it is appropriate. “Appropriate” differs from character to character. Ellie from Guardian of the Dead says “fuck” a lot. In The Shattering Keri and Janna do too, particularly in times of anger, pain, or high stress. Sione never does. When he confronts the person he believes is responsible for the death of his brother, this happens:

“You sick old bitch,” Sione said, the last word sitting awkwardly in his mouth. It was the first time I’d heard him swear.

And in fact, I think it’s the only time he swears in the book. Swearing is not a Sione thing to do; he was raised to strict standards of appropriate behaviour and follows them even when the people who enforce those standards aren’t around. Keri and Janna are both more casual and more rebellious in their speech.

The first time Tegan says “fuck” in When We Wake is [SPOILER!!!] just after she’s possibly attracted the negative interest of the government/military by hacking into secret files. She’s using a friend’s computer and she doesn’t know how to disconnect it from the internet in a future where every device is connected as a matter of course:

“Fuckity fuck fuck fuck,” I said calmly. Then I grabbed my rusty iron statue of the lady in the sea and beat the crap out of Bethari’s computer.

After that, Tegan says fuck twice more. Bethari says “fuck” once, when they discover just what the military has been up to, and that it is not very nice. The other two major teen characters, Joph and Abdi, don’t.

None of these characters swear around or at their parents, because that is a situation where teenagers tend to be more circumspect unless they are really hurt or angry. As a teenager I once told my mother to fuck off. She slapped me so hard my teeth hurt. (Now that I am a grown-up I regularly swear in front of my mother, and she in front of me, but we don’t swear at each other because we get along pretty well. This is one of the many bonuses of adulthood).

Secret Secret Shush Shush*, the book I’m working on now, doesn’t contain any swearing so far. It hasn’t felt natural to include it for these characters, even though they’ve so far survived a mass murder, several attempts at dangerous sabotage, and multiple Betrayals of Their Souls. Since one is a tightly restrained military lady under a lot of pressure, and the other is an enthusiastic and not entirely neurotypical guy who is more prone to liking things than not, it didn’t really fit. There was one point where the military lady says “shit” and a friend pointed out that this would keep Secret Secret Shush Shush out of book fairs. So I nixed it. That single “shit” is not that important to me, and thus I’m happy to go, you know what, commercial success, probably quite nice. But I would have fought like a tasmanian devil to keep “Fuckity fuck fuck fuck”. (I didn’t have to. My editors are great).

Obviously, I think swearing in YA is fine. I think swearing itself is fine. But I am totally okay with readers who disagree putting down my books when they hit the first swear word, because I am not in charge of what they do and do not find acceptable. This is the same reason I don’t swear in classroom workshops, because teenagers who don’t want to hear swearing aren’t able to leave in those circumstances. It’s better to assume some teenagers there might be unhappy with swearing than not to, and hurt them.

Anyway, the study itself concludes:

We are not advocating that book covers be required to contain content warnings regarding profanity. We understand that providing content warnings on books represents a very hot debate, and that inclusion of such warnings is extremely controversial.

However, one of the authors, Dr Sarah Coyne, in an interview: “Unlike almost every other type of media, there are no content warnings or any indication if there is [sic] extremely high levels of profanity in adolescent novels.”

My response to this is two-fold:

1) What exactly is an “extremely high level”? Who gets to decide? Governments? Publishers? Teachers? Librarians? Did anyone think of asking readers?

2) Content warnings are stupid.

Or rather, not the warnings themselves, but the bodies that spring up to decide upon and enforce them, and the commercial structures that inevitably alter under the strain, and the mindset that uses content warnings as an excuse to forbid readers access to books without engaging with the specific reader or the actual content.

Media have often adopted “voluntary” guidelines that are effectively compulsory for commercial success. Historically, this has been incredibly restrictive upon the creative process and often appallingly -ist. The Hays Code screwed any depiction of healthy sexual activity outside marriage in film. Have an affair? TIME TO DIE. The Comics Code Authority killed horror comics (no comics allowed with “terror” or “horror” in the title!) and refused to approve any depiction of “sex perversion”, “sexual abnormalities”, and “illicit sex relations” – i.e., rape, and also queerness or anything not enforcing the “sanctity of marriage”. Famously, comics with the CCA seal were not allowed to portray drug use or drug paraphernalia – leading to the famous Spider-Man comic where, despite the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare actually asking Stan Lee to write a comic depicting drug use as unglamorous and dangerous, the CCA refused to approve it. (Marvel published anyway, in what is seen as an important point of the CCA beginning to lose its power.)

Moreover the rules are often almost amusingly short-sighted. Although the MPAA doesn’t say how it goes about giving ratings (which is in itself suspect), general received wisdom is that you get to say “fuck” once in a PG-13 movie. The Avengers is PG-13. It includes Loki calling the Black Widow a “mewling quim”, which means I was watching a PG-13 movie when the major female character was described as a “whiny cunt”, and involuntarily said, in the crowded theatre, “EW!”. (I don’t think that was gross because it was swearing, btw. I think it was gross because that particular gendered slur pisses me off).

Said Dr Coyne, in the same interview: “Parents should talk with their children about the books they are reading.”

I super agree that parents should talk to their children about the books they are reading. I’m less certain that they should talk to their teenagers, particularly their older teenagers, particularly with a view to forbidding them certain texts. I have a lot of respect for the ability of teenagers to make their own choices about what they do and don’t want to read, and I think that as they grow older their parents should be exerting less control over those choices. But, while I’ve been a teenager, I’ve never been a parent, and I acknowledge my personal knowledge is limited in this respect.

Relatedly, I am totally au fait with content review websites that point out things like “swearing!” or “blasphemy!” or “sex!” in books. If you’re a young reader, or a parent to a young reader, who doesn’t want to read those things, then these are valuable resources. I myself make use of various resources, including reviews, blogs, and word of mouth, so that I can get a heads-up on works that contain “retarded” or “faggot” as derogatory terms without any indication in the text that this is disgusting behavior. Or works where the female characters exist only to advance the stories of the male ones. Or works set in places and times where people of color ought not be invisible and yet somehow they are. I don’t tend to like those stories.

I’d also venture, and not timidly, that those stories are far more damaging to society than stories where teenagers say “fuck”, but I do respect the wish of these anti-swearing readers and their parents for them to be informed readers, aware in advance that they may bounce off the content of a work. I just don’t think that content warnings are the best way to be an informed reader.

However, you know what? If I can get official content warnings on books for “blatant homophobia” or “in this book the character with a physical disability is a beautiful angel of compassion”, then people who want official content warnings for “There are some swears!” can have those also**.

But until that happy day, I think we can all suck it up and proceed.

* Not its real name.

** I am not actually advocating this. For one thing, “there is fuck in this book” is way easier to quantify than “blatant homophobia”. And for another, I think content warnings are stupid. I’m just saying that when it comes to the ills of society, I know which I’d rather not have uncritically reflected in my reading material.