typewriter and cactus

Profanity in Prose: One Prickly Subject

To swear or not to swear in novels? Like the saucy protagonist Rowan Layne in my Other Worldly series, I swear on occasion—when the occasion calls for it. I also declare. And lament. And even quote a Supreme Court case or two on the subject. My particular favorite has always been, “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

Yes, it’s exhausting updating these tidbits of wisdom to render them gender neutral. But there’s still a double standard when it comes to whether women—and women protagonists—can get away with swearing. You know, the way men and male protagonists can and have since the dawn of time while we chicks are supposed to smile more?

Swearing might be too aggressive, or heaven forbid, vulgar coming from a gender who has endured being called any number of nasty names by males who can’t accept that females live and breathe and speak on this planet. Because Rowan Layne has also been sworn at a time or two, by vile villains both male and female. And sometimes women say “no” and mean it, whether they swear or not.

Back to that quote from Cohen v. California—or the “Fuck the draft” case. Was that a gasp I heard? I’m merely quoting directly from actual Supreme Court language—and the guy who wore a jacket with those words emblazoned on the back while inside a courthouse. Cohen got arrested for exercising his free speech to protest his nation’s involvement in a “conflict” in Vietnam. Perhaps he found being forcibly made to participate in a senseless bloodbath to be obscene and profane.

Here’s a thought. Calling something a conflict when it’s in fact an all-out war is a euphemism to protect prickly sensibilities of those who have issues with engaging in truth or reality. Also, sometimes a softer, gentler word does not import the message that a down-and-dirty swear word does so much more succinctly—and with passionate vehemence.

If I were to write, “Who gives a flying saucer?” as opposed to the more naughty oft-spoken phrase, would I not come off as a prissy-pot poser pandering to propriety?

Those offended by women who use colorful language to convey a thought, feeling or bleeping emotion, who decry the F word yet have no qualm with ubiquitous, gratuitous violence in novels and movies involving sexual crimes against women—You get the picture. No need to glorify or gratify what many male authors do without so much as a blip of a flipping eyelid. And nary a gasp of indignance or censure.

I once knew someone who refused to watch the entirety of a movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral, because of what they considered to be too much swearing in the first five minutes. This film, a favorite of mine, is a delightfully hilarious comedy about love with not a single shred of violence taking place in its church wedding scenes or anywhere else. Yet the person who found its language distasteful claimed to be embracing their religious beliefs. They also actively embraced plenty of blood-lustful, sexist action-thrillers on the silver screen, and enjoyed the kind of “clean” jokes involving sneering putdowns of those different from them. And speaking of jokes…

Here’s a red flag of hypocrisy not initially involving women, although it ultimately did on a visceral level. Back in the eighties, Eddie Murphy was a hot new comic, rocketing across the stage and screen. Enter a certain established, more experienced man of comedy out to impart unsolicited words of wisdom.

This so-called sage elder of respectability and fame thought to publicly advise—and chastise—the younger, brasher Murphy as to the error of his ways. He called him out on his prolific use of profanity in stand-up comedy performances. Who was this self-anointed pontificating arbiter of verbal moral decency? It was Bill Cosby. Bill fucking Cosby. Enough said. No, enough fucking said.

And happy 60th birthday today to Eddie Murphy, notably one of the greatest standup comics of all time. He might swear, but he’s not currently incarcerated for sex crimes.


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