Profanity in entertainment: frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn

December 3, 2013 at 9:41 am

When Rhett Butler finally told Scarlett O’Hara how he felt about her at the end of Gone with the Wind, it caused a sensation in the USA. The word “damn” had been prohibited by the 1930 Motion Picture Association’s Production Code, drawn up as the country was in the grips of prohibition and a debate about moral standards.

Rhett Butler

Hollywood was seen as a particularly debauched place, the archetype of everything that was threatening America’s moral wellbeing*. Against this backdrop, Gone with the Wind caused a sensation when it was released in 1939, quickly becoming the most viewed movie of all time. And yet there, at the pivotal moment of the film, was the word “damn”.

Fast forward eighty five years and it is hard to imagine profanity in a movie causing any reaction at all. For example, when Quentin Tarantino’s films brought a new level of profanity to popular Hollywood filmmaking in the 1990s, any outrage at the language was far outweighed by critical praise (and a great deal of debate about the graphic violence).

Profanity has been a part of human communication for as long as we can track. The Romans, for example, had ten words that were considered taboo (and therefore used regularly): cunnus, futuo, mentula, verpa, landica, culus, pedico, caco, fello and irrumo.

Are we more likely to use profanity than our great grandparents at the same age? Probably not, but we are certainly exposed to more profanity in the media.

Profanity on TV

American television is much less tolerant than Hollywood of rude words. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates network television and has this to say on the matter:

“The FCC has defined profanity as “including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.” Like indecency, profane speech is prohibited on broadcast radio and television between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.”

As a result, movies are shown in edited, network-friendly forms. This can include some spectacular dubs, for example Samuel L Jackson in Snakes on a Plane. When this aired on network television, it included the memorable line:

“I’ve had it with these monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday-to-Friday plane! […] We’re about to open some freakin’ windows”

There are many more examples to be found on YouTube, including Scarface and The Big Lebowski (“that’s what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!”).

Basic cable TV is not regulated by the FCC but there are still many restrictions on what can be shown. Although cable TV is self-regulating, the broadcasters are still very aware of their audience and especially aware of the advertisers who pay for placements during the shows. If the public or an advertiser considers a show offensive, it loses value. Conan O’Brian did a memorable skit where he met his censor, while an episode of South Park looks at swearing on American television (show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were surprised when the episode was broadcast uncensored – Matt Stone said “No one cares anymore… The standards are almost gone. No one gives a shit”).

If one channel has done more to bring profanity into American homes than any other, it is HBO. Being a premium cable channel, it is not regulated by the FCC and makes its money from viewer subscriptions as opposed to advertising.

Series such as The Sopranos and The Wire pushed television in a new creative direction. They also featured a tremendous amount of profanity, reflecting life in New Jersey’s mob and Baltimore’s police department and housing projects.

Holy or arseholey?

In the west, swearwords usually fall into three categories: religious, sexual or bodily functions (the second two overlap). Historically, there were plenty of religious swearwords in English, but as the church became less of an influence in British life, the English vocabulary of rude words became almost exclusively bodily.

Yet the words that we use to describe profanity give a clue to the religious history of the concept of swearing, including “profanity”, “curses”, and “swearing” itself; the term “profane” originates from classical Latin “profanus”, literally “before (outside) the temple”.

Check out the Viz Profanisaurus or Urban Dictionary for the cutting edge of English-language offensiveness.

In some other European languages, religious swearwords remain among the most offensive.

From here to profanity

Some studies suggest that roughly 80–90 spoken words each day – 0.5% to 0.7% of all words – are swearwords. But people swear differently. For example, women have been shown to prefer more prestigious forms of language than men. In social situations, men can enter a kind of “race to the bottom” where language becomes ruder and ruder; observe a group of men during an evening of televised sports for ample evidence. That is not to suggest that women don’t use rude words – of course they do – but typically less often than men.

Rude words offend, shock and upset. That’s what they are there for. But did you know they can also increase pain tolerance in certain circumstances?

*Other things outlawed by the Motion Picture Association’s Production Code included portrayal of any licentious or suggestive nudity (in fact or in silhouette), ridicule of the clergy and sex relationships between the white and black races. “Excessive or lustful kissing” was on the “be careful” list!

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