So here’s an interesting topic: profanity in art and entertainment.
Obviously, art and entertainment are subjective, so some people will be fine with profanity while others will not be.
But is there a middle ground?
When is profanity acceptable or perhaps even appropriate in a book, television show, or movie?
Some people would say it never is.
Other people say as much as is needed to tell an authentic story.
Other folk might say the more the better.
Surely it varies.
But is there an appropriate time and place for it? Perhaps it’s a you-know-it-when-you-see-it kind of thing. An occasional swear word here and there when used in context can underscore the emotional component of a scene. And it is certainly often representative of “real life”. People use profanity in their daily lives all the time, some more than others; young people probably more; parents with small children trying to set a good example probably less.
But is there a standard everyone can agree upon?
Take for example the novel The Martian by Andy Weir. It was a publishing fairy tale: indie writer pens sci-fi Mars-based technically brilliant survival epic, self-publishes online, book finds an audience and takes off, gets adapted into a big-time movie, and everyone is happy.
But are they?
Some people were turned off by the extremely detailed and technical scenes in the story. Long explanations about space flight, biology, horticulture, chemistry, physics, etc. Yet, for others, these elements were precisely what they adored about the story because it was the foundation of the realism. Mr. Weir certainly did his research. He clearly loved the science and engineering and he poured that love into the manuscript.
But what of the profanity?
Was it necessary?
And before we go any further, please do not misunderstand: I am by no means picking on Andy nor on The Martian. He wrote a heckuva book. He knocked it out of the park. So my intent is not to bash the author or his work.
But The Martian was what I was reading when I first conceived of this concept of wondering about profanity in our writing. An f-bomb or s-bomb seems appropriate when writing. But have you ever opened one of your works in Word, for example, and done a search for “f#!k” or “s#!t”?
I was shocked.
It hadn’t even occurred to me to question it. But once I discovered that there were dozens and dozens of these words, I began to wonder why I had written them in the first place. In the heat of the moment, while crafting a scene, profanity can seem perfectly appropriate. And perhaps it is. But taken as a whole when reading the entire book, do we want our Dear Reader to think back, “Wow, that was a really good book. But boy oh boy did it have far too much profanity. Wtf?”
Probably not. Unless perhaps the book is a treatise on the etymological history of profanity throughout the ages. But even then I suspect a savvy editor would encourage the use of placeholders or visual edits of some kind, with asterisks placed strategically between first and last letters so readers know which word is being referred to without having to read it 5000 times. You’d probably want to go wash your brain somehow afterwards.
The reason I bring all of this up is because of the opening sentence in The Martian.
Now, again, a disclaimer: I loved the book. Awesome job, Andy! Like, holy crap for real, dude. It’s got more than 30,000 reviews on Amazon and a 4.7-star average; so, it’s not merely my opinion: I think we can collectively and safely say that the book is a success.
With that being said, the opening line of The Martian is:
“I’m pretty much fucked.”
So, there it is. Right? A big fat f-word right there. Nowhere to run. Except perhaps out of the book store or to another website, so to speak. Which would be a shame because the story is awesome. So, is it undermined by dropping an f-bomb in the opening sentence?
A common technique among writers, editors, agents, and other folk in the literary world is the paragraph test. You read the opening paragraph of a manuscript or a published novel and, based upon that paragraph, you decide if you want to continue reading. Which is certain to influence your buying decision.
An even more stringent technique is the sentence test. The writer doesn’t get so much as an entire paragraph to entice their prospective reader; their story succeeds or fails, is read or abandoned, is purchased or put down, based solely upon its opening sentence.
So, do you want an f-bomb in that opening sentence?
Perhaps you’re the type of person/reader who would say, “F**k yeah I want an f-bomb in my opening sentence. That’s ballsy!”
And perhaps it is.
I suspect such readers would be in the minority.
The author of the story was perfectly fine with this feedback, by the way. So it was not a matter of awareness (or lack of). Which was also interesting.
Sometimes I think people write about stuff because they either know absolutely nothing about it, or because they know far too much about it.
But I digress.
Back to the 2014 smash-hit The Martian.
Here are the opening lines:
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
So, not only is there an f-bomb in the opening sentence, there is another one four words later, just in case you missed the first one, perhaps.
The question, then, is if these doozies are warranted.
If you put yourself in the place of Mark Watney, our indefatigable protagonist, standing there actually on the surface of friggin Mars, alone, abandoned, with no way to get home, and with no manner in which to be rescued, thinking about what your Wikipedia page was going to say about you, then yeah, an f-bomb is totally 150% appropriate.
But we’re not on Mars with no ride home. We’re sitting there reading a book. Do we want our eyes and sensibilities assaulted with the great granddaddy of all epithets?
For me personally, I didn’t care for it. I think “screwed” would have been a less brazen word choice, one which would have conveyed sentiment sufficient to the situation without risking alienating the reader. I’ve heard it said that profanity is linguistic laziness. Back in college, I read in a textbook that there are more than 1 million words in the English language (making it the largest language on earth). French is second-largest with about 300,000 words. I don’t recall what textbook it was and I can’t be bothered to go dig into the actual numbers because I’m busy doing this. But feel free to search if you’re curious. The point is that with more than a million words from which to choose, do we really need to go straight to the F-word?
Andy Weir obviously chose to.
And like we said, The Martian has more than 30,000 reviews and a 4.7-star average, so it is without a doubt a success.
The author and screenwriter William Goldman once said, “If it works, it’s right.” Given the large number of reviews received by The Martian, clearly the story works. So it must be right.
If we could somehow have Amazon email all 30,000 reviewers of The Martian and say, “So, uh, thanks for buying the book and everything and for leaving a review, we really appreciate it. By the way, did the f-bomb in the opening sentence bother you?”
I would like to know the answer to that question.
Clearly it didn’t bother them enough to stop reading or to choose not to leave a review. In perusing the 1-star reviews, the most-prevalent criticism is the science, math, chemistry, etc., which some readers found to be a snooze-fest. There is also mention of a Classroom Edition of the book, one safe for children. So that’s good.
But what about the rest of us?
Do we need the f-bomb, front and center, in the opening sentence?
And what about the other expletives?
I kept a log while I was reading The Martian. I tracked the four-letter words. I don’t know why. I’ve never done so before. I’m not particularly averse to profanity when it’s contextual.
But what I found was kinda surprising.
The results are as follows:
(and, again, this is no way a criticism of Andy or of The Martian; it’s more an exploration, really)
f**k = 39
s**t = 44
p**s = 3
G.D. = 3
a-hole = 13
S.O.B. = 4
TOTAL = 106
Is that a lot?
Would the book have sold more copies if only the classroom edition were made available?
Does the profanity have no impact at all?
There’s probably no way to know.
But it begs the question: do we want and/or need four-letter words in our entertainment? (Remember: entertainment is largely about escape.)
I suspect the answer is as subjective as the works themselves and the genres in which they reside. We certainly don’t want to delve into the sticky realm of censorship. Right? If a writer wants to write a book where literally every sentence has at least one f-bomb in it, that is and should be their choice. Right? Those who object to it won’t read it and won’t buy it. So if we use free-market principles to decide what’s valid (morally, artistically or otherwise) and a profanity-based book fails, we have our answer. If it becomes a bestseller, we have an entirely different answer. Such a tactic would likely be a mere gimmick. Unless of course it were underscored by a great story and superb characterization.
In which case we would be right back to where we are now with The Martian: is the profanity necessary?
Or does the inherent artistic subjectivity render the question unanswerable and therefore moot?
Does profanity bother you?
If so, how much is required before you begin to notice it and begin thinking, “Okay, enough with the potty mouth!”
Is it different if you’re reading a book versus watching a movie?
Is it different if you’re watching by yourself versus watching with others?
Is profanity akin to sex in a story?
Here’s a brief informal poll:
You prefer watching the 50 Shades film adaptations:
B. With a spouse/significant other/etc.
C. With friends
D. With your parents
The inevitable and noteworthy lack of answer ‘D’ provides insight.
But if we substitute profanity for sexual content, do the responses shift?
Does the quantity matter? What amount of four-letter words would make you uncomfortable, embarrassed, or perturbed when watching with a given audience?
Should we collectively consider taking a small step back in time with regards to sex and profanity in our entertainment? Like in the 1950s? I don't recall Mr. Ed or Mr. Wilson or Mike Brady dropping any f-bombs.
Or should we plow ahead with balls-to-the-wall free-market artistic anarchy?
Should we be using terms like “balls-to-the-wall” in blog posts?
Should the collective cultural entertainment rating be a resounding “G”? (Unless adults seek out material of other ratings, as they are free to do within the bounds of the law, of course.)
Is the downward spiral of societal standards with regards to sex, pornography, drugs, profanity, violence, etc. perfectly acceptable because, hey, it’s only art?
Or do we need to do some soul searching as a country, as a culture, as a race? And perhaps embrace the more refined components of an open but just society?
Is this conversation evidence that such an inquiry is needed?
What would it take to activate our collective GPS and find a different route?
Is it even possible?
Is there too much momentum already accumulated?
Art imitates life, right?
But life also imitates art.
Most people would agree that they want world peace, economic advantage, and a nice life for everyone on earth, right?
People who work in the entertainment industry, for example. Such individuals have a large platform and often an equally-large voice.
So why don’t they use it to create the art which will be imitated in life in order to create the world they claim to want?
Why continue to create “entertainment” and “art” which programs darkness and depravity into the cultural consciousness? Is that not the opposite of what they say they want?
How about creating art and entertainment bestowed with benevolence, virtue, light, hope, harmony, goodness, and love, all of which represent the world we WANT to see, have, and enjoy.
If we ever want to grow actual potatoes on Mars, it’s something we should think about.