Friday, February 1, 2019

Clutching My Pearls; or Sushi Rolls Not Gender Roles

By Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

            This post has no swear words.

            You see, I recently received some notes from an editor for a flash story I submitted. It was rejected, but I’m always happy to see feedback with my rejections. Constructive criticism is rarely a bad thing.

            Except most of the feedback was positive. “I was engaged from the beginning. I loved this.” But. In rejection notices, there’s always a but. “Your language was excessive.”

            I completely understand there are stories for which peppery language is unnecessary and even distracting. I wouldn’t write a story in which the protagonist was a child and drop infinite F bombs. That would be inappropriate.

            This story, however, was about the front-woman for a punk band. It’s been pointed out to me that this probably explains the hesitancy of this publication to accept something they otherwise enjoyed. I have a strong female protagonist who––GASP––uses swears.

            Women––and men, too––are conditioned to believe that women are soft and proper. We’re not supposed to swear or have ambitions beyond being an agreeable doormat. And if we do voice dissenting opinions, we’re expected to be reasonable and polite about it.

            Horror itself has long been a genre dominated by men, despite Mary Shelley’s significant contributions.

            Growing up, I read speculative fiction almost exclusively. Horror and science fiction writers were my rock stars. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be one of them. I learned how to be a writer from people like Stephen King and Octavia E. Butler and Harlan Ellison and Flannery O’Connor. They fueled my imagination.

             It was pointed out to me by well-meaning but judgmental, backwards, and narrow-minded relatives that romance was a great and lucrative genre in which to write. And they were right, of course. Romance is popular. I have nothing against romance novels or their writers, but it wasn’t my place.

            I was a bookish dork who loved B-movies and comic books. What did I know about romance? More importantly, romance fiction held no interest for me beyond the dogeared pages my friends passed around at our lunchroom table in middle school. The implication was clear. Romance was acceptable for a woman to write.

            The language of romance is soft and proper. The more vulgar words for male and female genitals are window-dressed in ambiguous terms like “manhood” and “flower.” Swear words are kept at a minimum and are almost always uttered by men in a fit of passion or rage. Curse words are manly.
            Eons ago, I dated a jerk who seemed genuinely appalled that I drank and swore. This was a person who fancied himself a “progressive.” Spoiler alert: That relationship did not last long at all. My former husband once suggested I might have Tourette syndrome because I swear so much. I have no neurological disorder, I’m not a loose or immoral woman, and I’m not possessed by a demon––not that there’s anything wrong or bad about any of those things. I’m actively seeking a demon, as a matter of fact.

            What I am is a human being. There are times when a swear word is the only one that will properly convey what you mean or how you feel. There are times when you’re just really CENSORED angry, and a well-placed expletive makes you feel better. And, yes, there are situations in which excessive language is absolutely appropriate.

            Let’s say I’ve written a story set on the high seas. Bartelby Q. Squigly, sailor extraordinaire, gets whacked in the back of the head by a mast boom. This is probably going to hurt. Should our hero shout out:

A)    Golly-gee, fellows. I say. That conked my coconut but good. I shall have to lie down.
B)    Boy-howdy, does that smart! I am truly one foolish individual, getting smacked like that.

If you chose option C, you’ve probably been hit in the head before.

      Choosing the proper swears and the proper occasions to use them in fiction is just as important as choosing any other word. In short fiction––and especially in flash fiction––words are at a premium. Selecting the right ones is crucial to building a world beyond what you see. Painting a picture is essential for your reader. The frontwoman for a punk band is probably going to swear. A lot. She’s probably going to be a take-no-crap strong woman because, much like horror, her world is male-dominated. In order to make a name for herself, she’s had to claw her way past a lot of people who didn’t believe she deserved to be there.

      There will always be people who object to strong language. There will always be people who believe women should be quiet and proper and obedient. You’re not writing for those people.

Lady writers, let the F bomb drop if it suits your needs. If your beer-swilling, punk-listening protagonist needs to let fly and call the President of the United States a name Samuel L. Jackson has made his trademark, go for it. And if anyone tells you women shouldn’t swear, feel free to wave at them with your favorite finger. 


About Sheri:

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel’s short fiction has appeared in a number of publications over the past decade. Spirits, her first novel, will be released in July from Haverhill House Publishing. She lives in the Northeast with her partner, the writer Matt Bechtel; her three children; and an 80-pound lapdog named Nya.


JohnB said...

I enjoyed this article. What you say is true. Everyone swears and there's nothing wrong with strong language from a female character. Whenever someone tells me I swear too much, i usually say, "CENSORED you." Thank you.

Christine Lajewski said...

Fuck, yeah!

C M Heil said...

As I waited for the comments to load on my tablet, I already had mine prepared...
EXACTLY what was said, "Fuck, yeah!"