Let's talk about the F-bomb!
If you read my first novel, Exit 14, you know that it is mainly a story about teen boys. You also know that those boys use bad language in conversation with each other, particularly what I’ll refer to in this blog as the F-bomb. About a year ago, at a book discussion for Exit 14, I was asked why I used the F-bomb so liberally. My answer was that it was how we boys talked in the 1960s...and it is still how young people, male or female, talk today.
Interestingly, several ladies in the group, my age and older, said they didn’t realize people talked like that. Clearly, they have lived sheltered lives. It makes me think of a story.
In the mid 1970s at Shelton High School, a young teacher had “hall duty” during a non-teaching period. His job was to make sure students weren’t loitering in the hallways when they were out of class on a lav pass. The most notorious hangout was what is known as the “bus loop” hallway, which was remote and not next to any classrooms. The young teacher would typically find a half dozen or more students there each morning and shag them back to class. Approaching the group, he’d say, “Okay, guys, let’s all get back to class.” One day, all the regulars were in the bus loop hallway as usual, but among the group was a newcomer -- a tall, muscular boy with an outfit that John Travolta might have worn in a scene from Saturday Night Fever. When the young teacher made his obligatory admonishment to go back to class, the towering newcomer asked, “Why do we gotta go back to class?
“Because you’re not supposed to be hanging out in the hallways,” the teacher replied, his heart beginning to race.
The boy flashed a sardonic smile, “Who says?”
“The administration says,” said the teacher.
“Well, the administration can go fuck itself,” countered the boy.
The teacher needed to think fast. “Listen, pal,” he warned, trying to keep his cool, “I’m going to walk to the end of the hallway, and when I look back, you had better be gone.”
With each step, the young teacher could feel sweat gathering on his brow. When he got to the end of the long hallway and turned back, the student, who was still there, smirked and reluctantly departed.
That young teacher was me, and for the next twenty years, I told that story at parties and social galleries.
But times change. The day eventually came when my story of the John Travolta “wannabe” was no longer relevant because not a day went by at Shelton High School when I didn’t hear at least one student drop the F-bomb. On a daily basis, groups of students within earshot of me would use “language” as if I weren’t present, and when I would say, “Guys, watch your language! I’m standing right here!” they would often look at me, befuddled, as if to say, “I wasn’t talking to you.” They weren’t bad kids -- just kids with no discretion.
We’ve probably all experienced it. I could name dozens of examples (and you probably could too), but to use just one -- about a year ago, my wife and I were on a train to New York, and two twenty-something year old women were dropping the F-bomb like it was their job. Not only didn’t I like hearing it, but right in front of them sat a couple with two small children. The young women cared not a whit about us, those children, or anyone else around them.
By the way, I’m not trying to pretend “I’m holier than thou.” Growing up, I often let the F-bomb fly, and still sometimes do. But then and now, it has always been in select company, and, in truth, the more I hear people of both genders and of all ages using language indiscriminately in public, the less I find myself using it myself in private.
And speaking of those two young women on the train, my recollection is that there was once a time when women and men didn’t use extreme language in front of each other. I know it was true of my parents. In my father’s letters to my mother, in rare instances he used a mild swear word, and, in those cases, he left a vowel out: h-ll or d-mn. He would never think of using the F-bomb in communicating with her or my brother and me. I was eighteen, in fact, before I ever heard my dad use the word in our home (it was outside in the yard, actually, and he was very angry!), and I sincerely doubt that my mother ever uttered the word.
But I don’t have to cite my mother as an example. The truth is that I must have been at least twenty-five before I ever heard a female drop the F-bomb -- and that was around 1977 or so. That first time, it was a woman who was about a dozen years my senior. It jolted me then, and, in truth, it still jolts me a little today every time I hear a woman use the word. I guess, in that sense, I’m a bit old fashioned.
In any case, that means I went through all of high school and all of college (having a very active social life, by the way) without ever hearing a female use this kind of language. (Girls, from my era of high school or college, please feel free to weigh in on the subject. Am I deluded?)
So, for me, when it comes to the use of the F-bomb in literature, film, and television, it depends very much on the time period, the setting, and the gender of the characters. I have no problem with the use of the word, as long as I feel its use is realistic.
Just recently, Fran and I were watching a great new program, Julia, about the celebrated chef, Julia Child. On the series, BeBe Neuwirth, who plays a close friend of Child, drops the F-bomb on a fairly routine basis. What particularly confuses me about it is that the action of the program takes place in the early 1960s. Similarly, on one of our favorite series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a character named Susie, brilliantly played by Alex Borstein, drops the F-bomb liberally in all kinds of situations with no regard for where she is or who can hear her. My problem, again, is the action takes place in the early 1960s, and, despite her general crassness, I find it hard to believe that Susie (or anyone of either gender) would blatantly let the F-bomb fly in any and every situation. The character’s indiscreet use of the word takes me out of it every time.
As directors of Center Stage Theatre, early on we came to a decision. We learned that our clientele, mainly senior citizens, would rather see plays without language than with it, so we avoided producing plays that had been written in the last twenty-five years or so, most of which have realistic language.
But being an author feels a little different, perhaps because I feel my reading audience is wider and more diverse (especially in age) than our theater audience was. While writing Exit 14, I read or reread several novels involving teens, most especially the famous S.E. Hinton novel, The Outsiders. What bothered me about it is that the male characters, tough teenage boys, would have used the F-bomb, but they don’t. Perhaps S.E. Hinton had the foresight to see the novel’s future -- to be on the curriculum of every junior high school in the country -- and knew boards of education might block it if it had realistic language. I don’t know. Perhaps her avoidance of the word had to do with the fact that The Outsiders hit the market in 1967, in the midst of changing times. Ten years before, West Side Story opened on Broadway when bad language was certainly out of the question. I think of some of the lyrics, which use one word but mean another. Take the “Jet Song”:
Here come the Jets
Yeah! And we're gonna beat
Every last buggin' gang
On the whole buggin' street!
For Exit 14, I made a decision to portray the language of the characters in a realistic way. It’s an artistic choice, and, unlike Julia or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I think an accurate one, considering the era, considering the characters, and considering the situations.
What about my latest novel, a World War II romance (still to be named). At first, I thought I might leave the F-bomb out completely. After all, the movies and books of the era seemed to get along quite nicely without it. But I found that some of my male characters wanted to say the word, especially my protagonist, especially in tense situations. Discussing the matter with my editor (my daughter Mia), we came to the conclusion that the books and films that were created during the 1940s were of the era, which included censorship, but my book is about the era and is being written today when censorship, generally, is non-existent.
Still, I’m finding that I’m interspersing the dialogue with a less frequent use of the word than Exit 14 by far. When my protagonist does use it, though, perhaps it has more punch. The thing is, sometimes he just can’t help himself. Some famous writers would suggest that the characters in a book determine what they’re going to do and say. Personally, I agree!