Adventures in Swearing

According to an Associated Press story, the dreaded f-word is showing up more in films rated PG-13 by the MPAA. The article goes on to explain that one usage is allowed, but more may slip in under the flexibility of the ratings system. There is no need for panic.

In part, this is yet another example of ratings creep – as society becomes more casual (for better or worse), the ratings systems reflect this and become more tolerant. This is also an example of the stricter American ratings.  In Ontario, the f-word is permitted up to three times (once every half hour) in a PG film, and is essentially unlimited in 14A – equivalent to the MPAA PG-13 rating.

It would be premature to claim that movies are becoming cruder based on more swearing in one rating category (or the anecdotal experience of seeing recent movies). You would also need to consider how many movies are released in each category and if that is changing. Still, I don’t think more swearing is a good thing, regardless of how it affects ratings. Some film makers claim swearing is needed to establish realism, but it is frequently just for shock value, and the f-word is becoming so prevalent that the shock value is minimal. Film makers might want to try something else for shock value, or better yet try for creativity instead of shock. Many of our best movies were made under tight censorship, as film makers were forced to establish mood and character without resorting to the quick and easy use of explicit language, sex, or violence.

Some years ago, Adventures in Babysitting used the dreaded f-word exactly twice. As a result, it earned the PG-13 rating in the United States, a simple PG in Ontario, and an eight-second cut in the UK (restored for video, but with an age 15 certificate). The sitter and her charges are menaced on a subway by a knife-wielding gang leader, and she effectively responds by grabbing a knife herself, and using the same language:

Gang Leader: Don’t fuck with the Lords of Hell.
Chris: Don’t fuck with the babysitter.

Twenty-five years ago, this limited use was effective. Her response has stayed with me. Today I probably wouldn’t notice. The f-word is too mainstream – and you can review some famous uses in Jesse Sheidlower’s book, containing hundreds of “references to the most beloved, least printable word in the English language.” As for me, should I get the urge to tell someone I find their company unpleasant, I may tell them to “Beg that thou may have leave to hang thyself.” An English major’s work is never done.

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