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Breaking the language barrier

Culture | Hollywood uses the ratings system to justify bad language on TV

Issue: "Dumpsters or hospitals?," June 24, 2000

There was a time when the Federal Communications Commission would respond to profanity and obscene language in the over-the-air media by, figuratively speaking, washing out the producer's mouth with soap. Television watched its language, even as movies and pay cable cursed a blue streak. But lately, the language on broadcast TV has been getting cruder. Words that were once never to be uttered in public or in, as we used to say, polite company, have become commonplace in prime time.

According to a recent study by the Parents Television Council, the number of curse words on TV increased 58 percent from 1997 to 1999. The study found that CBS, to its credit, actually showed a decline in profanity over those two years, while the worst offender was the youth-oriented network UPN.

One word, though, has always been taboo, though there are signs this final language barrier is about to come down. This word, a term for sexual intercourse that became the most aggressive and offensive of English obscenities, used to earn a movie an automatic R-rating. It would never, ever be heard on broadcast TV. But, as entertainment critic Dave Tianen reports in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, times are changing.

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Instead of not using the word, characters--and especially real-life guests--use the word, but it gets bleeped. Increasingly, the word is "partially bleeped" so that the initial sound and thus what the word actually is becomes completely clear. And on UPN's WWF Smackdown, crazed wrestling fans are shown holding up signs that feature the full-frontal word in all its four letters.

"When it comes to language," said Mark Honig, executive director of the Parents Television Council, "definitely they've dropped the barrier that stood for many years and are allowing more and more."

Ironically, a major factor, according to Mr. Honig, is the ratings system that was originally supported by many activists as a way to make TV clean up its act. Producers and writers can "hide behind that ratings system. As long as they label it, everything is allowable as far as they're concerned."

But even if the nearly-always-ignored ratings system makes it possible for Hollywood moguls to broadcast bad language ("the show was rated PG, so if parents don't exercise guidance it's not our fault"), the question remains why they would want to.

Mr. Tianen cites the desire of free television to compete with the premium channels, the impulse to be "edgy," and the sense that profanity makes a show more realistic. But "realism" depends on what we assume to be real.

"The one thing that has always struck me in private conversation with people who work in the entertainment industry, is how foul the language is just in conversation," said pro-family movie critic Michael Medved. "It's very striking. You will find people in executive suites trying to talk like gang members. That is not typical at Microsoft." The TV industry is "one of the very rare corporate environments where you will find very well-educated, extremely well-paid people trying to sound street."

Hollywood folks start by assuming that "real" people talk the way they do. Then, by making that sort of talk part of the common public discourse it becomes socially acceptable-whereupon real people do begin sounding more like Hollywood. Though bad language has always been with us, it has become far worse not just on TV but in society as a whole, especially among our entertainment-saturated young people.

There are, of course, many kinds of bad words. In their study of the upsurge in bad language on TV, the Parents Television Council did not even count so-called milder swear words such as "hell" and "damn." From a biblical point of view, these are real and literal curses, arguably much more serious than merely offensive words about bodily functions. To pray that someone or even something-an inanimate object such as the hammer that hits a finger-should be damned eternally is a serious violation of Christian love, which should always bless rather than curse (James 3:9-10).

Most serious of all would be "profanity"-that is, taking what is sacred and making it common; that is, "profaning" something that is holy, as in taking the Lord's name in vain. The violation of this particular Commandment has become so routine and accepted that it sounds almost pious, and yet it would seem to be far more sinful than using the F-word. (That would fall under the prohibition against "filthy language" [Colossians 3:8]).

At any rate, Christians cannot fall into the syndrome of saying bad language is "just words" and is thus inconsequential. Those who believe God communicates to us by means of His Word have to maintain a high view of language, even as the rest of the culture becomes coarser and coarser in both its deeds and its words.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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