Friday, 21 October 2011

Words on the Edge by Keren David

Ricky Gervais has made a career out of teetering on the edge of comedy -  by portraying himself and his fictional characters as cringe-making blundering idiot. He's clearly got a genuine and intelligent interest in testing the limits of acceptability. That,one assumes, is why he's decided to make a prat of himself by using the word 'mong'.
Many, many people have pointed out how hurtful, bullying and wrong this is, how it's a step back to the time when people with Downs Syndrome were seen as less than human. I recently read the excellent Westwood by Stella Gibbons, written in the 1930s which conveys rather chillingly the distaste and disdain felt for Downs Syndrome children.
I have a particular hatred of the word 'spaz'. In the UK, it's generally recognised as a derogatory term for people with Cerebal Palsy, people who used to be known as spastics. When I was at school, spaz and spastic were very regularly used cruel insults. As the sister of someone with cerebal palsy, I feel sick when I hear those words.
However, in America, 'spaz', while coming from the same root, has evolved to mean -  apparently -  a geeky or clumsy person. It's explained here. And as British teens hear the American use of the word on American TV shows, it's gradually coming back. Which horrifies me.
Part of me feels that we should be robust enough to cope with language as it is used, and not censor ourselves too much. I thought long and hard about whether to use 'gay' as an insult in When I Was Joe, and felt it was so much a part of why Ty was who he was -  and did what he did -  that it was unavoidable.
My writing group (female, middle-aged, politically left-leaning) would sometimes complain about my male characters' sexism (so very mild compared to, say, The In-Betweeners), and I'd defend it, in the name of realism.
The In-Betweeners is a great example of offensiveness rendered very funny by its framing. Does it still offend? Does it matter?
So, readers and writers of YA fiction, how offensive is too offensive? What should we reflect, what should we censor? And can our decisions make a difference?


  1. Really interesting post on a topic I've thought about a few times. I wonder where the line is drawn between realism and perpetuating the acceptability of using these offensive terms? I still haven't been able to come up with an answer.

  2. My current work-in-progress is a post-apocalyptic story featuring teenaged militia soldiers going hatches down and heading north in a nightmare world filled with the living dead. There's machine guns, gore and a great deal of swearing because that's the context from which my characters are experiencing their world. I think that what we deem to be inappropriate as adults is often contradicts how we communicated with our peer group as teens. So as for something being offensive, I suspect that foul language in a book for young adults means more to adults and publishers than it does to the very people who will be reading the books.

  3. A really interesting blog, Keren. I've just got home from an Islington primary school where the only whiff of controversy was the very mild name-calling and sarcastic language a bully uses in my first pre-teen book (butter-face, poor 'lickle' baby). As a black woman and the sister of a man with severe learning difficulties, I think I'm coming to the conclusion that it's the children's and YA author's job to convey realism without resorting to the use of specific racist, homophobic and derogatory language.

  4. I have to agree that offensive language has to be justified in character. And sometimes I think those characters could be reined in a bit without affecting the tone of the piece or the story. It's very easy to have a character swearing for effect in a film or an HBO TV show, but much harder in a teen novel. And, although artificial, I think that limitation can make writers more creative with their use of language.

    One of my favourite games is looking out for the single use of the F-word in a 12 rated movie. It can be quite illuminating to see the point of highest stress in the narrative where the director finally allows the expletive to slip out.

  5. Not being from the UK myself, I've never heard 'Mong' before and had no idea what it meant. And in Canada as a child in BC the insult of choice was 'Bevan': having just moved there I didn't know what it meant at the time, but everyone used it and you got the meaning soon enough. Later I found out there was a care home there called Bevan Lodge.
    The Spaz eg. though... again this is a Canadian perspective. But although it was used in a way that took it away from its origins, I did know where it came from.
    It can be easy to use words without an awareness of the meaning/origin, or who may take offense.

  6. I have to say I've just read 'Boys Don't Cry' by Malorie Blackman, and it has given me a real hatred of the word 'gay' as an insult. Like 'spaz', over recent years 'gay' has also started meaning something other than its origin (although I suppose its true origin is something different again isn't it?) - but of course you know what it really means when you use it.

    I think this kind of language in YA fiction is often best used to represent a character's shortcomings rather than the everyday use seen in reality, and I think when used like that, it works as a fantastic device for highlighting that people perhaps should be thinking twice about using it. But maybe that's just me!

  7. Nope, it isn't just you: I agree with Jo!
    What I was trying to say before but never really got out, is that we must always be aware of the meanings of words we use. Be careful & never casual , and if using a word that may cause offense, having a reason for doing so (like what Jo said).

  8. I think that offensiveness is largely formed by the spirit in which words are used. The Inbetweeners Movie was funny because the offensive humour didn't seem to have been intended to hurt any of the people it made fun of. I am sure that the same applies to YA novels; offensive words used within a context that shows us why that person says those things (and that it is not an acceptable way for the reader to behave) helps to make a well-shaped novel. YA readers live in the real world, where unpleasant people say and do unpleasant things, to not reflect that in their books is, in my opinion, wrong.

  9. As a parent of a grown-up daughter who has CP I find the use of the word Spaz or Spastic in everyday language offensive, just as I do the words Mong, Mongol or Nigger. Gay has left me particularly vexed, as we spent years trying to make it a respectable label for homosexuals only to have it hijacked. What is the difference between everyday language and fiction? In everyday language it can't help but make me make judgements over the speaker. Sadly, in fiction it has the same effect, but the judgement I (subconsciously) make is against the author, not the character. It ain't rational, it's emotional, but that's the way human beings are.

  10. I've noticed this use of Spaz and wondered where it had come back from... the trouble is, the harder we jump on teen language, the more vociferously they will use it.
    Gay, as an insult, is a particular example - I hate the way they use it but I also know most of the kids that do aren't in the least homophobic - my daughter uses it and she certainly isn't( and am sure she does it all the more because she knows I hate it)

    How do you make them aware of the power their words have? Surely one way is through their careful use in books?

  11. I am the person with cerebral palsy to whom Keren is related. When people say that objecting to the use of "spastic" or "spaz" as insults is "politically correct", my reply is that, like my sister, my main desire is to avoid being physically sick. There is, however, a political dimension to this, which has to do with the identification of people with physical or mental impediments as "other". In fact, we are all handicapped in some material respect, it just shows more is some people than in others. This is one reason why Ian Drury's "Spasticus Autisticus" is such a powerful statement of disabled shamelessness; it demands that we all say to ourselves and to others that "I am Spasticus!".