Bad Language

One of the factors used to assign a film classification is the presence of “bad language.” In Ontario, infrequent use of mild profanity (damn, hell, ass) is okay, but expletives (bastard, shit) move the film up to a PG rating. Frequency, intensity, and the use of racial or sexual slurs will bump the film to a higher rating category. The logic behind this is that there is such as thing as bad language, and children should be sheltered from it. The Board members themselves recognize the futility of the task: a parent who complained about a vulgar word appearing in a G rated film was told that the child no doubt hears more at school. Generally, language alone is not going to determine the film’s classification, and no amount of bad language can make a film Restricted.

According to the author of Swearing In English, the notion that there is such as thing as bad language dates back several centuries, as does the hypocrisy of reserving bad language for private speech. Lots of sources note that the public use of bad language is increasing (though racist and sexual slurs are actually in decline), but exactly why is hard to pin down, and there is no consensus that more bad language is a bad thing.

Still, I for one am tired of hearing so much of it. Films like Transformers toss in some gratuitous bad language simply to raise the rating, thus ensuring the teen market, and there is apparently endless appeal in the shock value. Sometimes bad language is justified as necessary to communicate truth. To that I say bologna – and the accusation that a statement is false seems to me more powerful when it is associated with low grade meat mixed with lard than when a statement is associated with bull manure.

Today I read a blog by an editor. I was expecting some tips on writing and submitting. Here’s what I got:

Life is just too damn short to read shit, and it’s your job as the author to make the reader’s life easy. It’s not my job as the reader to assume you’ve got something worth saying and then bust my ass figuring out what it is and where it is.

[Update: The editor’s site has disappeared.]

I’m not offended by the tone, but rather by the lack of useful information. I think what the writer is trying to say is that he likes really simple stories, but I’m not sure. The problem isn’t plot twists, flashbacks, or insufficient foreshadowing – it’s shit. Okay then. Later I read another writers’ tip sheet:

Words aren’t just symbols: they’re really how we say things. And so it is that your actual voice matters in this regard. Listen to what you say and how you say things: your authorial voice lurks in this. You should endeavor to write at least in part how you speak. By doing that, you capture the essence of how you say things. Related: always read your work out loud.

In the Great Cosmic Chain Of Telling Bad-Ass Motherfucking Stories, voice is subservient to story, not vice versa. Voice helps you tell the story at the same time story helps you find your voice.

Go ahead – read it out loud. Then imagine yourself telling Jane Austen that Pride and Prejudice is a bad-ass  m-f story.  Feel free to consider any other author and work. Is that really what you would say? Maybe I’m not getting the joke.* The problem is, “dirty words” are so common, they’ve not only lost shock value, they’ve lost whatever comic value they may have once had.  Some one needs to tell Robin Williams (and many other comics…).

It’s not that bad language needs to be banned. It just needs to be used less often. One of my favourite magazines is The New Yorker. William Shawn, editor from 1952 to 1987, was well known for his puritanical direction. He refused to print a review of Deep Throat by famous film critic Pauline Kael, even when mainstream papers reviewed the film, but he allowed the famous f word twice in the 1980s. Now it turns up regularly in stories, reports, and editorials, and doesn’t raise eyebrows.

Film classification is one of the few forces left that attempts to limit bad language. I hope it continues this lonely role, and meanwhile urge writers (and those who would advise them) to choose more evocative and powerful words.

For more history and a variety of opinions, check out Why Do Educated People Use Bad Words from the New York Times.

*I’d be the first to admit that the legend of Oedipus is a m-f story (ha ha), but translations generally refer to father and son sharing the same harbour, or plowing the same field. The metaphors are not euphemisms that weaken the statement – they are evocative language that strengthen it.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.


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