Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Holy Shit! (I mean, "Great Krypton!")

I’ve been participating in a conversation on the Newsarama blog about the use of light profanity (ass, bitch, damn) in comics. I started out from the point that those words are barely profanity anymore*, since you can hear them on the tv and radio. Mostly I was just replying in short bursts, but then a gent named Palladin wrote a longer post, and I responded to one sentence in particular. Since I’m calmer and more rational than I sometimes am on message boards, I thought I’d produce it here.

I think we can find some points of agreement, Palladin, even though we’re coming at it from opposite ends.

You wrote:

Cussing is really just a way of either shocking or not having a broad enough vocabulary to use more of any language.

I pretty much fundamentally disagree with that, even give the caveats you add afterward. I don’t think the only function of cuss words are their shock value, or as a poor substitute for some more erudite phrasing. I think that sometimes, a swear is exactly the word a writer or speaker wants to use. Or, to quote Spencer Tracy’s character in Inherit the Wind:

“I don't swear for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. We've got to use all the words we've got.”

That said, I think there’s a lot of cussing in comics that is just plain lazy. “Using all the words we’ve got” also means using a tamer word when it’s called for, as well. I remember an issue of Fantastic Four when Sue Storm mentioned an ass-kicking in some context. It might have been blanked out, it might not have – but either way, it seemed out of character.

In contrast, however, I don’t think replacing “Was she always this bitchy?” with “Was she always this catty?” [in a recent issue of Green Lantern] works. “Catty” is an old-fashioned word for “bitchy.” It’s what someone might say when they’re holding their tongue, and I don’t think it would be in character for Cowgirl in that context of an attack by Star Sapphire. (It might be, however, if she were meeting Hal’s mom (if she were still alive).

Context matters. I could see Superman saying something nearly “kicked his ass,” when talking to Batman or Lois—confidantes with whom he would hold nothing back. But when talking to Ma or Pa Kent, he’d probably say “kicked my butt.” And when speaking in front of a child, he’d phrase things differently altogether.

I want writers to think about what they write. Sometimes it seems like they don’t (even if they have – who can know for sure, really?). But the use or non-use of profanity is a symptom of that larger issue, in my opinion.
You can read the entire ongoing discussion here.


*The pedantic in me feels compelled to add that "ass" and "bitch" aren't profanity at all, but obscenity, and that "damn" is the only actual profanity on the list. But having said that, for the purposes of this discussion the two terms are pretty much interchangeable.


Andy said...

I say you bitch slap his ass; damn it!

(Also snatch that pussy and put it in a box)

Rob S. said...

Actually, Palladin and I got on quite well.

But point taken.

Greg! said...

Huzzah! for the Inherit the Wind quote!

I'll add to that something from Oscar Wilde (I may paraphrase, but I so so closely):
"There is no such thing as a 'good' book or a 'bad' book. Books are either well-written or poorly-written, that is all."

I think in most of the cases when cussing jumps out at you or feels out of place, it's simply a case of poor writing.