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Cursing: Not Just for Sailors Anymore

by flickr user joyride1x1

Once again, there is a dust-up over YA literature in the media. The origin of this newest discussion is the study “‘A Helluva Read’: Profanity in Adolescent Literature”, which looked at instances of profanity in adolescent literature, using books from the New York Times Best Sellers List for Children’s Books for June 22 and July 6, 2008. This past week, I read the original study and did some factchecking of what was being reported in the media, particularly in US News & World Report‘s “Is it time to rate young adult books for mature content?”

Let’s start by looking at the study itself. The first thing I noticed in the research method was the extremely wide range of what was considered profane. Everything from “f**k” to “poop” could be counted as an instance of profanity. The study did divide these instances into categories–such as the “seven dirty words,” “sexual words,” and “mild others”–to give readers some sense of the severity of each instance. However, within these categories, there was no way of telling which word was being counted. A book could have three instances of “sexual words,” but they could be anything from “boob” to “dickwad.”

Keeping this in mind, I took a look at the article from US News & World Report. Writer Jason Koebler states, “All but five books [in the study], including many targeted to kids as young as 9, had at least one instance of profanity.” While this is true, it’s misleading. According the the data in the study, four of the five books with no profanity were for 9- to 11-year-olds. Of the other books for 9- to 11-year-olds, seven had fewer than 10 instances of profanity. The US News article also doesn’t mention that excretory words (e.g., poop, pee, crap) and mild others (damn, hell) accounted for most of the instances of profanity in the 9-11 age group. The next largest category of profanity in the 9-11 age group was sexual words, which could include something as mild as “boobs.” Not quite the corruption of young minds I was expecting.

I think it’s also very important to point out that in the conclusion of the study, the researchers do not advocate creating a rating system for young adult books. In fact, their exact words are, “We are not advocating that book covers be required to contain content warning regarding profanity,” and, “We simply do not know enough about the content of adolescent literature to make that leap.” In the US News article, however, they quote one researcher as saying, “[…] a content warning on the back I think would empower parents.” This left me with the impression that a ratings system was officially recommended, not that it was the recommendation of an individual in a separate interview. (Students, what your librarians tell you is true: always check the original source when you can.)

I also have issues with the published study itself. First, there was an assumption that the use of profanity is completely negative and even immoral. One quote in particular stood out as being rather biased for a scientific study: “[…] it appears authors are moving with this trend and are portraying women to be just as crass as men, at least among younger characters.” Crass? I looked up the definition just to make sure I wasn’t imagining the negative connotations: “without refinement, delicacy, or sensitivity; gross; obtuse; stupid.”

It was at this point that I looked for where the study had taken place: Brigham Young University. I know a little bit about the university–mainly that it is supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and that they kick butt in college football … can I say butt?), but I thought it might be interesting to see what their honor code says about profanity. Indeed, one of the tenets of the honor code is, “Use clean language.” While this is absolutely appropriate for a private, religiously-affiliated university, it did make me more attuned to potential biases in the study.

(As a side note, can I say that I was happy that the research showed young female characters cursing as much as their male counterparts? There’s no reason to assume a person is less feminine because she curses or that it’s somehow more appropriate for men to curse than women.)

In addition to this bias, I found it troubling that the study makes the following statement about characters who use profanity: “[…] characters who swear are rich, beautiful, and socially influential, thus pairing profanity use with coveted character attributes.” I’m not sure that the researchers quite get YA literature. Yes, there may be rich, beautiful, popular characters, but are they actually the ones readers are supposed to like or identify with? Are they the protagonists or are they the mean girls, the bullies, the enemies of our favorite characters? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I’d like to find out.

In fact, I’d like to find out a lot more about the profanity found by this study. Exactly which words were used? (Was it “poop” or was it “asshole”?) Did it make sense for the characters’ lives and situations? Even if the character cursing was rich and hot, was he or she actually someone a reader was supposed to connect with? The only way to answer these questions would be to replicate the study, but to add on a contextual component–except that full context is subjective and tough, maybe impossible, to quantify. And if a rating system were ever to come into being, how would it possibly be able to do that very thing…?

For other interesting responses to the study, check out “WARNING: On YA, Ratings, and ‘Censorship'” and “Should YA Books Be Given Ratings?”. If you’re curious about how book ratings already work in one situation, read Nicole Dolat’s Don’t Judge a Manga by Its Rating.

— Whitney Etchison, currently reading Tweak. Profanity count: 492.

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  1. JP JP

    Great comments on bias in the study!

  2. Extremely well said. This is the kind of study that seems designed to send the media into a tizzy, without actually looking at the content and context of children’s/YA literature. Glad to hear such a rational response.

  3. I’ve read the study; I’m surprised at those who read it who didn’t say what you said here. “Crap” and a certain other four letter word beginning with c are given the exact same weight, for instance. Knowing the humor and wordplay in the Rick Riordan books, I suspect the “bad words” are more than just “bad words”.

    And I’m also surprised at how few people picked up on what was said about women; for example, it’s all feminisms fault for women cursing and men no longer protecting the ladies.

    • Whitney Etchison Whitney Etchison

      I think I could probably fill another post with just my thoughts and reactions to the study’s take on women/girls and profanity. Here’s the statement that really got me going… “In previous years, women seemed to conform more to gender stereotypes, being kind, considerate, well mannered, and well spoken.” (p 377)

      So…. women are no longer kind or considerate because they don’t conform to gender stereotypes? Is this just because of an increased use of profanity, or is this a general result of the feminist movement? It isn’t made clear in the study, at least not to me, even when I studied the context of this statement. However, this sweeping judgement of women could very well be due to a poorly worded argument, rather than conscious intent. Opinions from people who have read the study?

      • My take? Conscious intent. The good old days were when we knew our place: we didn’t curse and the men protected us from profanity.

        • Whitney Etchison Whitney Etchison

          Sadly, I agree. I just… ugh. Thank goodness for YA writers!

  4. A few other things that stood out to me in the article: the strange and continuous mentioning of the women’s liberation movement somehow being the reason that women are swearing more (there was one line in particular about men no longer needing to protect the language of their ladies); the statement that teens encounter equal or lesser amounts of profanity in their reading than they do watching television; and that The Book Thief had more profanity than nearly every other book (except Tweak). The leap that the news article then made about the study suggesting a ratings system made me step back and wonder….if there were a ratings system, it’d be pretty screwed up if The Book Thief was considered one of the worst offenders but books like Pretty Little Liars were much safer.

  5. Interesting post! I love it that you are pointing out the biases in the study. We need to teach our kids to question everything, :) and you are illustrating the reason why I believe that. :)

  6. Great post! It’s so important for people to read studies the way you did here, and point out origin, sensation quotes, and biases.

  7. Whitney Etchison Whitney Etchison

    Thanks, Lisa and Sarah! I know my students get tired of hearing me say they need to evaluate their sources, so I’m glad I can say I practice what I preach :-)

  8. Very well-written and thought-provoking post! As a parent, I am very concerned about all novels that my children may be reading- including YA. For that reason, I read the books they read right along with them and encourage other parents to do the same. I will not rely on an outside source to decide what is appropriate for my children. That’s my job!

  9. Excellent post! I had not read the full article (I knew it was going to irritate me) so I appreciate you taking the time to provide a thorough analysis of the biases and assumptions underlying it.

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