Movie Ratings and Content: Judging Profanity in Film

Series Introduction: Movie ratings are traditionally based on three primary criteria:  profanity, sex, and violence, with some additional emphasis on drug use.  One of the flaws of the current rating system is that each level of PSVD content is wrapped into the same rating, without considering the different categories of content individually.  As such, the current rating system provides no additional information about content for viewers who might care about one category of “objectionable” content more than another.

In reality, each of these four categories are fundamentally different from one another and should be considered separately when analyzing and judging movie content.  In a loosely linked series of posts, I’ll be looking at each category individually and see how LDS viewers (or other “decent movie” patrons) can approach each topic.

The word “profanity” as a catch-all term for objectionable language in film is, strictly speaking, two distinct categories:  “profane” language, according to its textbook definition of “showing contempt for deity or for something sacred”, and “vulgarity” — which covers vulgar and obscene expressions not related to God or the divine.   Let’s focus first on the non-profane forms of profanity — that is, basic swear words.

Every language has its obscenities and vulgar terms, and ever since Clark Gable caused audiences to gasp by using the word “damn” in Gone With The Wind in 1939, movies have kept pace in their use and acceptance of profanity in film.  (Often the defense is made that “that’s how people talk”…but, of course, this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where young people learn to swear in part because they are constantly exposed to forms of media that inform them that “that’s how people talk…”)

There is good evidence that the volume of profanity has been increasing in film over the last ten years.  According to wikipedia (warning: as you might expect, that link contains profanity), there are 211 movies that contain 100 or more uses of the f-word and 116 of them were released in the last ten years (with only 12 released before 1990).

How should patrons of “decent films” approach the subject of profanity in film?

The “heart” of profanity

How does profanity begin?  What defines what is considered a ‘swear word’ within a culture and what isn’t?

It’s obviously not that the component letters or phonetic sounds are fundamentally bad — the letters of the English word “this” can be rearranged to form a common swear word, for example, yet “this” is not considered vulgar.  Many languages  have words or expressions that are considered vulgar or obscene while another language may coincidently have the same (or very similar) words or expressions that are considered harmless.

Is it the meaning of the word, then?   We may be on the right track here, as almost universally the literal meaning of swear words tend to be something dirty, gross, and/or vulgar.

Still, most languages have alternate words with exactly the same meaning that are not considered “swear words”, such that the meaning of the word can only be a partial explanation for why some terms are considered profanity over others.  Many common uses of profanity, particularly the ‘f-word’ used as an adjective, have contexts where no conceivable literal interpretation is possible (“I failed that —— test yesterday…”) — where the actual definition of the word becomes meaningless.

There’s something missing here — the “heart” of what defines profanity.  Consider a thought experiment:  have you ever heard someone use a swear word unintentionally?   Where they were genuinely not aware that it was a bad word — say, a young child or a foreigner not accustomed to English?  In many cases, native English speakers will have a different — usually less-offended — reaction to someone who swears innocently than when hearing an adult native who knows what they are saying.  The latter instance possesses a tangible “negativity” within the tone of the conversation — something that’s not present when someone swears accidentally.

Perhaps this is the heart of profanity, and the key to understanding why swear words exist.  It’s not the sounds, or even the word’s meaning — rather, profanity is defined through the negative mood or feeling produced by the speaker’s internal thoughts and captured in his/her words.

This principle raises an interesting question about ‘fake’ swear words, often called “Mormon profanity”: words like ‘shoot’, ‘freak’, or ‘fetch’.  It’s generally accepted that the use of those fake swear words are preferable to real swear words, whether in movies or real life.  Oftentimes, edited versions of movies simply substitute in fake swear words onto the soundtrack, rather than bleeps or mutes.

Given the heart of vulgarity we’ve discussed, though, does this follow logically?  If we accept the notion that what defines the true “vulgarness” of a swear word is the negative feeling or tone created by the speaker, and if we accept that most uses of “Mormon swear words” are meant to directly represent real profanity on a one-to-one basis, wouldn’t this objection still apply?  Shouldn’t we be “offended” at the use of fake profanity just as much as the real stuff, since the negative expression represented by the speaker is the same?

There’s another factor to consider, however.   Let’s do a second thought experiment:  have you ever watched a movie from Australia or the UK where a character used a vulgar term — and you knew that in the movie character’s local culture that was considered a vulgar term, even though it generally isn’t in yours?  Were you offended when you heard it?

Generally speaking, Americans are not offended by hearing foreign swear words, even foreign English ones.  Oftentimes, Americans find foreign swear words funny or amusing rather than truly dirty or obscene — which is interesting, because in theory those users of profanity are still expressing the same negative feelings that American speakers do even if the actual words and sounds are different.  The ‘heart’ is the same…shouldn’t the reaction be the same as well?

If viewers are genuinely not offended when hearing foreign profanity (compared to local profanity) then this implies profanity has a receiving component in addition to a producing component.  That, in order for a word to truly be a “swear word”, hearers of the word must accept it as a ‘swear word’ — just the fact that the speaker intended it to be vulgar is not enough.

(This makes sense:  can you imagine trying to invent a new swear word and get people to accept it as such?  Even if you told people it meant the most insulting, disgusting, vile thing you could think of, you’d probably still get weird looks — or amused giggles — when you used it, instead of “offense”.)

Perhaps this is a legitimate reason why “Mormon profanity” is considered acceptable: because the listener has determined that those words don’t count as swear words, and psychologically they respond accordingly, even when the speaker has obviously intended the expression to be a direct representative of the real thing.  “Intent” is irrelevant:  if the listener doesn’t consider the term to be profanity, it genuinely isn’t.

How to judge profanity in movies

Prospects aren’t promising for viewers who care about profanity in movies, which appear to be increasing in volume and scope.  It’s easy enough to divide movies into ‘no nudity’ and ‘yes nudity’, for example, but rarely do movie viewers have the choice of  ‘no profanity’ or ‘yes profanity’ — it’s usually either ‘a little profanity’ or ‘a lot’.  Even G and PG movies that generally eschew violent and sexual content will still often contain instances of language considered offensive by LDS standards.

One can ask whether accepting ‘a little profanity’ in film is really that different from accepting ‘a lot’ — after all, it’s usually just the same words, repeated more often.  How big a difference can there be between hearing a particular word eight times in a film, versus eighty?

It’s not completely hopeless: Kids-In-Mind lists 416 films with 0 or 1 ratings in Profanity — even many PG-13 or R-rated films — and many of the ’1′ ratings are for “name-calling” and “insults” rather than true offensive language.  (Scanning the list, you may be surprised at some of the films that don’t contain profanity — showing just how unnecessary it can be when creating cinematic art. I doubt anyone was watching any of those films and said to their companion, “This film really needs more profanity in it…”)

But, other than making a conscious effort to support the (few) profanity-free films that exist, what options do LDS or other patrons of ‘decent films’ have?

Edited films, with the profanity removed, are problematic for a number of reasons (discussed in greater depth here).  It is true that profanity is the easiest category of content to edit out of a movie — whether through word substitution or bleeps — and is usually the least integral to the movie’s content.  Viewers who hear bleeped dialogue can usually figure out what the intent was, and don’t miss anything.

However, that fact in itself is both an argument why profanity is almost always gratuitous (any meaning and emotion can be conveyed verbally without profanity as with it) and an argument why removing profanity from the soundtrack is fundamentally useless to begin with — simply because viewers *don’t* miss anything.  Any adult who is familiar enough with the English language will always be able to fill-in-the-gaps mentally with the missing word — and if so, did bleeping or muting the profanity really accomplish anything?  (This principle is subversively satirized in Jimmy Kimmel’s “Unnecessary Censorship” segments, where adding ‘bleeps’ can actually increase the level of vulgarity among adults who have already developed a psychological response to hearing them.)

In the end, dealing with profanity within movie content will have to be an individual decision.  The ‘receiving’ aspect of foul language discussed earlier dictates that only the receiver can determine what level of profanity is appropriate.   Many individuals and families will stick to clean (or edited) films and put up with the fake profanity (or bleeps) that’s more in their comfort zones.  Others will decide, “I’ve heard all these words before and I genuinely don’t care.  It doesn’t bother me.” and base their movie content decisions on other criteria, instead.

It’s not even clear that either of these two options makes a big difference in the end.  While the psychological effects of exposure to extreme amounts of violence and sex are still under consideration, there have been very little similar theories or statements presented about the possible effects of hearing repeated uses of profanity over time, especially since profanity is largely cultural.  What if the biggest psychological effect of exposure to profanity is simply that the listener gets inured to it and stops being offended — is that even necessarily bad?

LDS emphasis on the 13th Article of Faith gives the admonition to seek after the good, and be virtuous in our own words and deeds.  This dictates that we should avoid usage of vulgar and obscene language ourselves, but it’s not as clear what the appropriate response to others using vulgar and obscene language should be, whether in the movies or real life.

In most cases, we cannot control what words others use in the world around us, but we can control our own feelings and reactions to it.  Would a common and legitimate response to hearing offensive language in our daily lives be just to stop being offended by it?  And if listeners, due to circumstance, are choosing to teach themselves to ignore and brush off harsh language from people around them, wouldn’t it be natural to carry that attitude along to watching movies as well?

This isn’t to argue that decent movie viewers should or should not be more accepting of profanity in their entertainment choices.  Many movie viewers would argue, of course, that having to put up with profanity during the day when they can’t choose what to hear makes them *less* likely to want to listen to profanity in movies or music when they can choose what to hear.

That’s a perfectly legitimate argument, although I believe choosing to accept and not be offended by offensive language is a legitimate position also, especially if the primary reason profanity is judged “objectionable” is that…the listener happens to find it objectionable.  Without more evidence that listening to other people swear has tangible ill effects over time (possibly still the case), one can easily just choose to accept the notion that “that’s how (some) people talk” and move on…

[Cross posted at LDS Cinema Online]

Better Sex Through Chastity
Balancing tradition with faith and scholarship: a Mormon application of Peter Enns
Profanity in Film (Part 2): Profane Language and the Third Commandment
The Girl With Her Fingers In Her Ears