The F-Word

August 29, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Profanity alert... The following contains language that some readers may deem inappropriate.

A couple of weeks ago, I used the word "motherfucker" as a joke in association with the film Snakes on a Plane. A few prudish readers took exception to my use of "colorful" language, saying I shouldn't be using words like that on a PG-rated website. Personally, I have always thought of ReelViews as PG-13, although one could technically make the argument that it has recently slipped over the line into R territory, and therein lies the subject of today's ReelThoughts. Why are we so afraid of the word "fuck?"

"Fuck" is an old word. It has been around for more than 500 years. Its actual origins aren't clear, although there is an (inaccurate) urban legend saying it's an acronym for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge." Recently, it has taken on a new popularity, and a form of the word can now be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, and so on. Consider this sentence: "That fucking fuck fucking fucked my fucking girlfriend." That makes "fuck" one of the most versatile words in the English language. The original meaning - copulation or intercourse - hasn't changed, but the variants are now too numerous to list. The word is being said more often these days that at any time in the past; it has come out of the back rooms and gone mainstream. "Fuck" even has a film named after it. (It's unclear when or if Fuck is going to be distributed. The IMDb says it goes into limited release on November 10, 2006 with ThinkFilm handling it in the U.S.)

Yet many people are afraid of, or at least intimidated by, the word. Generally speaking, I don't use much profanity in speech, but I'm not scared of using "fuck" (or any other vulgarity) if the situation suggests it. It's a word like any other, and it has its purposes (even if one of them is shock value). I also don't believe there's any point in writing "the f-word" or "f**k." When you see something like that on the written page or a computer screen, the first thing your mind does is translate it to "fuck." Why be coy about it? How is it more acceptable to mean "fuck" without saying "fuck?" Is it a sign of good taste or hypocrisy?

After sex, profanity is the life blood of teenagers. If you walk down any high school corridor between periods, you'll hear more raunchy language than you will in any R-rated movie. Therefore, I ask if it makes any sense to rate movies R because they use "fuck" more than once. And how does the "one 'fuck' rule" for a PG-13 make any sense? Is it somehow appropriate for 15-year old kids to hear "fuck" once, but you have to be 17 to hear it twice? Think about the twisted logic that arrived at that unofficial MPAA ratings rule.

I can understand the MPAA giving an R-rating to a film steeped in violence (although, if the violence is bloodless, it may get a PG-13), but it boggles the mind how a topless woman or a torrent of profanity demands an R. (I'll leave the nudity issue to other columns. I have discussed it before and will no doubt address it again.) I can understand parents wanting to protect their children from the evils of profanity, but if they're hearing it on a regular basis every day in school, how does it make sense that they're too young to hear it in movies? Am I the only one who finds this nonsensical?

Not only are kids exposed on a regular basis to profanity, but most of them use it - some more than others. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. (When I was in high school, I did not use "curse words," nor did one of my friends.) But most teenagers spit out at least an occasional profane word or two, if only to express a streak of rebellion by uttering a forbidden/taboo expression. It can be a liberating experience to say "fuck" for the first time. There's also a peer pressure issue. If everyone in a group is swearing, who want to be the odd one out? For parents who argue that they have never heard their son or daughter use profanity, I offer the gentle reminder that children frequently use different language at home than at school or around their friends. Just because a mother or father hasn't heard their child use profanity doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

The point of all this isn't to impugn anyone, because I view profanity as a normal part of language. No, it often isn't flattering or appealing, but it's only obscene to those whose values haven't caught up to the calendar. I agree that it's good manners to avoid swearing in polite company. But that's irrelevant to the points I'm making here. I'm not talking about kids cursing while their grandparents are in the room. I'm talking about kids saying "fuck" while in the company of their friends, or hearing it in school or during a movie.

A final word about how I think movie ratings should be determined. This is a loose rule of thumb that would need to be refined. If a teenager is likely to see something, hear something, or experience something as part of his everyday existence, the rating should not be an R. If he/she is unlikely to see/hear/experience it, then an R is warranted. We can argue at another time about whether a 16-year old is likely to see naked bodies and experience sex as part of his/her normal existence. We can argue at another time about whether he/she is likely to see carnage and death as part of his/her everyday lifestyle. But there's no argument about whether he/she is going to use and/or hear profanity. The question that remains is whether we as adults are going to face up to reality or continue to skirt around it in the name of "protecting the children."

It has been a while since I have written something this incendiary. I can see the flames coming...