Episode 2.11 - Profanity
Updated: Jun 17
Ted starts this episode by telling us he had three choices for Christmas: go home to Ohio to spend the holiday with his mom and her new boyfriend, go home to Ohio and spend the holiday with his dad and his annoying microbrewery, or go to Staten Island and spend it with his ultra-religious cousin.
He, of course, chooses none of those (so, technically a fourth choice?) and stays in Manhattan with Lily and Marshall. Marshall has a final to write, so he leaves. Lily finds the old answering machine, plugs it in and finds an old message from Ted to Marshall from when Lily was in San Francisco.
On the message, Ted calls Lily a Very Bad Word. But the episode doesn’t use the Very Bad Word, they replace it with ‘Grinch’. Ted then swears again in response, but the episode doesn’t use the swear, they replace it with ‘Fudge’.
Point #1: This is an old trick used to get around standards and censors, and if you’re writing in certain markets, you have to get used to these kinds of tricks. It might come down to your own personal comfort level, but especially in chapter books and MG, swearing especially doesn’t match real life. Even YA and adult markets have “sweet”, “cozy”, or “clean” publishing imprints, particularly in romances and mysteries. And if you’re writing for TV, video games, or movies, you need to be aware of rating from the MPAA and similar organizations who have some control over who gets to see your content.
Ted tries to backtrack, Lily asks why he would say such a thing.
Ted flashes back to when Marshall was wallowing, saying Lily was perfect. In order to help Marshall move on, he asks Marshall to point out something bad about Lily. Soon, “that spark turned into a roaring fire” and the guys all are bagging on Lily for weeks on end.
Smash-cut to the bar, where Ted tries to justify his behavior by saying, “It’s just a word. We use lots of words. It’s like any other word.” Barney dares him to use it right now, he does, and a woman nearby gets clearly (and rightfully) offended.
Side note real quick: Barney sounds sick.
Point #2: even if you swear a lot, and you don’t personally have a problem with swearing, those words do have power. We, as a society, have given them that power, and we need to understand how and why we’re using them. If you’re writing for kids, in any capacity, you are (for better or for worse) teaching them how and why to use those words.
Alright. Back to the episode. Robin says, “you apologized, right?” and we get my favorite Ted joke of the whole series. Ted says, “Of course! ‘I’m sorry’ were the first words out of my mouth” and they smash-cut to the conversation where Ted is shouting, “I’M SORRY, BUT I’M NOT APOLOGIZING” and then he doubles down.
Point #3: Sometimes those graphic words are the only words that mean what you need to say. In Ted’s POV (which is Marshall’s POV at this time), Lily was being awful. Ted had to try to pick up the pieces of Marshall and put them back together and that kind of emotional labor is hard as hell. Lily got to come back, spend a couple weeks awkwardly dancing around her feelings for Marshall, but then basically pick back up where she left off. Ted did the hard work. Ted put Marshall back together. Ted had a right to be angry that she put him - one of her supposed best friends - in the position of having to do that work.
Back in the bar, Barney is definitely sick, Ted decides to apologize. Robin takes Barney up to Ted’s apartment, where Ted is giving Lily a beer to apologize. But when they get into the apartment, they find that Lily stole Christmas. She took all the Christmas decorations to the tiny apartment she still has a lease for. Ted goes to get Lily, leaving Robin to take care of Barney.
Marshall calls to check on winter wonderland, Ted tries to blow him off, but ends up feeling guilty. Then his mom calls him, telling him that Lily ratted him out. Ted hangs up on his mom and her boyfriend and goes to get Lily back.
Lily refuses to spend Christmas with Ted, so Ted decides to go out to Staten Island instead. Then we find out that Marshall wasn’t writing a paper, he’s been out helping the UPS guy deliver presents all day after he got Lily’s Christmas present off the truck. The present is super thoughtful and touching, and it turns out Ted gave Marshall the idea.
Ted is out at Staten Island with his cousin’s super-religious family (Stacy is played by Moon Zappa - Frank Zappa’s kid, which is objectively hilarious) and I’m just going to skip all commentary about this family. But Lily shows up with an apology beer in hand and all their friends. Ted says they’re carolers and Marshall and Barney sing while Ted and Lily make up, and then Lily accidentally teaches the super-religious kids the Very Bad Word that Ted called her.
Alright, so now that we’ve covered the episode and we’ve made a couple points about profanity and graphic content, and this episode handled it, let’s talk about how we handle it in our own work. This will vary wildly depending on your publisher, your market, and other factors. Some methods I’ve seen:
Kiersten White, in the PARANORMALCY series, had a foul-mouthed mermaid who communicated through an AI interpreter, but the interpreter worked like a TV censor and bleeped out all her swear words.
James Dashner, in the MAZE RUNNER series, had teens in a Lord of the Flies sort of situation and they invented their own slang and profanity in isolation. We all know what “we got shucked” really means, but the lower-YA market often doesn’t have a lot of patience for gratuitous swearing (even though lower-YA readers are definitely gratuitous swearers IRL).
Countless YA novels have “fade to black” sex scenes, in which the kids are making out, but the scene cuts off with a “and then they . . . you know” vibe. You can connect the dots yourself, or you can convince yourself that they just rolled over and went to sleep, cuddling while half-naked, but no shenanigans happened.
The HUNGER GAMES movies employed shaky-cams to disguise the horrific violence and then focused on the literal faces of the dead. They gave us the sense of loss, the tragic scope of murdered children, without putting grisly, bloody deaths on the screen.
Some of these examples are controlled by an outside ratings agency (like the MPAA) and some are controlled by the writers’ personal tastes. White said in an interview once that she wasn’t comfortable following teens into the bedroom, so she would leave that up to the readers’ imaginations.
Being able to work around a set of standards makes you a more versatile writer and opens you up to more audiences. And even when the Very Bad Word is exactly the right word to use, there are ways for you to slip by the censors and ratings to get your point across.
Writing Prompt: Make a list of fake swear words. You can either use seasonal replacements (like "grinch") or you can use rhyming words like Dashner or come up with your own system.