Friday, 18 May 2012

R is for Ridiculous

I have just discovered (you can say I'm slow) that a film needs to have only two swear-words in it in the USA to be R-rated, meaning a person under 17 can't go to the film unless accompanied by an adult. This is astonishing to people who don't live in the USA. Here, my 16-year-old can legally have sex, get married (with my permission), sign up to serve and die in the army, smoke cigarettes... but in the USA she couldn't see a movie with two swear-words in it!? WTF?

If the USA was full of lovely, demure young people who never swore or put a foot wrong, I'd have more sympathy with this restriction. But: American teenagers swear on average 90 times a day; American teenagers are *far* more likely than British teenagers to carry a gun (and turn it on their classmates); on average, American teenagers lose their virginity at 17; there are three quarters of a million teenage pregnancies each year in the USA. And they grow up and make/watch the grossest, most violent movies made anywhere except Japan.

Perhaps a swear-word in a book or film is not really corrupting them very much at all? Perhaps, it is reflecting a little life as they live it?

On the other hand... in 2002 I took my daughter to see a movie that had a rating of only PG (PG-13 in the USA). It had sex slaves, murder and cannibalism in it. No swear-words, though, so that's OK for tender young minds. Is the power of language really so great that a swear word is worse than a caged woman surrounded by the bones of previously cannibalised people? What IS it with American movie people?

By gosh, I'd better go and make some jam before I come over all naughty in this book and say something worse than 'Goodness - my leg seems to have been cut off by a teen psycho who's been watching Saw movies. That's jolly rotten luck.'

Stats on American teenage sexual activity.
Swearing in movies.


  1. When my nephews were very young my father was making one of our very large bookcases. He had brought it inside to fit it to the wall. The two boys were playing on the floor nearby and, when the bookcase fell over, my father said, "Damn!" The boys looked at each other and then the older one looked at my mother and said, "Papa swore!" The interesting thing is that his own father and his paternal grandfather used much worse language and they accepted that. They were just shocked that someone who did not normally use even the mildest of swear words should use something they thought of as being like that. I would be far more worried about physical violence than a couple of swear words in a movie!

  2. When I went to the American Librarians Association conference last year I was amazed that so many of them seemed obsessed by swear words, especially the dreaded 'f-bomb'. This goes some way to put that concern into context. When my kids went to an international school I often found the American mothers to be very concerned about nudity (no running around naked in paddling pools for their toddlers) and swearing that I considered very mild - a pizza box promising 'damn good pizzas' for example.
    I agree with you that the R rating is R for ridiculous...but it reflects the morals of small town America.

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  4. at, I guess you're right that it's context that determines the level of shock for children - at least young children. But it seems bizarre that the context might be one in which there is brutal and horrific violence, but swearing is *still* not allowed! Hunger Games, for example: kids can watch teens slaughter each other without an adult present because they don't swear while doing it. Er...

    1. Agree. I loathed the Hunger Games as a book and I could not bring myself to watch the film. And yes, we should normalise loving behaviour - not violence!

  5. 'Cat', I mean! Already removed it once because of typo.... weekend typing fingers!
    Keren - toddlers weren't allowed to run around naked to go in the paddling pool?! That is *amazing*. Surely that suggests a deep distrust of adults, as toddlers aren't going to find anything interesting in it.

  6. This is truly bonkers.

    Here in the UK is can be fine for kids to watch people having their guts ripped out, legs chopped off, blood like fountains from every orifice - but not loving sex. So an act of love is not OK, but killing people - that's entertainment ... how does that work?

  7. Absolutely agree, Jo. I just can't understand why it's fine to cut people up but anything more than a bit of kissing is considered out of order. It's crazy. Surely we should aim to normalise loving behaviour, not violence?

  8. I had to take my youngest out of the film of White Fang because she was so frightened by the dog-fight and and huge looming bear. Admittedly she was very little but not too little to be admitted to the film. The following week I took oldest to see L.A.Story, which had a 15 certificate because of some sexual references. It was a comedy and youngest would have loved it.

  9. Not just any swear words, it is two of the F words. Others don't count.

  10. Based on my movie watching experience, I will say that movie makers don't just toss in a couple vulgarities in an otherwise family-friendly film. Every R-rated movie I have ever seen has certainly earned that rating, and with much more than a few F-bombs tossed in for flavoring.

  11. Rebecca, thank you for your comment, and I'm sure you're right. My point, though, is not what else is in an R-rated movie, but that while swearing can't be in a movie with a lower rating, a whole lot of worse stuff can be. Violence is normalised and seems acceptable - but sex and swearing are demonised. Swearing might be unpleasant, but it's hardly dangerous and it's part of normal daily life for most (if not all) teens.

  12. I suppose you're right about the violence, but I would say that violence is often essential to the plot of a story, while language and sex are more often gratuitous ("Saw" and other similar movies aside). Sure, swear words are a common part of most teens' lives in some context, whether they say them or hear them regularly or not, but does that mean that we should just shrug our shoulders and accept it, no matter what the context? Perhaps that is what makes language and "bad words" a touchy subject. A bad word can be just a word, or it can be much more depending on the context.

    I would have to disagree with you about sex being demonized in lower-rated movies. Many PG-13 rated romances really push the limits in the sex area, in my opinion. I don't see why teens, or even unmarried adults, should be constantly jumping into bed.

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  14. I wouldn't vote for gratuitous violence in any context, Rebecca - and agree that if it's necessary to the plot it should be included (there's plenty of violence in some of my books). But its presentation must be tailored to the age of the reader/viewer and I've had children very upset by the level of graphic violence in some movies rated PG. I've never seen a child upset by swearing (or sexual activity).

    I agree, too, that swearing for the sake of it is not appropriate (like sex for the sake of it). But if something terrible happens, something which in real life would be greeted with a swear word, I'd rather have the swear word (in work for older children). I see my role as reflecting life as children live it, warts and all, and helping them to understand it/find meaning in it. That can involve dealing with some tricky subjects and reflecting some things that are unpleasant. Teens - and unmarried adults - often are 'constantly jumping into bed', whether anyone else likes it or not. But I didn't mean jumping into bed - I meant not being able to show kissing, or skimpy clothes (in books - all seems OK in movies!)

    Of course, it's all a matter of opinion what is acceptable behaviour. I'd rather people of all ages didn't stuff their mouths with the corpses of animals, but I don't expect books or movies to stop showing people eating burgers because people just DO eat burgers! And I put meat-eating in my books, without comment or disapproval, because I reflect life as it is.

    It's interesting how attitudes to violence/sex/swearing vary - in terms of how acceptable/unacceptable they are in books. With adult books/films, of course, it's less important to regulate as the end reader/viewer makes their own choices and is (should be!) mature and thoughtful enough to do so.

  15. So was Four Weddings and a Funeral x-rated in the US, because of its brilliant and very funny scene when the Hugh Grant character and his flatmate realise they are late for a wedding, and use nothing but the f-word for the first few minutes of the film? My favourite line of dialogue ever - 'fuckity-fuck'