It’s true. I curse. And, like many people who do, I generally use swearage in contexts in which there is precedent for it (i.e. friends and yes, family).
For those of you who know me personally, you’re not shocked by this revelation. For those of you who don’t, sorry. I’ve blown your image of me as a pristine, untainted virginal woman with an entire closet full of white dresses who coyly smiles and demurely defers.
I bring this up today because I was recently answering some questions for a book group and one of the questions I got asked was why there was so much swearing in the book.
Context of question: The book was one of my mysteries, whose main characters identify as lesbian. The book group was predominantly (if not all) women and, I presume, lesbian.
Someone else then said that she hadn’t even noticed the swearing. I responded that there was far more swearing in one of the other mysteries I’d written, and that some people swear. Ergo, some of my characters swear. It’s unrealistic, I think, for characters not to swear. I did wonder what the person considered “swearing.” There were a few F-bombs in the book, but for the most part, it’s “hell” and “damn” in my books, which, on my swearage scale, ranks a bit above “crap” and much below “fuck.”
But the deeper issue here is this:
If I were a man writing mysteries and thrillers (regardless of sexual orientation), would that question even have come up?
I doubt it.
Language conveys many things, including where in the social hierarchy someone is. The way you use language and the way you express yourself linguistically signals certain things to listeners. Language can convey power, and the way you say things (your intonations) as well as what you say provides clues about how you think of yourself, where you’re from, and what your background might be.
Swear words (which are found in pretty much every human language) are typically considered “power” words (maybe “scary” words), and have historically been most associated with men. Women who curse have historically (and still) been viewed as “unladylike,” “dangerous,” “uncouth,” “ugly,” “trashy,” “harlots,” and [fill in epithets here; the list does go on]. Buzzfeed has a nice GIF-ridden list that addresses the double standard that women face when they curse.
Professor of linguistics Robin Lakoff opened a whole new field in linguistics — language and gender as an object of study — in 1975. She identified “women’s language,” i.e. the characteristics and kinds of language women were expected to use and often were socialized to use. Here’s a chapter she did, “Talking Like a Lady” (Language and a Woman’s Place, 1975). Below, a relevant quote from said chapter.
Allowing men stronger means of expression than are open to women further reinforces men’s position of strength in the real world: for surely we listen with more attention the more strongly and forcefully someone expresses opinions, and a speaker — unable for whatever reason — to be forceful in stating his views is much less likely to be taken seriously. Ability to use strong particles like “shit” and “hell” is, of course, only incidental to the inequity that exists rather than its cause. But once again, apparently accidental linguistic usage suggests that women are denied equality partially for linguistic reasons, and that an examination of language points up precisely an area in which inequity exists. Further, if someone is allowed to show emotions, and consequently does, others may well be able to view him as a real individual in his own right, as they could not if he never showed emotions. Here again, then, the behavior a woman learns as “correct” prevents her from being taken seriously as an individual, and further considered “correct” and necessary for a woman precisely because society does not consider her seriously as an individual.
And if a woman “appropriates” what’s considered male language, she also runs the risk of being ridiculed and dismissed for “stepping out of line.” Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t (see what I did there?).
This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked that question. And each time (around 7 or 8 times, now) it gets asked, it’s a woman who identifies as lesbian wanting to know why there’s “so much cursing” in my books. Have you read John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers books, I ask. And usually, the answer is “no.” Well, I say, there’s your point of comparison.
And, yes, swearage can also be a function of one’s background. I grew up in a household that used swearage in appropriate contexts. I also grew up around a lot of public defenders and other attorney-types and I’ll tell you right now, the swearage was strong with that group. Both men AND women. I grew up in a rural western town, where we snuck swearage into our conversations during high school lunch breaks and after school, and learned how to wield it with our friends. Furthermore, I’m not religious, so any kind of religious moratorium on swearage has no context in my life. And, let’s be honest, here. I grew up with strong women. Who swear.
I come by my swearage honestly.
But again, the deeper issue here is the fact that if I were a man writing, I doubt I would ever get asked why there’s “so much swearing” in (some of) my books.
And what, exactly, is “so much”? How much is that? I’m only granted one F-bomb per 100 pages? I have a finite number of “hells” and “damns” I can use? Do dudes writing have a finite number of swear words they can apply to their work? Again, I doubt it.
Regardless, I don’t believe in quotas on swearing. And I don’t believe that women shouldn’t swear, because I think ultimately, that’s what’s really at the root of that question. Some people swear. Others don’t. Some of my characters swear. Others don’t. It depends on the scene, genre, story, and the characters’ arcs.
Basically, in my world, women swear.
To explore this further, see the following links:
Robin Lakoff, The Language War (2001)
“Profanity and Gender: A Diachronic Analysis of Men’s and Women’s Use and Perceptions of Swear Words”
An Encyclopedia of Swearing
A Brief History of Swearing
Swearing: A Social History…
Swearing can help with pain
9 things you may not have known about swearing
Great post. I hadn’t thought about this exactly this way, but it makes a LOT of sense. I was in a juried workshop at a Literary Arts Festival and my gf paid for my work to be seen by an agent, an editor at a big house and the owner of a smaller publishing house. All three of them commented on the fact that I had written a rape scene from the view of the victim. It wasn’t a graphic scene (It focused on her sensory perceptions as it happened and before) and it wasn’t gratuitous sex or violence, but limited to what the story needed to tell the story. All three of the Women that read it commented on my courage to write the scene from her perspective but questioned it. Would this have happened if i was Tony Hellerman? I doubt it. Same thing you were talking about, except i just brushed them all off as being conservative and squeamish. I’ll have to think about this more.
Exactly. Thanks for stopping by and let me know any of your thoughts on this subject down the line.