Profanity and the Status Quo: On Rating YA Lit

By Casey Wilson

“Is It Time to Rate Young Adult Books for Mature Content?” the US News and World Report asked this week. The subheading would make you think so: “A new report finds that nearly all young adult bestsellers contain at least some profanity.”

Now there is no surer way to get the YA community all aflutter than by asking such a question. And sure enough, my Twitter feed was filled to the brim with indignant responses to the article, which is based on a study by researchers at Brigham Young University. (One very important caveat: I have not had the opportunity to read the study itself. I am basing my understanding of it upon the article in question – which I am fully aware may not do the study justice. I’m working with what I have.) In the study, they apparently looked at the “40 best-selling children’s books on the New York Times list between June 22 and July 6, 2008” and found “more than 1,500 profane words”. Leaving aside the fact that 40 books is a very small sampling of the market, it is important to note that the definition of “profane” here is a wide one that they broke down into categories: “George Carlin’s ‘Seven Dirty Words,’ sexual words, excretory words, ‘strong others’ (bastard, bitch) and ‘mild others’ (hell, damn).” Thus, farting and fucking are both considered profane, and both make the same list.

Authors Kiersten White (known for not cursing in her books) and Gayle Forman (not so much) each have good pieces up addressing the issue of taking such an essentialist view of what is profane. They take very different approaches to get at the same basic premise: context is key. The problem with the MPAA – a problem recently demonstrated by the controversy over the rating for the film Bully – is that it offers no real leeway for context. You are given a certain number of “f-bombs,” and if you pass that number, it’s game over for a PG-13 rating. It’s a tempting system because it has the benefit of appearing “objective,” but it’s inherently flawed.

So, I fear, would be any attempt to create some sort of rating system for YA lit – beyond the one that’s already in place. If you pick up almost any YA book, you’ll find a suggested reading age: 12 and up, 14 and up, 15 and up. Publishers provide that information willingly, to help parents and children choose books appropriately. Granted, that is the only information given. It doesn’t come with a movie-trailer style “Pervasive profanity and occasional drug use” – but it is a way of helping to judge what would be acceptable to a given child. And let’s face it: creating a ratings system would be a lot of work, because there are a lot of YA books published every year.

Many proponents of such systems – including one of the Brigham Young researchers – say that providing more detailed content information would be a way of “empowering parents.” My concern with such reasoning is that by “empowering parents” we risk disempowering children – and especially teenagers, who are in a position with such a tricky balance of power to begin with. I’ve said this before – possibly even on this blog – but teenagers are capable of self-censoring, if they run up against something they aren’t prepared to experience. Part of helping children grow up (so I’ve heard) is allowing them to make choices based upon their own values, and by giving parents a list of every “scary” thing their child might encounter in a novel, I fear that teens may never be given the chance to confront concepts and ideas and words that run counter to those beliefs – and reject or accept them according to their own judgment. I firmly agree with Kiersten White that parents should read with their children and have an open dialogue about what they read; I also think it’s important to let children read something that can create a need for such dialogue in the first place, if they so choose.

This conversation dovetailed this week with another one that came from Kate Hart’s collection of charts breaking down YA covers into different categories, including race, gender, color, and image. Among the many important takeaways is this: 90% of YA covers in 2011 featured white characters. Which makes me wonder if we aren’t thinking in the wrong direction when it comes to warning labels on YA novels. Maybe it is time to slap a warning on some books after all. Something like, “No Minority Characters.”

My tongue is planted firmly in cheek, of course, but I do think it’s a conversation worth having, and I’m glad Hart put in the work to allow us to visualize the numbers at play here. And I also think that those charts prove that context does matter. Are a few curse words really so transgressive when they’re firmly entrenched in our culture’s dominant ideology? Which does more to challenge the status quo: profanity or a story that represents a marginalized cultural background? I’m far more concerned about the lack of the latter than I am the presence of the former, because it’s not just words that have power, but the story those words service.

Context is key. And given the straight, white, middle-class characters that dominate YA lit today, we need as many different contexts as we can get.

Casey is a PhD student.

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Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

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2 thoughts on “Profanity and the Status Quo: On Rating YA Lit

  1. Rebekah.

    Having not read the full study myself, I find myself with a couple of issues. First of all, I agree with your assessment of the catch-all for profanity: no context, no room for levels of profanity. I for one am more offended by profane words that demean women then I am profane words that deal with excrement, but that is just me.

    Second, there are a ton of books out there, especially the futuristic dystopian novels, that have new and exciting slang/curse words in them as evidence that language has evolved. Are we trying to limit the actual use of profane words, or limit the use of non-standard language to express extreme emotions? Battlestar Galactica might have had mature ratings, but it was not for use of the f-bomb: the show writers simply invented a new curse word, “frack” and let their space sailors curse up a storm. Similarly, the kids in Maze Runner use the word “klunk” in a similar fashion to “shit,” calling one another “klunk-head” or “full of klunk.” I am sure even the youngest of readers will catch on pretty quick that “klunk” is just a stand in for another curse word and most will simply substitute the bad word in their heads. If we are trying to eliminate profane words in order to encourage kids to use proper and expanded vocabulary to express themselves, then we are going to have to label these kinds of profanities too. And that is going to take a little more work then just running text through a computer, because here, it is the context that indicates the meaning of the word (btw, isn’t that just the kind of thing we are trying to get kids to learn for their standardized tests? Sounds like a great way to teach kids to determine the meaning of a word based on context: use fun words!)

    Finally, just about every book my parents ever bought me as a kid had a blurb on the back or on the book jacket that told my parents what the book was about: more than once I was instructed to pick something else out. Once I was old enough to buy my own books, this became a moot point. Is “empowering parents” really code for “making it super obvious for the dumb ones.” If parents are really that worried about what their kids are reading, they should read the books for themselves. Then, even if the book has challenging material or profane language, that parent can discuss it with their kids.

    • I think you make a lot of good points, especially about the made-up curse words and the kinds of words being classified. But having thought about it a little more, I’m actually inclined to back away a bit from my in-post claim that parents should be reading with their kids. Ideally, yes, that would be great. But even the so-called “smart” parents might not be able to read every book their kids read — they might have jobs that run into all hours of the day, or other children to look after, or just outright not be able to read. (Because smart and literate are not synonyms, after all.) And if you happen to have two or more voracious young readers with different tastes in the house, then it could well be game over. I’m still not in favor of a rating system, at all, but I do think that we have to complicate our stance when it comes to asking parents to read along with their kids. Saying that parents who are concerned about what their kids are reading should read the books themselves makes a lot of sense in an ideal situation — but many situations are less than ideal.

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