Watching Our Language


As I mentioned yesterday, Boo 2! A Madea Halloween was the No. 1 movie in the country this weekend. Its “family friendly” PG-13 rating certainly helped raise its box-office tally, even though I didn’t find the film particularly family friendly. But turns out, the MPAA originally slapped the movie with an R rating before director/star Tyler Perry went back in and made some judicious cuts.

The problem? Language, Perry told CinemaBlend—particularly that of Joe, Madea’s crass, perpetually stoned brother. Said Perry:

Out of control. His language was just really really rough and in PG you could only really say… they only give you so many curse words if you are going to stay PG-13. That was it, just language.

It’s nice that the MPAA wants to protect our ears from audible vulgarity … or, at least what it deems too much of it. Truth is, Boo 2! was plenty vulgar even with the cuts. Sure, it lost a few s-words, but it still included three of ’em. It changed some “d–ns” to “darns,” but the MPAA still let about 50 of them go.

Listen, the MPAA has a really difficult job. I don’t envy its members. Still, Boo 2! illustrates the randomness of the ratings system. Kids can be exposed to three s-words, but five is beyond the pale? We can deal with 50 “d–ns,” but 55 is just too much?

But the MPAA’s language constraints, just like the rest of their guidelines, are pretty, um, flexible, and getting more so all the time.

For years, it seemed like any PG-13 movie could never have more than two f-words. But the inspiring PG-13 film Marshall had three. Boo 2! had to cull its s-word count down to three to garner a PG-13 rating, Perry suggests. Meanwhile, Only the Brave—also PG-13—had “40 or so,” according to our review, and a pair of f-words to boot.

Obviously, the context of these movies plays a big role in the ratings. Marshall serves as an inspiring biopic that many would want their kids to see, language or no. Only the Brave gives us a bevy of hotshot firefighters doing an incredibly dangerous job. Again, I could see parents taking their kids to the flick to give them a glimpse at some real-life heroes at work.

But plenty of parents will steer well clear of those movies, too, and mostly because of the language.

I applaud that sort of discernment, but the fact they’d have to forgo a movie like Marshall is, frankly, kind of a shame. Marshall has a lot else going for it, and of all the content caveats we offer in our reviews, language seems to me to be the most unnecessary element that filmmakers include.

You could argue that Hacksaw Ridge wouldn’t have been as effective without the blood and violence. You can’t unveil the devastating toll of alcoholism without the liquor. But you can tell an incredibly effective story—and any sort of story you want to tell, really—without the language. Looking back at any Hitchcock work will illustrate that point just fine. I doubt very many folks—religious or no—have walked out of a movie and thought to themselves, “You know what? That movie was OK, but it sure could’ve used more cussing.”

Sure, I’m sure some would argue that bad language adds to the movie’s realism: “Firefighters cuss,” they’d say. “Only the Brave simply shows that reality.” And that, of course, is correct … to a point. But if rigorous authenticity is the argument, I suspect that the language from some of these firefighters would’ve barreled past a PG-13 rating without a pause and landed firmly in R territory. The filmmakers were still censoring the film … but just enough to skate through with a PG-13 rating, but not enough to open the movie’s doors to many families. Again, a shame.

The other argument to include harsh language in a film is that it adds impact to a given moment—a roundhouse right to a snippet of dialogue. Arguably, Marshall employs two of its three f-words in just such a moment, communicating Thurgood Marshall’s hurt and anger when a co-worker insults his motives.

And yet, because foul language is so pervasive, both in our movies and in our culture, the supposed power of these words is itself undercut. As I’ve written before, profanity is designed to shock: When it becomes so ubiquitous in the culture, it ceases to be shocking. It loses its reason for being. Given the pervasiveness of bad language today, we may soon have to create new curse words that will take the forboten place of the old.

Language is a funny thing, and admittedly, the lines we draw to guide its usage can feel, indeed, quite arbitrary. But for those of us who care about language—and want to avoid exposing our families’ ears to too much of the foul stuff—we have to be extra rigorous these days.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Cream Meme 7 months ago

Alas, there's that maddening "If only …" tunneling through the tender core like a worm wriggling its way through a deliciously ripe apple.

If only the recipe hadn't called for 130 profanities.

If only Carl didn't tell dirty jokes and spit out obscenities in front of his son.

If only he didn't smoke that joint with Molly.

If only sexual innuendo wasn't slathered on like frosting.

If only I didn't have end this review by talking about how all those ingredients combine to give us a sweet story with a seriously sour aftertaste._

Evan Weisensel 7 months ago
Remember kids, in the fight for wholesome talk. Please hear these wise words of encouragement and remember the dangerous consequences of using naughty words.

We can do it its all up to us-mmmkay (mmmkay)
With a little plan we can change our lives tooo-day
We don't have to spend our lives living in the trash
Homeless on the streets doing odd jobs for cash
Follow this plan and very soon you will see-eey
Its easy mmkay!
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bobed 7 months ago
He shares opinions that: cursing is morally neutral, homosexuality is not wrong, that he doesn't mind violence and sexual content in the media he consumes.... What is a person like this doing on PluggedIn, whose very existence is devoted to helping people AVOID such content in the media? That is why I think he is trolling. Everything he says indicates that his viewpoint is liberal, and entirely opposed to what Focus on the Family is all about. So, I ask YOU, why do you think he's NOT trolling? His opinions don't belong here.
Inkfeather1 . 7 months ago
Have you ever heard the expression "don't feed the trolls"? If you don't like what someone has to say, maybe you should ignore them. Everyone has the right to an opinion, even one that opposes you.
bobed 7 months ago
So why are YOU incapable of ignoring ME? When I asked you to stop replying to me, your replies increased tenfold until I was forced to stop asking you to leave me alone. You have all but admitted you are a troll. Why are you not yet banned from these comments?
Alex Clark 7 months ago
This suddenly made me remember a scientific study I heard about recently on a podcast.  The results of the study indicated that swearing can actually boost a person's strength and up their pain tolerance in a given situation.  But ironically they also determined that the effect is less for people who swear "often" compared to those who rarely swear.  so basically...all things in moderation?  ^^
Andrew Gilbertson 7 months ago
It's funny, in terms of 'realism' for profanity; I hear that argument a lot. Yet while I can't speak to firefighters, I am reminded of the 1995 classic Apollo 13, which the surviving astronauts reportedly appreciated, but noted that (unlike the film's portrayal of them) as professionals trained to do their job under pressure, they really didn't curse that much. So the charge of realism may not always be accurate as proponents claim.
charitysplace 7 months ago
This reminds me of when I did research into HBO's Band of Brothers, and how the man on whose life it was based was shocked / offended at the frequent harsh uses of "language we did not use in WWII"; many other WWII veterans also commented over the years that they did not tend to use THAT word in that time period.

I watch a lot of historical-based pieces as a fan of history and there's a lot of modern profanities that show up in them to be 'edgy,' even if Henry VIII would not have spoken that way. :P
Andrew Gilbertson 7 months ago
Wait... you mean that people of past generations did not always have the values, priorities, behaviors, language, and customs that we have today? Gasp, shock, horror- Hollywood has lied to me! ;)
charitysplace 7 months ago
Indeed, my friend!

What's odd is that I find these discrepancies and mistakes even in "programmes" that claim to BE historically accurate -- such as the television series "Wolf Hall," though I noticed the American release edited THAT WORD out when it sold the series on Amazon...

Do you think of Hollywood LIES to us about bad language, they perhaps LIE to us about other things? ;)
Andrew Gilbertson 7 months ago
It is funny, though, isn't it? As human beings, we're credulous creatures. So even though every area we know about- the way people talk on the phone, the particulars of our profession, historical events in which we are well-versed- we roll our eyes t how inaccurate and streamlined and idealized and just plain *fantastical* the Hollywood portrayal is... and yet for everything we *haven't* had firsthand experience on (including other countries and cultures, the workings of romance and relationships (to the young), and any number of other significant items in our worldview)m our first instinct is to believe that what we're seeing is an accurate portrayal created with the authority of one who is knowledgeable and dedicated to creating reality. Even despite the track record of the things we know, we still tend to accept that the things we DON'T know suddenly leap up to a 100% accuracy rating unless given an extremely strong or over-the-top reason to question the veracity of what we're seeing.

For some reason, we accept the word of known liars far, far too often, and with far too little thought.
Evan Weisensel 7 months ago
Honestly, it kind of depends on the situation you're in. Because when I took classes at a video game college, most students seemed unable to go two sentences with dropping some variant of the F-Word into their conversation. (Especially and predominantly in my anatomy for artists class I took there.)
charitysplace 7 months ago
I presume my comment was censored because I referenced the same word using the same dialogue as the person did in this blog post. Can you rescue it from the trash bin? I don't recall anything offensive in it.

In other news, look up Apple's Billion Dollar Bet on Hollywood. Looks like Apple wants to start producing content 'appropriate for wide audiences.' They edited down foul language in their first show. Does this mean a few decent / family friendly shows may be coming up the pike?

Hope so.
Inkfeather1 . 7 months ago
Why are swear words bad? I personally see them as just more words, nothing bad about them. But I'm willing to hear opposing view points, so anyone want to give some reasons why certain words are "bad" and others "good"?
bobed 7 months ago
Colossions 3:8: But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

Ephesians 5:4: Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

Proverbs 8:13: The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.

Proverbs 10:31: The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse.

I am sure that there were words in ancient Greek or Hebrew that they considered filthy and obscene, but which we, who speak English today, would not understand. Likewise, they wouldn't find our filthy words to be offensive at all, because they wouldn't understand them. 

Filthy words only have meaning because we give them meaning - but that doesn't mean they are not filthy. Not at all. Does the word "car" or "truck" any less refer to vehicles because humans gave them meaning? They, too, are just words - but they have meaning whether we like it or not. Viewing cursing as "just words" is a very dangerous viewpoint to have. Our words always have meanings and always have consequences.

Inkfeather1 . 7 months ago
I never said words didn't have meaning. I'm saying, why are their meanings deemed "bad". After all, every swear word used today is a synonym of a word we don't see as bad. Same meaning, but one is "good" (or at least ok) and the other "bad". Why?
bobed 7 months ago
Because we make them so. Is that not obvious? If I said the string of letters asdfghjkl was a taboo word, it wouldn't make it so; but if the entirety of Western culture agreed that asdfghjkl was unfit to repeat in polite company, it would be so. Because we all agree that "truck" refers to a vehicle, that makes it true. Because we all agree that the F-word is distasteful and filthy, that makes it so. It's not hard.
Inkfeather1 . 7 months ago
Actually, it is harder than that. The majority of society has decided that homosexuality is ok. I doubt you agree with that. So why do you so readily agree with their opinion on certain words for absolutely no reason?
bobed 7 months ago
Since when has the majority of society agreed that homosexuality is okay? That is a silly example. The MEDIA has decided homosexuality is okay, and wants you to think that everyone has accept it. But society at large - real America, and the rest of the world - has not. 

Although the language is a little blue at some point, I would suggest you try this video. It explains the concept of profanity better than I can.
bobed 7 months ago
Did you watch the video? I'm thinking you didn't.

We use swear words knowing they are bad, knowing that society thinks they're bad, knowing that they are societally considered inappropriate for us, and yet we (some of us, anyhow) use them anyway. You can't tell me that doesn't cause harm.  It erodes morals. And studies have found it does indeed cause actual harm.

Since you apparently don't have time to watch a video, maybe you can lower yourself to reading an article. Sorry to take up your precious time,but if you're really serious about understanding my viewpoint....

And no, sorry. Society as a whole has not decided that homosexuality is okay. That is simply not a fact. You have been brainwashed so thoroughly by the media that you aren't even aware of it.
Inkfeather1 . 7 months ago
Once again, you are wrong. You have been brainwashed by your religious leaders to think that society is on your side. And yet: Homosexuality is no longer illegal, they are allowed to serve openly in the military, they can be legally married, etc. Society has accepted it even if you have not. I'm not going to watch your videos or read your articles. If you can't think for yourself and present your own arguments, you are not worth my time.
bobed 7 months ago
So "thinking for yourself" and "presenting your own arguments" now equals, "Don't present any outside evidence that was compiled by people other than yourself"??? What a totally moronic viewpoint! By the way, Inkfeather, you have not done such a great job of defending your own hedonistic viewpoint. Perhaps you should think about getting your own outside evidence to back up your claims. You look the fool here, not I. You may be one of the most frustrating blowhards I have ever met online, and that is truly saying something. 

Oh, and by the way: if you truly think the law = society, the government = society, the media = society... you are brainwashed, and you are lost.
bobed 7 months ago
By the way, the video is from a scientific channel that has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, if that helps your liberal self decide whether to watch it. Perhaps you would learn something by considering viewpoints other than your own. 
Andrew Gilbertson 7 months ago
I think biblically (as already noted) there is a lot of commendation to avoid foul language and coarse jesting whether we understand the 'why' or not... but if I had to articulate the instinctive or guess at the biblical purpose...

I think a lot of it comes down to intent. Most of our foul language either takes the Lord's name in vain, glorifies the vulgar, or vulgarizes the glorious. It is disrespectful and dishonoring to that which God made holy or He who *is* holy. (Again, this doesn't cover all available words, but a majority share).

I think it also comes down to the purposeful expression of the crude or profane in anger; the sound of the word may not have any inherent meaning beyond that invested in it by human usage, but the intent (or even complicity in using it, if doing so casually) after it has been thus-defined, is displeasing to the Lord, not predisposing of our minds toward God-honoring thinking, and mocking or defiling either the created things or the creator by invective usage.

I feel like words are only allowing me to dance around the edges of a concept that I can't fully articulate, that's almost more 'understood' than intellectually explained (or at least beyond my ability to articulate) as to why this usage is inherently bad on a scale beyond the casual-infraction status that we'd typically attribute to it... but at the very least, I think that starts to get at the edges of it; what we're going when we use profanity, even if not fully as to why doing that is a bad thing in God's eyes.

But in the end, as with many of His commands, I also know that I don't fully have to understand it (which is good, as with my limited perspective, I probably won't) to recognize that it *is* His standard and there's an eternal reason for it that I'll understand one day, in His presence, and probably not before. :-)
Inkfeather1 . 7 months ago
Ok, I can see where you're going with the idea of the intent is bad. If you are using your words to hurt someone or tear them down that's definitely not ok. But any words can be used to do that, not just swear words. Are swear words always harmful to others? Because I'm not sure that they are. They may make some people uncomfortable, but if they aren't actually hurting anyone then I still can't see why they are singled out as "always bad, no exceptions".
bobed 7 months ago
Can you refute the Bible verses that warn against cursing? Was the divinely-inspired word of God incorrect and flawed to assume that curse words are bad?
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bobed 7 months ago
It is about the intent behind the words. The meaning we give it. I have explained over and over again. The reason it's impossible to talk to you is because you will not accept any reasonable premises that are given to you. Which I assume is a very good quality to have in a college critical thinking class, but not so much in the real world.
Inkfeather1 . 7 months ago
You keep saying it's the intent, but you have yet to show me how it hurts anyone. I already said that if words are actively tearing people down then yes, that's bad. But show me how the words hurt people. The reason it's impossible to talk to you is that you say a lot of things without saying anything at all.
bobed 7 months ago
The Bible says it hurts us. It erodes our morals, makes us less careful with our speech, makes us hard instead of gentle and cruel instead of kind. Bad speech makes bad people. Loose lips sink ships. You are the one who says a lot of things without saying anything - you blather and argue and even indirectly mock the Bible. If you have no problem with profanity and homosexuality, why on Earth are you here? I don't troll foul, atheist, liberal minded websites. I've never felt the urge.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Forgive me, but I'm under the impression that when the Bible talks about 'cursing' it doesn't mean 'cussing/swearing' but CURSING as in blessings and curses.

Also, not as an attack on your message, you may want to work on your delivery.  You really come across like
"I am the fountain of God's truth and I have to explain it to all you sinful, hell-bound, rebellious idiots."
I'm not saying that's what you intend.  I can see that you are obviously someone who cares about the issues.  I just think your delivery should focus more on helping people see your side, as opposed to a sides good guy / bad guy setup.
We are all on a search for truth and we can only grow when challenged.
Andrew Gilbertson 7 months ago
I think that they're imbued with a certain meaning, a certain intent, to the point that even if their usage is not intended in that fashion, it's still a participation in that 'defiled' (for lack of a better term) word and all that it involves. 

And again, since much of it is profaning either God or His creation, I think that's also an issue in his eyes.

Of course, I am totally just speculating; I'm not privy to God's mind, and may be totally barking up the wrong tree. All I know is that it's an 'ours is not to reason why' scenario; I may not know the full and total ramifications and meaning, I just know the command comes from the Perfect One- all glory to God!- so I'm content to abide by it. These are just my best guesses as to the 'why.'
Inkfeather1 . 7 months ago
That's fine if you're content to not use them. No one should be forced to use any words they don't want to. For now, the only reason I see not to use them is that some people will be mad at you for it and make some negative consequences happen. But that doesn't make them objectively bad words.
Andrew Gilbertson 7 months ago
Well... again, because God instructs us against using coarse, profane, or vulgar language... God's forbidding kinda of automatically and inherently makes them bad. In addition, the other reasons I gave. If the criteria for objective badness is 'harm done to other people,' and if you define harm in the perceivable external rather than spiritual sense, sure, profanity fails that category in a number of instances (and even then, not always). But that's far from the only thing that can make a thing objectively bad.
Andrew Gilbertson 7 months ago
And I would add (annoyingly, as a separate comment because I don't see a way to edit the previous one) that an inability to ascertain God's full reasons (which is an intellectually-mandatory and expected necessity when comparing an infinite, perfect, all-knowing God to finite human beings; if we could puzzle out all His ways, then our beliefs about the nature of either God or humanity would be demonstrably false) doesn't disqualify His standards.

In short, I may be able to readily identify why He tells me a thing is wrong doesn't actually prevent it from being wrong. (Just as my kids can't always understand or identify why the things I tell them not to do are wrong, and even offer reasons- 'But I'll be careful!' and the like- why a thing would not be harmful, in their view.) In short, the standard exists; profanity is inherently and eternally wrong, period; that standard has already been set down by the author of all moral law. Speculation on the reason is both a fun indulgence and an interesting intellectual exercise; but in the end, the veracity of any reasoning we may be able to construct or theorize on is immaterial to the goodness or badness of the thing in question. That has already been pre-determined. At best, our speculation is like the work of a forensic scientist at a crime scene; we might speculate on who killed the guy, and how, and why- and if we're really skilled and really fortunate, we might manage to piece together a theory that matches the real reasons and circumstances- but none of our success or failure changes the fact that the victim is dead; that fact was already determinate at the outset.
tiggersuze . 7 months ago
Do you use these words yourself?  I would never use “bad” language in front of my mother.  Would you?

Some guy said something obscene to my daughter once on the phone (on speaker) and my husband grabbed that phone and asked the guy, “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?!” Then he told the guy to never call back.  

I work with elementary school children and am shocked by the types of shows they are allowed to watch.  All the bad language and adult content is taking their innocence away.  It’s sad.
charitysplace 7 months ago
There is no hard and fast rule; the answer is simply "whatever society deems profane, we consider profane."

Certain words conjure crude sexual images, so society considers them 'bad'; others harken back to the middle ages and condemning people to the Hot Place, so it's as much about the history of the word as it is the present meaning.
Inkfeather1 . 7 months ago
Would that work for other things though? "whatever society deems good, we consider good"? I feel like you would challenge that statement. 
Anonymous 7 months ago
I always felt the same way. According to Wikipedia a lot of English swear words have Germanic roots. So maybe that has something to do with it? 

Anonymous 7 months ago
Posted by Peggy Carter

It's a hard line to draw in entertainment - especially in cases like Only the Brave. I watched Breathe recently and it was phenomenal! There was only a little language in it, but what they did put in was unnecessary. 

Another aspect in the topic of foul language is the difficulty in not becoming desensitized to it. It's hard to admit that I've become surprisingly desensitized to all kinds of awful language and barely give it a second thought now.
Andrew Gilbertson 7 months ago
Same here. A stressful work at week, and I find words in my head on an hourly basis that have (almost) never left my mouth, and would have had me switching off a movie a decade ago. I keep wondering to myself "Where am I frequently hearing this, and not noticing, that it's become so ingrained in my thoughts?"
Justice M. 7 months ago

I have a similar problem. The thing is, I'm pretty sure I know where the words in my head come from: college. I work vigilantly to be discerning about the media I watch/listen to, but unfortunately, I visit a place three times a week where I am often surrounded by people whose every third word seems to be profanity (or blasphemy). I even have one or two professors who sometimes swear to make a point. It irks me that I try so hard to fill my mind with good things only to have my efforts eroded by my time at college (a place where one is theoretically supposed to become more intellectually cultivated and grow as a person!).

Evan Weisensel 7 months ago
I actually had a very similar problem when I took classes a video game college for a few years. It really didn't start out too bad (started out pretty well, actually) but the more classes I took with different and newer students, the more language people seemed to use. Coming to a head in my anatomy for artists class. (Seriously, gamers and educational overviews of anatomy do not mix!) And it eventually began to wear me down a lot (And partially rub off on me.) to the point in which we called up the school about it, and they tried to have a professional environment from then on. (And they did, for the most part, barring a few slip ups) Though I did enjoy my time at the school (The students were nice, if a bit clique-y. The teachers and staff liked me a lot, and learned quite a few useful things. {especially in the language department! ;)}) I will admit that the constant exposure to worldly talk combined with the general stress of college work like that does wear you down after a while.
bobed 7 months ago
The foul language that innundates our culture is sickening. I'm not often exposed to the extent of the horrible language that can exist in movies, because I don't often watch movies that have more than the occasional d-word. So when I AM exposed to the extent of the language, it makes me ill. And the bigwigs think this is okay for our kids to hear?! Give me a break.