Defusing the bombs

fbombSomeone wiser than me (that’s covers pretty much everyone) once observed that no one ever left a movie theater saying, “Yeah, it was a good movie. I just wish there had been more swearing.” Plenty of audience members yearn for more violence or lurid sexual content, but swearing is not really in that great demand.

I guess the market is saturated.

This topic came to mind recently when I read an online discussion among screenwriters wondering whether the whole F-bomb thing had gotten out of hand. The discussion was initiated by someone who questioned whether movies rely too much on that popular profanity to convince viewers of the film’s edginess.

Funny thing about that. F-bombs have been defused merely by their ubiquity. They aren’t spoken only by nasty thugs in edgy movies or shady characters in bleak noir films. They’re in goofy comedies, historical epics, and science fiction. They’re in everything! We’ve been carpet F-bombed. As a result, the very effect they supposedly serve is gone. It’s just another cliché. A cliché no one questions.

Let’s think about it. If a character in a movie said any other word as often as Robert De Niro or Chris Rock use The Big One in an average movie, no one would take them seriously. The argument is that this is the way people talk. Which people? I don’t know them, and I’ve been in some pretty rough environments. In my experience, the number of times a person uses that word is inversely proportional to the IQ of the speaker.

Besides, film characters aren’t written to speak the way people really speak. The “um”s, “uh”s, and “er”s are generally banished because they’re boring, just as excessive swearing has become boring. Suppose, for example, a character said the word “like” as often as many people do today, say, like this. That dialog would be unlistenable. It would never pass development muster.

So we’re on our way to completely declawing another obscenity. We’ve seen it before. When I was growing up, there were still older people who remembered where the word “screw” came from. If we innocent children referred to something as “screwed up”, we were shushed or, if we were unlucky, went on a soap diet. We had no idea why. Today no one bats an eyelash at screw, which means essentially the same thing as… well, you know.

For better or worse, our culture is in the midst of the dilution of another cuss word: suck. No one said this when I was young. It was a “swear word”. Like the other no-say-ems, it referred to a sexual act. Now it means… well, it means nothing. And everyone says it with impunity, from children to parents to ministers to teachers. It’s just another word.

Crap, heck, darn, shoot, screw. The euphemism backlog is growing as the “real” swears fade into impotence. I’m not sure if all this is good news or bad. Are we lowering the standards of the language or are we gradually removing the words that hurt?

I don’t friggin’ know.


Addendum: OK, just so you know it’s not only narrow-minded bloggers like me who think this way, here’s a quote from a recent newsletter from Richard Walter, chairman of the UCLA screenwriting program:

“The downside to writers having the freedom to write whatever they want is that it allows us also to write as badly as we want. The relentless exploitation of vulgarity is supposed to foster a sense of authenticity. In fact, however, it usually achieves precisely the opposite: heavy-handedness, thudding self consciousness, and a tone that is overbearingly shrill.”

To which I say, “Amen, Professor Walter.”

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