While watching a 50s Western on television, I chuckled to be reminded of the extremes the media used to reach to avoid censorship or offending their audiences. One character, a rancher, was married to a Native American woman; and two of the townsmen launched a sexist tirade to get his goat, stating, “We’ve heard she’s some pumpkin.” To update the scene, replace “pumpkin” with the profanity of your choice.
At the same time, I was rereading a science fiction classic, The Stars My Destination,” by Alfred Bester. (The teleporting hero seeks revenge for his abandonment on a wrecked space ship and causes havoc all about him.) Published originally in 1956, the version I perused made special note twice of the lack of complete rape and sex scenes, claiming that had the author been writing more recently, he wouldn’t have been stifled and we could have been treated to vivid renderings.
I was thankful I’m not limited in my writing the way people were sixty years ago. I have more freedom, I thought. But then I wondered why that was my reaction. I didn’t miss the violence and sex in the book; the plot certainly raced through compelling scenes and conflicts, sending my fingers fluttering through the pages. I remembered the Western. Did I miss any tension because substitutes had been made for vulgarities? No.
One of my works in progress is a novel with a vivid sex scene. This is not one of my romances. In those, unlike the current trend to include in fiction every bang or whimper or lick, I don’t accompany the characters into beds. To me, that’s comparable to writing at length about someone eating or using the toilet. There’s not much difference among humans, it’s repetitive and boring no matter how a writer tries to dress it up. And yet, yes, I’m including this sex scene because it’s part of the satirical slant.
I have to say I don’t like unending vulgarities in films, books, television or otherwise. While some writers, composers, filmmakers will protest they’re just reflecting society, that’s not true. My friends and family don’t swear with every other word.
Many have noted that bad language is a substitute for thinking, for careful attention to expression. Am I offended when the man next to me on the bus is conducting a conversation loaded with F-bombs? I don’t think so. But my attitude tends toward disgust that he has so little regard for strangers around him, or himself and the image he’s conveying to them, that he uses it.
I’m grateful that society has loosened up so use of an obscenity is not grounds for jail or shunning. In any creative endeavor or situation taut with emotion, swearing is a tool of expression. But have we become too dependent on it in everyday life as well as our entertainment? Maybe before we open our mouths, we should ask ourselves if foul language will add to our expression and understanding.