Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Those words!"

Ah, yes. It was bound to happen. Again. A researcher at Brigham Young University, Sarah Coyne, did a study on profanity in YA books. She checked the top 40 children’s books (ages 9 and up) on the NY Times bestseller list  (for the week 6/22-7/6 2008) and—gasp––found 1,500 instances of profanity (which included sexual words, excretory words, strong and mild curse words). All but five of the top-selling books had at least one instance of profanity.

So what does Ms. Coyne want to do with this information? Create a rating system for books, of course. As if this won’t turn out to be a form of censorship. As if this does not get into First Amendment issues. As if this has worked for the film industry.

The latest example of “fail” in terms of ratings is the documentary “Bully” (which follows 5 students that have been bullied). The movie was originally given an R rating (you must be at least 17 to see this on your own) because there were two uses of the f word. Really? One is okay, two is not. This means that most of the target audience for this movie, ages 13-17 would not be able to see it unless they went with a parent.

Watch the trailer for Bully. Do you honestly believe that students 13-16 should be banned from seeing this?

After numerous meetings, and student petitions, the MPAA ratings board would not budge. So the Weinstein company “bleeped” the word to get the PG-13 rating. Guess what? Everyone knows what the bully was saying anyway because you can read his lips. What did this end up accomplishing? Nothing!

Yes, I am concerned. The readership for almost every book that ADR3NALIN3 authors write is for that same YA age range. Many of us strive to write authentic books for teens –which may mean use of profanity.

We authors do not use those words, or any word, lightly. We are not trying to shock for shock’s sake with our language but to write the world as teens live it. 

Death, mayhem, horror, violence, creepy paranormal, stalkers-––those are the dark YA books we write. According to Ms. Coyne, all of that is all right as long as an author doesn’t type a dreaded curse word. As if any teen who lives in this country, and probably all countries of the world, haven’t heard or used profanity at some point in their lives. It is a rite of passage–-and it means nothing.

I say that again. Using a curse word, in and of itself, means nothing. It is a way of blowing off steam, trying to sound cool, showing frustration. The real importance is intent. If a character calls someone the B word, it can hurt. But one character can hurt another character just as deeply, if not more, without using that specific word. If you censor an author from using a word—and that word is meant to wound, well, our characters will find another way to wound. Just as deep. Just like with the movie, nothing is accomplished.

It’s a slippery slope. Who will make the rules? Are libraries or book stores going to “card” readers in the Teen section? Will one word be okay, like in movies, but not two? And why are so many adults upset by profanity? Profanity is not a gateway drug—if you read “those” words in a book, it doesn’t mean your entire vocabulary will consist of curse words for the rest of your life.

Both the upcoming Circle of Silence and dancergirl have characters that occasionally use profanity. It is not gratuitous, and it’s always in a situation that, if it happened to you or your friends, there is a great likelihood you would say exactly what my characters say.

If a book has too many swear words for a reader, or if the content is too upsetting, a reader will put the book down. This is a known fact. So… let the writers write, Ms. Coyne. Let the readers speak, by choosing what they want to read. Not you, their parents, an anonymous ratings board or the government. Let the First Amendment work the way it has worked for over two hundred years!


Jordan Dane said...

As a kid in elementary, I cursed like a sailor. My sweet mother would have been mortified. Kids do stuff to figure out who they are becoming. For me, swearing was something I tried on for size.

I'm more judicious on when to let "those words" fly as an adult, but they occasionally do take wing. In my writing, for both my teen and adult books, I struggle with how much authenticity to use regarding cursing. Yes, even in my adult thrillers, I minimize certain words so that I reach a broader audience.

I know what was my reality as a kid & I see teens speak openly to their friends when their parents aren't around. I minimize the foul language in my books, especially when it's my main character, but I would not pass anyone's censorship filter. It's a fine line I walk as an author, trying to stay true to the YA world I'm hoping to build & touch kids with my writing.

The main points I'm trying to get across is in my broader underlying themes--that it's okay to be different & it takes guts to stand up for someone else who could use a friend.

Love that trailer for BULLY. Powerful.

Sara Rayne said...

I think its time "adults" stopped pretending that teenagers haven't heard cuss words.
Step inside any high school. ANY high school. If you were invisible and passing through the halls (and oh, don't we all remember those days), the creativity in "colorful" words may not be there, but the words are. My thirteen year old niece posts "WTF" on facebook all the time.
I am not so naive as to pretend she doesn't know what the "F" stands for. Or thinks she doesn't use it.
And if there are any adults out there who think the VAST MAJORITY of teenagers don't either - I really hope you're not responsible for any children, because the wool is too easily pulled over your eyes.
Don't blame books for children knowing "bad" words. Blame books for children knowing WORDS at all.
I'm not sure how to stop this TERRIBLE epidemic of ... what, exactly? We want people to stop cussing, is that what this is about?
I really, really hope that reporter has never stubbed her tell and yelled anything other than, "Oh, excrement!"

Carol Tanzman said...

LOL, Ms. Snip! And yes, that is my point. It's head in the sand time if any adult thinks teens, or younger kids, haven't heard those words! Jordan, yes, that is a very powerful trailer--and movie.