Common Wisdom: Common Coarse

Last summer I got the shock of my life. In a movie I attended, only three expletives were uttered. Stunned by a script whose dialogue was not punctuated by foul language, it took me days to figure out the anomaly. Revelation: the movie was set in August of 1963—before public obscenity, actual or scripted, was tolerated.

Moviegoers whose attendance waned in the past twenty years would be traumatized sitting through contemporary films. Casual and excessive vulgar language looms in sharp contrast to movies produced before the late sixties. The current pollution is crystallized by comments at the end of newspaper reviews, where ratings by the industry (PG-13, PG, R) are amplified: film contains violence, nudity, explicit sex, profanity. Generally, movies contain one or another of the first three. They almost always contain the fourth, and we’re not referring here to the occasional “damn” or “hell.”

Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post devoted a column (Jan. 4, 1988) to the phenomenon. After seeing three recent hits he declared, “each of them was riddled, from first frame to last, with language so foul as to redden the cheeks of the proverbial sailor.” Yardley admits to being a discriminate user of profanity but “in private conversation… among those more or less of a mature age.” What shocks and aggrieves Yardley, as it does many others, is the routine, virtually obligatory use of obscenity on the screen, for general audiences, bestowing on it legitimacy. Street encounters with profanity, formerly heard in locker rooms or from the culturally disadvantaged, now fall from the lips of well-dressed teens and young adults. Filmgoers are not baffled: the culprit is clear. Regardless of differing socioeconomic backgrounds, religion, or culture, there is a single homogenizing element in the lives of the young. They all go to movies. It is precisely there, along with buttered popcorn, that obscenity is routinely offered and digested.

The proliferation of profanity is just one facet of the sixties’ legacy. A few years ago, The Big Chill focused on adults from that generation. Having lived through the nihilism and turmoil of the period, I would title my sixties movie The Big Blight. We are reeling today from aftershocks of that era, upheavals which severely undermined civilized standards of behavior and propriety. Sixties “activists” threw bags of excrement outside the Democratic convention in Chicago, and defecated into wastebaskets of college presidents; Mario Savio led the fatuous but highly publicized Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. Defying established norms of conduct defined the sixties mentality. It made a significant impact on Hollywood, which increasingly rejected previously accepted industry codes. Bags of effluent bandied about in Chicago evolved, in a few short years, into ear-shattering expletives littering movie dialogue. Respect for and adherence to self-imposed, self-regulated societal norms disintegrated.

No aspect of the entertainment industry was unaffected by the scuttling of traditional values. Permissive speech and sex (amended later to “okay, with condoms”) are everywhere evident. Stand-up comics, previously thriving without it, now liberally lace monologues with vulgarity. Convoluted soap opera plots today feature endless scenes of stars, horizontal. TV sitcoms thrive on innuendo, and musical beds. Contemporary rock music, the daily staple of teen diets, relentlessly hypes sexual activity. As a jogger, hooked up to a Walkman, I can vouch for Tipper Gore. She knew whereof she spoke. Her simple request that lyrics be printed on album jackets and that records be rated to aid parental discretion triggered the dormant moral indignation of aging rock eminence and latter day constitutional expert, Frank Zappa, who huffed and puffed at her during the 1985 Senate Commerce Committee hearings. Feverishly waving the flag of “artistic freedom,” Frank came out four-square for unbridled licentiousness.

All of us are compromised by the coarsening of American culture, but none more so than the young who, in formative years, are avid consumers of media messages which desensitize them to what is crude, and which deride standards of appropriate social (dare I add, moral) conduct. Against this powerful and attractive presence, protests from family, or even from a senator’s wife, seem feeble indeed.

What to do? The odds are depressing but there are hopeful signs. The Senate recently passed a ban on dial-a-porn phone services. We can expect the ACLU to bare its teeth, but the degrading “service” is targeted and the president will sign the bill. Moreover, in my own liberal county, a proposed education program on AIDS beamed at high school students was rejected because sexual abstinence, while mentioned, was not sufficiently emphasized. These examples, national and local, indicate that voices arguing for moral values in the marketplace are no longer stifled. Reckless indifference to community sensibilities can be identified not as “cool” but as crass.

Ultimately, however, it is up to each of us in our own orbits to make the case. It is neither easy nor comfortable. I had to tell a girl in my carpool (to a private school), daughter of a perfectly genteel mother, that her freewheeling references to urination were offensive and not to be used. Deadened to any lack of decorum, she seemed startled. So too was a student in a class I teach to potential models, teens exquisitely concerned with image. I pointed out to one offender that no amount of zit-free skin or smart threads could undo the destructive impression made by her use of gutter language. Would she allow a streak of mucous to hang from her nose? “Ohhhh, GROSS!” What about garbage from her mouth? The analogy registered.

It is rare to pass a group of adults and hear obscenities habitually used by the young, but the case is not airtight. Rows of us at a 49er play-off game last December were victimized by a middle-aged fan who bellowed, in all its formulations, the expletive without which Eddie Murphy would stand mute. Finally, another man in our area confronted the foul mouth. “You’re no teenager. A man your age should have cleaned up his act.” No instant repentance, but his discomfort at public humiliation in retaliation for his public indecency was palpable.

The concept of free speech is mocked by those who abuse it. If obscenity were no longer prevalent in films, the major source of its transmission would dry up. As Mr. Yardley points out, the argument that the use of such language is “telling it like it is” is “baloney.” Nowhere in common parlance, nor before the late sixties in film, has there been anything approaching the spate of vulgarity coming out of the mouths of today’s teen icons (and even seasoned actors). The Cary Grants, Audrey Hepburns, their screenwriters and directors, never resorted to obscenity. Rained on audiences in 1988, it does not reflect genuine social communication but is emulated by the impressionable and indiscriminate. It is time to persuade producers that when it comes to what we hear from the silver screen, yes, frankly, we do give a damn.


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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