A few months ago, I wrote a piece in relation to House of Night author P.C. Cast's defence of her repeated use of the word 'retard' in her series after a commenter on her website confronted her about it. I had many things to say about the issue regarding the use of incendiary language, its play in our literature and so on. In particular, it was Cast's attitude towards the commenter and the issue in hand that disappointed me the most. I understand the urge to be defensive of one's work, especially when faced with censorship, however this issue has now moved beyond an isolated internet argument and into the New York Times best-sellers list. For those in need of a quick reminder, the original commenter on Cast's post linked to the website “The R Word” (which is wrongly linked here, which I presume is either a mistake or Cast not wanting to link to the real website). In a second instance in the book, the website is mentioned again:
"Aphrodite, stop sayin' retard!" Stevie Ray shoued at her. "I swear you need to check out www.r-word.com. Maybe you'd learn that some people get their feelin's hurt by the r-word."
Aphrodite blinked several times and then scrunched her face. "A Web site? Seriously.
"Yes, Aphrodite. Like I have tried to tell you a bazillion times, using the r-word is demeaning and just plain mean."
Aphrodite sucked in a deep breath and let out a rant. "What about a site for the c-word-as in cunt, which demeans half of the world? Or wait, no. Let's keep it the r-word site only make the r-word rape, which does more than just hurt upper middle class mommies' feelings. Or-"
"Seriously," I stepped between them. "We get it. Can we go back to the Shaylin and the True Sight issue?"
"Yeah, whatever," Aphrodite said, flipping back her hair.
"Aphrodite's mean, Z, but she makes a good point," Erin said.
I glared at Shaunee who only nodded enthusiastically, but didn't chime in. My head felt like it was going to explode. "Ah, hell," I said, throwing my hands up in frustration. "I can't remember what we were saying before the retard part."
(Destined. Pages 95-96. Quotes provided by my friend Midnight_Kiss.)
First, let's begin with the content of the novel.
I have only read the first book in the House of Night series so I cannot comment on the overall quality and content of the series. I am aware that Aphrodite is the female antagonist (and I had many complaints with her stereotypical slut-shaming characterisation in the first novel when I reviewed it for the original Sparkle Project). If her repeated use of such language is Cast's way of characterising her antagonistic nature in an attempt to provide a contrast to the 'good' girls of the series, not only is it extremely unconvincing and weak writing, it's also contradicted by other characters's actions in previous novels. I recall instances in the first book “Marked” where the heroine Zoey use the 'R' word, as did one of her friends, Heath, and she did not condemn him for doing so:
'“Forget them! They're retards.” Heath said, giving me his puppy-dog look...' (Marked, Page 173, found on Amazon.com)
If you are going to (lazily, in my opinion) characterise your antagonist in such a manner, don't make it acceptable for other characters to use the term without the same level of condemnation. On top of that, Aphrodite's argument is insulting on so many levels. Because there are more women on the planet than mentally challenged or disabled people, they have more right to be insulted by an incendiary term? Because the disabled and their allies have no feelings or are not worthy of such right to outrage? To paint those who criticise use of the 'R' word as 'upper middle class mommies' with hurt feelings is akin to use the 'political correctness gone mad' angle, a common trope of those who think having free speech gives them the right to be a monumental jerk. Combating the use of ableist language, as well as sexist, racist, transphobic, etc, language, is a serious issue with many supporters across the gender, political, class and racial divide. People and organisations like http://r-word.org work extremely hard to bring light to issues that have been ignored or dismissed for too long. These people deserve our respect and our support, not our mockery. I myself have been accused of being an over-sensitive liberal and a member of the “word police” when I expressed my anger over Ricky Gervais's repeated use of the term 'mong', which he deemed okay because he says he didn't use it to insult those with Downs Syndrome. In both instances, to Cast and Gervais, I say this: That's not the point! Yes, words to change meaning but you do not get to decide what is and is not acceptable. The word 'retard' is substituted frequently for the word 'stupid' but it's still an ableist slur who's primary definition is related to the disabled. For the record, I also strongly disagree with using the 'C' word as an insult as well as casual rape jokes, but I have a feeling Aphrodite's argument is not supposed to be taken seriously.
Aside from this, there is also the issue of Cast's actions. Here, she has clearly taken an instance from her public life, albeit one that I doubt every reader of her books will be aware of, and inserted it lazily into her book for a cheap laugh. For those unaware of the context, the scene is simply another excuse to deride the female antagonist in the laziest manner possible. For those of us who are aware, it's a display of serious immaturity, joyful ignorance and a complete lack of class. It's bad enough if you can't deal with your criticism in a concise and mature manner on your own website, but to take your personal beef and insert it into your book for people to pay and read it is, and I don't use this word lightly, pathetic. It's a tactic of pettiness and fear – why have this discussion where the other side can reply when you can create a one-sided mocking fest and charge hard-back cover prices for the privilege? It's not just taking a personal grudge and deriding it for a few laughs (if you also remember, Cast made comments about Laurell K Hamilton in another House of Night book for apparently no reason), it's taking a serious issue for which you were called out publicly and rubbing your wilful ignorance in people's faces. I had hoped that Cast could have taken the time to visit the linked website and make an effort to understand why this issue is so important and causes such reactions in the world, but she has shown herself to be completely unwilling to learn.
I've heard the argument that such language and attitudes are acceptable within the context of the novel because Aphrodite is the antagonist, but that argument never held water for me, and it does so even less with the above quote. I'm anti-censorship but I also firmly believe in the responsibility of free speech and the power of words. That's why I'm calling P.C. Cast out on this. There are people more informed than me who have read the entire series and are able to provide a consice, detailed analysis of the series, but on this issue I think Cast's own words speak for themselves. These are the actions of a school-ground bully, not a best-selling author of young adult fiction.