Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: The sacred & the profane

To many of us, for many teens, the library can be a sacred space.  A place of refuge and quiet contemplation.  A place where the everyday expectations and pressures of life are lifted and teens are allowed to be themselves more genuinely, more authentically, more freely than they might be allowed to express at home, in school, or with friends.  We strive to provide this kind of safe space for creative and personal expression.  Sometimes, this sacred refuge will mean quiet, peaceful reflection.  Sometimes the sacred refuge will mean letting inner thoughts rise to the surface through expressive, even profane, language.

Recently, TLT received a reader request to address an issue related to this notion of sacred and profane that a lot of us have contemplated.  Megan writes:

I was hoping you could do a post on TLT on the topic of profanity in teen library programs. What can and can’t be done in teen library programs? What rules (both spoken and unspoken) do people follow when setting their guidelines?

We have a lot of teens here who make their own beats and write their own raps, and I would love to have a talent show program where they can share their music with each other. However, these kids have really rough lives and I know their lyrics are going to be equally rough. We also have an open mic night where teens are invited to share music, art, drama, and writing. It can be their own work or works that they enjoy. Restricting profanity in these creative situations seems wrong to me.

Sometimes, the library might need to be a refuge from the profanity.

Then again, sometimes the profanity and focus on difficult topics is going to be a necessary part of a teen’s cathartic expression.

How do we balance these dueling demands within one library, one space, or one program?

Balance is the key.  Just like it would be unworkable to ban and punish any and all profanity, allowing a no-holds-barred free for all is just as unworkable.  We need to consider the audience, the location, the purpose, the people.

Is harsh language necessary to express pain or despair in a poem or theatrical piece during an open mic?  Is it necessary to express annoyance in general conversation during a gaming program?

Should you allow teens in your writing group to use whatever strong language they need to express their feelings and experiences?  I believe you should.  The creative process is sometimes improved by providing boundaries – you need look no further than poetic forms to see how this works – but this might need to come later, after you have already established trust and respect for the teens, their issues, and their words.

On the other hand, should we be condoning a liberal use of four-letter-words in an open teen center or a less personally charged program?  I would argue that this should be curtailed.  Our open spaces are just that – open – and should feel that way and sound that way.  Curating a space that allows anyone to feel welcome often means editing (You recall the saying about sex, religion, politics, and polite conversation?) and this is something that we can help our teens learn.

We need to remember, as our reader Megan later mentions, that profanity and strong language is not always going to be conducive to providing a comfortable place for all of our teen patrons.  Just because they hear it everywhere, they read it in teen literature, and they see it in movies doesn’t mean that all teens appreciate or use profanity, and it doesn’t mean that we should endorse the use of rough language when the setting doesn’t warrant it.

As this season of diverse religious holidays should remind us, sacred spaces and connections vary from person to person.  What is sacred about the Library – our appreciation of the individual, our dedication to lifelong learning, our drive to connect people with what they need – will look different from teen to teen depending on the needs and interests he or she brings to us.  Getting back to balance, profanity, and safe spaces, I invite you to share your own guidelines – institutional or personal – for profanity and self expression with teens.  How do you deal with a mixed group of teens with diverse backgrounds, needs, and styles of language? 

Karen’s Two Cents: In programming, my program space is declared a “Safe Place.”  Although I love how Heather refers to it as sacred.  So when in a teen program, I do ask that my teens keep their hands to themselves, that they respect the feelings of others, and that they watch their language and the types of things that they talk about.  What is comfortable for one is not always comfortable for another, and learning to be in community with those that are different from us is a really important life skill.  I think that is one of the great things about amazing literature, it helps us to walk in someone else’s shoes and develop a compassion towards them, and I ask that my teens be aware of those around them in a programming environment in the same way.  Teens should be able to come to a library program, have fun, and feel safe.  Balancing self expression and being in community with others is one of life’s great challenges, and that is no different in a teen program.

Don’t read those %&#@ YA books! A discussion of profanity in teen fiction

Trend Watch: Profanity in Teen Fiction

Lately, everyone has been a buzz about the profanity in teen novels.  It even made the news! A recent study was done and they counted the swear words and noted an increase in the use of profanity in teen books.  There have been some informative – and some amusing – blog posts about the topic (linked at the end of this post).  Apparently, the women’s lib movement is somehow to blame and all us women folk got a potty mouth when we put on our shoes and walked out of the kitchen.

I am not going to lie, I have noticed as a reader the increase in profanity in teen books and it has given me pause.  Not because I personally care, but because I stop for a moment and think to myself yep, a parent is going to complain about this.  So far they haven’t, but with all the press it increases the likelihood.

I am a huge believer in Intellectual Freedom.  I believe that authors have the right to tell their stories the way they feel they need to be told; it is their character and they have a right to give them the voice that feels authentic to them.  That doesn’t mean I have to like it, it means that I have to make it available and allow my patrons to make decisions for themselves.

As a parent, I can’t help but notice that faux-swearing has even invaded my tween television time.  The cast of iCarly spend a lot of time saying “shiz” or “chiz” or however they might spell it.  So here’s what I do as a parent: I either decide I am okay with it, I talk to my child about it, or I ban the show in my home.  Or some combination of the above.  I think whether you continue to watch the show or not, you have to have the conversation about what you view to be acceptable as language in your home.  If I took a moment, I could really evaluate every show we watch and tell you something that I find objectionable: Sam is mean to Freddy, Alex is a disrespectful slacker in Wizards (now over), Squidward is mean . . . I could go on, but you get the point.  This is where parenting is an active process: I watch TV with my children and we talk about it.  I read books with my children and we talk about it.  Sometimes topics come up that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk about otherwise, I wouldn’t think to.  That is part of the value of reading.

For example, my tween and I have had a lot of discussions about the way that Sam acts on iCarly, specifically how she acts towards Freddy.  You see, she hits him a lot and it is played for laughs – except I can’t help but feel that if the situation were reversed, if he were hitting her, there would be a huge outcry.  To me, it is not okay.  Any type of abuse between two people is never okay and I don’t appreciate the implication that it is a source of humor and I worry that it may send the wrong message to young viewers.  But again, I talk to my tween about it.  That’s my job as a parent.

So back to swearing.  As I read these various teen books, the question I always ask my self is this: is it organic to the story, to the character?  You see, books have to be about SOMETHING, and they are often about teen characters struggling with real life issues and whether we like it or not, teens cuss.  A lot in fact.  And sometimes, when you are hurting or angry, profanity is a good way to express the high emotions that teens feel because those words have known power and meaning.  Hurting people call the people who hurt them a bitch precisely because it has the known cutting power that they need in that moment.  When it comes to stroytelling, characters have to choose the words they need to convey their emotion in context of their setting and culture.  We don’t have to like it, but profanity is part of contemporary culture.  In fact, I think the F word is one of the few remaining words you still can’t hear on prime time television.

I was personally amazed when watching a special on Whitney Houston on Lifetime television and they kept showing an ad for an upcoming movie on Drew Peterson. Right there in the ad Rob Lowe said, “I’m unstoppable bitch.”  In an ad.  I understood why they had chosen that clip, it packed a wollop and conveyed their message in the 30 seconds that they had to do it.  Like I said, if our tv characters aren’t actually swearing, they are fauxswearing.  Is there really any difference?  The intent is definitely the same.

If we want teens to read, they have to have access to books that speak to them.  We can pretend that teens don’t cuss and present them with squeaky clean fiction – but they will immediately cast it aside because it’s not real to them.  This is especially true for those teens growing up in homes that we can’t imagine or in the inner cities. And of course the truth is that however we may feel about certain words, not all parents feel the same.  To be honest, I grew up in a home where my parents didn’t care about cussing as long as I didn’t direct it at them.  If I should make the mistake of cussing out my mom, well, the soap was coming out.  Otherwise, they were just words.

I think if we want teens to read, we have to respect the diversity of lifestyles that exist out there.  They are not all growing up in cookie cutter homes.  Just like the rest of the population, there is a tremendous diversity in how they live and love and think and feel and, yes, speak.  Our collections must reflect this diversity.  We must also remember that part of the value in reading is in helping the teens understand lives outside their own and develop empathy; thus, teens step into the shoes of main characters different from them and experience what it is like to grow up in homes and communities different than their own.

I understand the parental desire to protect your children, I also understand the value of engaging with your teen and helping them to see and understand that the world is a complex place full of a wide variety of people having a wide variety of experiences – some that we couldn’t even imagine.  As we talk to our teens about this, they develop the tools they need to live and thrive in a world that isn’t black and white but full of complex shades of gray.  I think, too, we have to respect our teens and recognize that if a book doesn’t feel right to them, they will stop reading it.  When we respect our teens and value them by providing thoughtful, well rounded collections, we all win.

It’s also important to remember that when we are talking about teens, we are talking about a huge age group: anywhere from around 12 up through 18 years of age.  So when I am working with teens or parents, I always tell them to look at the books before they check them out and note the age of the characters; middle school characters are going to talk the way middle school students do and deal with middle school issues and high school characters are going to talk the way high school characters do and deal with high school issues for the most part.

So what do you think, is there too much profanity in teen fiction?

Research: more swearing in teen novels than video games
Spark Life: Is there too much swearing in teen fiction?
What teens may be learning from swearing in teen fiction
Daily Kos: Rich, beautifyl and popular, fould mouthed characters in teen books have it all
Cursing: Not just for sailors anymore