Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On Bleeping Profanity

(You see what I did there? You could either take it as bleeping out profanity, or take "bleeping" as a stand in for profanity. But if I have to explain it, it's really not clever anymore. DANGIT I RUIN EVERYTHING.)


Recently in USA Today a researcher from my Alma Mater was discussing the problem of profanity in YA literature and suggesting a ratings system for books, so that parents know what their kids are reading.

And then Gayle Forman, whom I adore so much it borders on the absurd, wrote this lovely piece (which, you have been warned, contains profanity).

I thought, being an author who is sort of known for avoiding profanity in clever and not so clever ways, I would address the same topic. That way you get it from an author (Gayle Forman) who embraces whatever words she wants to use, and an author (Yours Truly) who has been very careful not to use certain words.

First, a history: I did not know what the "F Word" was until junior high (when I went ahead and asked my older sister just so that I would know in case I ever accidentally came across it). For many years I operated under the assumption that it was a word that begins with F that describes the bodily function of passing gas, which was a very, VERY bad word in our house, and which, to this day, I can neither say nor type out, or even hear without shuddering.


The "Sh" word was shut up. The "C" word was crap. The "B" word was butt. So on. So forth. I remember my parents swearing maybe a total of five times during the course of my childhood and adolescence.

I, myself, have never uttered a swearword.

It's weird. I know. My husband hasn't, either. That's weirder, I'm pretty sure. But it wasn't a part of our families' vocabularies, and it wasn't a part of ours, and neither one of us has ever decided to go ahead and work those expletiving expletives into our daily lives.

And that's fine. Just like it's fine that one of my best friend's favorite word is the F word. (Probably both. But definitely the one that most people consider the actual F word.)

In writing the PARANORMALCY series, it was important to me not to include anything that I would have to apologize to a ten-year-old's mother for. (That was my standard. "If a woman tells me her ten-year-old read my book, will I feel the need to apologize?") I came up with a stand-in for profanity. It worked in context and tone of the book. Taa-daa! No worries.


Here's the thing. As a writer, it's important to me to be honest. And frankly, my characters are not me. I'll repeat that, this time with emphasis: my characters are not me. And, when faced with certain situations, guess what? They want to swear.

Like, they really want to swear. They swear at me for not letting them swear. And here's a little known piece of trivia: All of my first drafts have swear words in them. Yup. Every single one. (I mean, every single first draft. Not every single swear word. I don't know all of them. I still have to look things up every once in a while just so I'm clued in to whether or not something is bad.)

One of these days, I probably won't go back through and grudgingly figure out other ways to say what my character wants to say. And you know what? That will be fine. I'm okay with that. Because here's the thing, the thing that Gayle said so well, the thing that I wish people would understand:

It is not about words, singular. It is about words, collective.

Our teens already know what the F word is, and I'm not talking about my personal F word, which they also already know. They aren't learning anything new by seeing it in a book. They hear it in the PG-13 movies you watch with them. They hear it in the halls at school. Odds are, they use it themselves sometimes.

I would hate for a teen who needs to read Gayle's books, needs to see families portrayed as living, evolving, loving entities, needs to see people make hard choices and then live with those choices, grow into them, decide to be happy regardless of what else they have been handed, teens who need to read Gayle's bleeping amazing writing and her brutally graceful, deeply affecting stories be forced to avoid them because they also include a handful of words that those teens already know but someone has arbitrarily decided qualifies an entire book as "bad."

My stand on book censorship, in any form, is and has always been and will always be this: Read with your children. Read what they are reading. Have an open (sincerely open, not "Here is what you should think about this because I say so") dialog going with them at any and all times, so that when they read something they disagree with, or agree with, or aren't sure whether they agree or disagree with, they have someone to talk with about it. Someone who loves them, and wants them to grow into happy, fully actualized and capable and smart and stable and did we mention happy adults.

Be that person for them. Don't worry so much about a specific word or two (or even twenty). Talk with you teens about the choices the characters make, about the relationships they have, about what you would do when presented with the same scenario. Participate in those collections of words with them. Help them make the choices they need to in order to grow into the people they want to be, and then support them in those choices.

Life? It's kind of rated R. We bleep it out for as long as we can with our children, but in the end, teaching and talking is always better than censoring.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, I let my children use the F-word. Not that one. The other one.

UPDATED: I recognize that there is much more that goes in to a discussion about content in books than the simple matter of profanity. It's just the easiest to identify. "This book had four uses of the F-word!" is much easier than saying, "This book glorified violence without talking about the severe personal and societal repercussions of what so much desensitization will do to us as human beings." Just as, "This book had sex--BAD!" is much easier than saying, "This book didn't have sex on page, but glorified and sensationalized intimate relationships to unreal and dangerous standards, in additional to portraying unhealthy relationships as ideal. This book, however, had a sex scene that included responsible behavior and mature choices--plus the consequences of both, whether good or bad."

See how complicated it is? This is why censorship is the wrong answer. Always.


Melissa (i swim for oceans) said...

Kiersten, I flipping love this post. I, too, was raised in a household where swearing was just not heard. Ever. I think I uttered the word "jerk" once, and I washed my own mouth out with soap.

Regardless, I believe that censorship is uncalled for, as a whole. Parents should know what their children are reading, and they should understand what happens in this day and age. Some of the most important books for a teen to read are the hardest to stomach. I would hate to see any teen miss the opportunity to find that help.

Amy said...

This is why you are made of awesome-
"Life? It's kind of rated R. We bleep it out for as long as we can with our children, but in the end, teaching and talking is always better than censoring."

L.N. Russell said...

I just love this post!

The "Life? It's kind of rated R." part hit home for me both personally and professionally. This is a thought provoking post that made an impact on my life. Thank you for writing it.

Sarah said...

Rachel Caine wrote a great post on book ratings just a couple months ago. It was very similiar to this.

Lori Folkman said...

How did you get to be so wise? You've captured my thoughts perfectly, once again.

I had a beta reader get very offended by my language and she said, "If you don't use those words, your characters should not use those words." But it is exactly what you said, "I am not my characters." To be effective as an author, your character needs to say what they want to say, even if it is offensive.

However, I am all for having warnings on books. My teen son reads way more than I do, and I do not have time to read all his books first. I would never tell him not to read a certain book, but if it did have a warning that said, "this book contains profanity" I would put it at the top of my reading list so I could discuss it with him-- or possibly go trough the book with a sharpie and black out the bad words. :)

I do find it interesting though that I can hear swear words and have them pass through my mind quickly, but when I see them written on a page, they stick in my mind for quite some time. That's the power of the written word and that's why prolific swearing shouldn't be abused by authors.

ashley said...

I just want to awkwardly hug you so much.

Becky Wallace said...

I'm sort of wondering if anyone has actually READ the study itself and not just the ONE quote from a researcher who personally advocated the warnings?

Here's a quote from the acutal study: "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."

And really, the censorship part of the study wasn't what I personally found interesting.

This was: "Characters who did swear were more likely to be either popular or controversial... while characters who did not use profanity were more likely to be either average or rejected."

Obviously, profanity isn't the only problem. If there WERE content warnings they would have to be based on each novels actual content, characters, settings, situations. And honestly...I'm not sure how any organization could do all that.

Kiersten White said...

I did read the study, Becky, and it was interesting. And swearing is often used as a sort of shorthand when writing. With good reason. It communicates something immediately, depending on the context.

And I agree--no organization could provide content warnings like that, and no organization should. I've been talking a lot about ratings systems with friends, and how odd it is that in the US, two f-words will get you an R rating, but if you decapitate someone, or have multiple gun deaths, or blow up an entire building full of people...PG-13!

It's odd, and it's slightly disturbing, and it's important to actively think about what we view as acceptable and unacceptable forms of entertainment, both for ourselves and for our young people.

Jessie Oliveros said...

Kiersten, you always do a good job of bringing up controversial topics in an honest, nonthreatening, and even funny way. I agree that you should always know what your children are reading, but with a prolific teenage reader, I also get that it's not always easy to know. I don't see ratings as censorship. I see taking the books off the shelf or taking words/pages from the original work as censorship. I don't think the warnings need to be plastered on the top of the cover either, but somewhere-maybe on the jacket or the back-where a parent (or a teen for that matter) can look if they want to know. I get that ratings aren't always consistent with movies, but they are more helpful to me as a parent than not. And I don't think they've really hurt the movie industry.

So what did you say then growing up? "Pass gas?" It just doesn't do it justice:)

Irene said...

I agree.
Kids are bombarded with influences every day and it’s our job to teach them to make choices (preferably the ones that make them happy, but sometimes there’s even more to learn from the bad ones).
And frankly I think we could do worse then let them read WHATEVER they want. I totally don’t mind reading along.

heidikins said...

The "other F word" was also a swear word in our house, along with a myriad of other tertiary "swears" like crap butt and and beer. It's very scientific business, you know, identifying tertiary swears.

As for me, I've only said the Big F word twice, and my stupid X knew just how serious I was because of my lack of F-bomb track record. Life? Yep, R-Rated.

The rest of the swears I use occasionally, but more often for humor or effect than in anger. When I'm really mad I usually saw "swear words." Yep, just like that. SWEAR WORDS!


PS Your updated paragraph is absolute gold. Love it.

YA Bibliophile said...

Just one more reason to adore you! You're bleeping awesome!

Gayle Forman said...

Love this post. I also appreciate how well you get around cursing and yet your books, particularly the one I just read, still feel edgy and sexy without feeling like you faked it at all. Proof that it can be done without the profanity. I'm just too lazy to do that.

Kathryn Cooper said...

I agree we should try to read what our kids are reading, but hopefully when my kids are teens they will have more time to read and read more than I can keep up with. I think it would be nice to have a simple g, pg, pg-13, r rating like movies. Something like pg13 for violence and sensuality would be enough. That way those of us that don't want to read a rated R book don't have to waste our time starting a book, reading half the book, then being done because of the content.

Kiersten White said...

I would argue that there is no such thing as a "simple" rating. Therein lies the problem.

And Gayle, honestly, sometimes those words just fit perfectly. It is a lot more work to work without them. You're not lazy, you're just economical : )

Kathryn Cooper said...

Your right it's not simple, but movies find a way to do it. I don't think it would keep kids from reading books. It would give them a little information before they make their choice of reading. There are a ton of parents that let their kids watched rated R so they'll let them read rated R too. Kids also watch rated R movies whether their parents want them to or not. I'm not only talking about YA books; I wish there were ratings on all books. I'm sure logistically it would be difficult to regulate book ratings so it'll probably never happen. I'm just saying it would be helpful for me.

Roy Hayward said...


I really like your standard of the "not to include anything that I would have to apologize to a ten-year-old's mother for." standard.

I am probably going to have to steal it and modify it to fit what I am writing.

I have read lots of books that contain some level of profanity. And I can tell you that no matter how great the book was, for me, the profanity detracts from my enjoyment, and my likelihood of wanting to own a copy and keep in on my shelf.

And I am curious, is there someone or group of people that are ever offended because a book contained too little profanity? Seriously?

And here is the thing that I have learned. As humans, we have a great ability to fill in the gaps. (its one of the reasons that we can have large groups of people who see the same event and give different descriptions. And be willing to testify that they are right while everyone else is wrong.)

And we do the same thing when we read.

Kyle dropped his hammer after hitting his thumb and swore.


"Bleep!" Kyle swore, dropping his hammer after hitting his thumb.

When you read the first one, didn't your mind fill in the blank? Did it make you enjoy the line less? Did it offend you that there was no swear words?

Sorry about being so long winded, but this topic is a pet peeve of mine.

I have trouble recommending books that have words that I might have to apologize for. I have read some truly great books, that I will never recommend or own.

Thank you Kiersten for writing books and stories that I can recommend.

Anonymous said...

My views are that if a teen is to read a young ADULT novel, they can take it maturely and realize that swear words are, in fact, words that can be inappropriatly used. I'm turning 14 soon, so my parents let me choose my literature, and if there's a book I like, I tell them about it, they expect me to choose what is appropriate for me. I was probably about 8 the first time I read Harry Potter, and d*mn was in it (I don't want to swear on your blog), I informed my mom of this and she told me she thinks I'm old enough to read books with basic cusses. Now sometimes I pick up a book, and there's a sex scene in it, no big deal. We understand that in today's society, teenager's beliefs aren't as pure due to the media that surrounds us today. And elementary aged kids usually react when they hear a cuss, because they want to prove they know what it means. We know that most of the time sware words are used, it's in a negative way. But there are "right" ways to use the words, like a b**ch is a female dog, and we all know that beavers build dams!


Anonymous said...



Gilly said...

Excellent piece. Makes the think of the tragedy that almost was the rating for the documentary Bully - and incredibly important movie about the bullying kids suffer in schools. The MPAA originally rated it R.* Thus, schools couldn't show it, kids under 17 couldn't enter without a parent - denying access to some of the very population that most needed to see it. And all because of the F-bomb. As if kids don't hear those words, as if bullied kids aren't berated and brought down by use of those words. What kind of message do we send to those kids when we say their peers can't see what's happening to them because it's just too mature? They are living that reality. They don't have the luxury of bleeping anything out.

And, like Kiersten pointed out, things which might be far more offenseive to some (e.g., violence) are acceptable!

Warning and rating systems of the type used by the MPAA are flawed. Not that there isn't a place in society for content advisories for parents, but using broad strokes to rate content based on profanity is a difficult proposition and leads to some baffling and untenable conclusions.

*The MPAA ultimately (after a public campaign was mounted) changed the rating to PG 13, I believe.

Jenn Cooksey said...

I love this. I read Gayle Forman's tumblr first and then came here...

Personally, the f-word is one of my all time favorites. It just carries such a sense of biting satisfaction at the most crucial times that other, less profane words don't offer. Plus, I find its versatility to be unparalleled. So, I use it. A lot. And I use it in my writing. A lot. But that's basically because although what I write is fiction, I'm still writing about the lives of your average, contemporary teenagers, and guess what? A lot of them swear. Even more than I do and that's f-ing saying something. Don't believe me? Just ask my 15 year old daughter, who I have allowed to read all my books.

Now would I allow my 10 year old daughter to read my work? Sure. In like six or seven years, and even then, she'll have to prove she's ready by making a presentation to her father and me on why she wants to read mommy's books- without using her Monster High dolls as visual aids. I think I've got some time there, wouldn't you agree?

Just like having mobile art (tattoos) doesn't make someone a thug, swearing in books doesn't make them unsuitable for a YA audience. Often times, it just makes your characters that much more human.

Alright! Now that I'm all fired up, I suppose I'll hop on over to my blog and carry on there. Then I get to edit. Oh joy. ;-)

Maegan Langer said...

Well said, Kiersten! As a person who doesn't swear (much), but who sometimes writes characters who come of the page a little more honestly if they do swear, you have echoed my thoughts exactly.

As much as we would like it to be, life is definitely not G-rated.

Lynette said...

I agree with you, I don't think we really need a 'censorship system' for books, but I think we do need to create a kind of IMDB-type thing for books, but a censorship system? No, that wouldn't work very well..

Lindsay N. Currie said...

Wow, you tackled a tremendously difficult issue with a lot of grace. Excellent post.

Samantha Jean said...

I'm going to disagree. Not about the whole censorship thing. I don't think we should censor books, or movies, or anything really. But having a descriptor on the back of the book, explaining the level of profanity, violence, and sexuality contained within the pages wouldn't be a bad or harmful thing. I don't view that as censorship. The blog READING TEEN does an excellent job handling this on their reviews and I often look to them before picking up a book now.

See, I have 5 kids and they are all big readers. It's nearly impossible (what with working fulltime, keeping house, and trying to be a mom) to keep up with EVERYTHING they read. I tried at first, but there just wasn't enough time. Thankfully, my youngest three are still in the Children and Middle-Grade books (although even some of those I have issue with). However, my oldest two are reading Teen and Young Adult books. There have been several times that my tween daughter had to stop reading a book she'd picked out because the language was too much or the scenes too descriptive. I'm grateful she knows enough to help herself, but it would be awesome if the back of the book could help her know what to expect before investing her interest and time in it.

I, as a mom of 5, LOVE that your books don't contain swear words. My daughter loves it too. Thank you for your standards and bravo on the cleanliness of your language.

Kimberly Sabatini said...

You are bleeping awesome! <3

Rick Daley said...


Kiersten White said...

Samantha, you are a perfect example! I love that your daughter knows what she is and isn't comfortable reading, and self-regulates. I'm pretty confident assuming she also knows she can talk with you about anything she reads that makes her uncomfortable.

(Also, yeah, five readers DOES change the logistics a bit! My mom tried to read what we did, until I got into my junior high high fantasy stage and, to quote her, "I just couldn't read those books. I couldn't.")

It would make things easier sometimes, but I just don't see how it can be done without limiting readership. For example, THE BOOK THIEF would need to have ratings for violence and profanity, but it's a book I would give anyone old enough to be capable of reading it.

Kristin Aragon said...


This is a lovely and honest post. I enjoyed reading it immensely. My daughter once got sent home from a friends house for saying "freaking." Literally. The girls mother said it was just another way of saying the "F word." And...maybe it is. They are typically all exclamations of some sort, but we all have the urge to make a vivid point from time to time. I figure if she wasn't actually saying the word, then life was good. She's now 17 and I assure you, she's heard the word, said the word, and read the word.

Keeping an open dialogue in my house is my number one rule. We talk about EVERYTHING. Even things my mother is like "I cannot believe you discuss things like that with your children." I figure if I, a registered nurse and mother, don't talk to them about these things, their very naive and generally unqualified friends will. Nothing is off limits here. I call it a safe place and I include her friends in that. If they need someone to talk to, I'm here.

When I was probably 10, I was playing the alphabet game in the car. You know...going down the alphabet using "uck" for an ending. I recited buck, cuck, duck, and then, dun dun dun...the F Word, which I had no idea was an actual bad word until my mom went fifty shades of crazy, screaming and yelling that I was NEVER to say that word again. She wouldn't tell me what it meant, only that it was a horrible and vulgar word. Well, of course, since she wouldn't tell me, I had to turn to friends to find out because now she'd made the word too interesting.

This is where my "talk to your kids thing" surfaced, I believe.

Anyway...excellent post!

elizabethfais said...

Great post Kiersten. I agree with you wholeheartedly. It isn't so much about the words that are said, but the characters, what's going on in their lives, the choices they make and why. I don't have children, but I remember being a teenager. Having an adult you can trust to talk to about the hard, serious issues in life is so important.

melissa @ 1lbr said...

I love your balanced posts that see both sides pretty fairly. I don't see anything inherently wrong with the study. (I'm not sure why people are so mad that she studied the number of cuss words in books. Maybe I'm just not sure of the extent of her study.) Not sure how this study or even the recommendation equates to censorship, but as a librarian I know it's a fine line to walk.

I don't think there should be ratings on books, because they would be too arbitrary (and publishers do provide age recommendations). There are books where cussing is integral to the story and of course there is more to content than cussing. I guess there's always got to be something making people mad in the book world :)

patdwhite said...

Heck Ya! D-Straight!

Remember those? It was swearing without swearing.

I think i will print this out and hang it up as great advice for life,

"Life? It's kind of rated R. We bleep it out for as long as we can with our children, but in the end, teaching and talking is always better than censoring."

love you tonz!

Penelope said...

Excellent post, Kiersten. I find it admirable you can appreciate others have varying points of view - from your best friend to your characters.

Thanks for writing this.

Alyssa said...

Bleeping love this post! I was raised in a similar household as you, but I confess, when I became an 'adult' I experimented with swear words just because I 'could.' I even have some favorites that I use because for some reason it gives me a feeling of freedom, but I also realize it's a double-edge sword of hypocrisy when I won't let my children use words like 'shut-up' or 'butt head.'
Anyway, I wanted to talk about how you mentioned that your characters are not YOU. I am also a writer and lean more towards not wanting curse words in my books. Yet I face the same thing you do in that my characters are sometimes in situations where they are darn well swearing up a storm. And I don't blame them...I would, too. But it's a fine line of not wanting readers to be offended and toss out all the content of what I've written just because of a weak moment for the character (which, by the way, we ALL have those weak moments). SO I much prefer to do as you and find creative ways that the reader can imply their own standard of what a curse word is (you made it clear with your two different 'F' words that everyone has their own individual dictionary of swear words). I feel like I, as the author, can do two things when I use creative ways for my characters to curse. First, I keep things somewhat 'cleaner' for the audience. Second, for those in the audience who have no problem swearing, I give them an opportunity to insert their own personal preference of colorful plethora of profanity instead of keeping them in my own limited curse word vocabulary. Lol. It's one way to look at it, right? I enjoyed this post. Thanks!