Time and Space

Taboo Or Not Taboo

“Taboo subjects in almost any society tend to involve religion, sex, death, bodily functions… things that frighten us or make us uneasy.”

Stephen Fry, Planet Word
This episode of Planet Word, hosted by Stephen Fry, uncovers the link between language and taboo. Stephen travels to other countries to discover what they consider to be taboo, and finds that the words that are forbidden in one culture might be quite innocent in another. (Caution: contains frequent profanity and discussion of sexual and racial swear words).

Societies have developed a plethora of words and expressions to deal with taboo subjects: either to avoid mentioning them at all, or to smooth the rough edges of reality. Religion was one of the first English taboos, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Take the subject of death. It’s the only thing certain in life (apart from, as Benjamin Franklin memorably said, ‘taxes’) – but we’re very reluctant to use this powerful taboo word. Instead we say passed away, passed on, given up the ghost, gone to meet the maker, shuffled off this mortal coil – even kicked the bucket!  Similarly, we are reluctant to talk directly about health issues that may be chronic or terminal, sexual encounters, and race or ethnicity; choose a selection of the following articles to find out about the most powerful taboos in the English language: 

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging piece of reading, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Class Activity: cultural and social taboos

Work in small groups to skim read the articles above and conduct your own research into the topic of taboo. Work together to create a mindmap of cultural and social taboos around the world. You can share this mindmap with other groups and display it in your classroom.

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. Thinking about the language topic of taboos, how does the language we use change according to time and space? How can something that is taboo to one person be acceptable to another?
  2. To what extent do our personal biases affect the way we communicate and the language we use?

Learner Portfolio

Politically correct language is language used to avoid causing offence when speaking about and around taboo subjects. You might find examples of politically correct language, or euphemisms, in one or two of the articles above. Create your own article called ‘Let’s Talk About…’ Choose a taboo topic, such as religion, health, war, menstruation, relationships, sexuality, or even the ultimate taboo – mortality. Research the history of this taboo and present ways in which people use language to talk about – or around! – the topic.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: interviews

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyse unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are examples of Interviews; study these texts and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

key features of interviews
  • Question-Answer: a recognisable feature of interviews in this format, which presents the questions asked and responses using quotations (direct speech).
  • Register: as a record of a spoken conversation, a written interview is likely to contain examples of language that is more like speech. Look out for colloquialisms, idioms, contractions and even jokes.
  • Quotation: as an alternative to the question-answer format, you might see interviews written up as a magazine article. In this case you will see a mixture of direct quotation and indirect free speech.
  • Topics: the interview may be focused on one issue or may range across various topics. Look out for the interviewer asking leading questions to take the conversation in a particular direction.
  • Perspective: the interview presents a one-sided view on a topic or person, so is likely to be highly subjective. The interviewee may use assertive statements which present opinions as if they are facts.
  • Them-and-us: celebrity interviews tend to put interviewees on a pedestal. Look for ways in which the text creates a divide between celebrities and ‘us’, the reader, or represents the interviewee as special in some way.

Body of Work: Oliviero Toscani’s United Colours of Benetton Adverts

The Face of Aids: the story behind Therese Frare’s photo (film by Time magazine)

In April 2000, United Colors of Benetton fired its director of photography Oliviero Toscani over his advertising campaign entitled “Looking Death in the Face” in which he featured the portrait photographs of inmates on death row as adverts for a retail clothing brand. At the time, Rory Carroll of The Observer speculated that Toscani “almost certainly will never again reach a worldwide audience on the scale of his Benetton billboards” but it seemed that he had spoken a little prematurely. In 2017, Toscani rejoined Benetton once again, along with Luciano Benetton, the founder.

For 18 years Toscani had been pushing the limits of advertising. From AIDS victims, to the bloodstains of a dead soldier, homosexual relationships, mixed race relationships, LGBTQ+ representation – Toscani shied away from nothing and produced some of the most controversial adverts in history. With each campaign came a new round of backlash, censorship – and press attention. After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity! But this final campaign, released in January 2000 depicting death row inmates staring blankly into the camera behind the slogan, SENTENCED TO DEATH, proved to be Toscani’s undoing. Murder victims’ families spoke out, retailers and consumers dropped the brand, and sales consequently plummeted. An accusation that had been levelled at Toscani before – ‘what has this got to do with clothing?’ – was suddenly too loud to ignore.

In this Body of Work, you can explore some of Oliviero Toscani’s most provocative ad campaigns for United Colors of Benetton and investigate how these texts break social and cultural taboos. The images and explainers in the Body of Work have been compiled from articles in Vogue and The Guardian. Check out the wider reading section (scroll down) for more things to read and research.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

IB Language and Literature Guide

One or two of these images would be a perfect text to use in this assessed activity. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry: Art, Creativity and Imagination
  • Global Issue: The Role of Creative Individuals in Society
  • Rationale:

Artists inspire and shape how we think, and they answer questions that we’re too afraid to ask ourselves. Creative individuals challenge the status quo and stimulate social change. They give us a new perspective and better understand our world. Without art and creativity, not only would our societies be boring and bland, but they would cease to grow and change. However, does that give artists and creative individuals license do say what they like, write without limits and show images that break cultural taboos? Answering this question would make a very interesting Individual Oral talk.

  • Field of Inquiry: Culture, Community and Identity
  • Global Issue: The Consequences of Breaking Taboos
  • Rationale:

Toscani’s work for Benetton has been extremely controversial, and his relationship with the company ended when he was fired for comments he made about a bridge collapse in Italy that killed 43 people. Does it seem as if some taboos cannot be broken, even by famous iconoclasts such as Toscani? You could discuss this in your Individual Oral talk.

Sample Individual Oral

Here is a recording of the first ten minutes of an individual oral for you to listen to. You can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this talk as a way of improving your own oral presentations. Be mindful of academic honesty when constructing your own oral talk. To avoid plagiarism you can: talk about a different global issue; pair the Toscani images with a different literary work; select different passages to bring into your talk; develop an original thesis.

Possible Literary pairings
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – take as your starting point the idea that Oliviero Toscana is a real-life version of Henry Higgins. You can ask to what extent either man has the right to impose his creative vision upon others – Toscana through placing taboo images in public spaces, and Higgins by using Eliza in his own dream of ‘filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.’
  • Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – think about how Portia, in Act 4 Scene 1, takes power into her own hands and controls Shylock’s fate, presumably altering the course of justice in the Venetian courtroom.
  • Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber – by repositioning women in stories that were traditionally male-centric, Carter is, in a creative way, revealing the way women’s voices have been traditionally silenced or marginalised in the past.
  • Ismail Kadere’s Broken April – you could explore the presentation of an individual character such as Bessian, Diana or Gjorg himself in the context of wider social structures in Albania.
  • John Keats’ Selected Poetry – no one would dispute that Keats is an especially creative individual and Keats’ poems also explore the importance of art in society, not least in Ode on a Grecian Urn.
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie – one of the major themes of this novel is the power of art and literature. In Mao’s China, works of art and literature are banned – which makes it all the more meaningful when Luo and his friend uncover a secret suitcase full of illegal literature. Sijie’s novel would be a perfect pairing for this Body of Work.
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang – another excellent pairing. In part two of this novel, the character of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is developed. We see he is a creative individual – but he is haunted by urges which prove unpalatable to his friends and family, and eventually he is ostracised from society.
  • Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poetry – Mew’s collection is full of people who are ostracised because of various taboos of the time. You could look at how The Farmer’s Bride was treated because she didn’t want to sleep with her husband, or how the unnamed girl in Saturday Market represents all kins of taboos associated with womanhood, or the fate of Ken and other people who are mentally impaired.
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel – cannibalism is one of humanity’s oldest and strongest taboos. Yann Martel explores the lengths a human being will go to to survive, including potentially killing and eating another person. Exploring how he handles this taboo would make for an excellent presentation indeed.

Wider Reading and Research

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