Politics & Policy

Defining Obscenity Down

Violence, sex/nudity, and brief language.

It was raining a few mornings ago when I stopped at Marlboro Market, the corner convenience story. Hector, the Cuban refugee who shoots his imaginary gun at Boston tourists, was standing inside by the ATM, having declared a temporary cessation of hostilities. Hector returned my greeting with a guttural vibration that I have learned to recognize as his friendly “hello.”

I surveyed the rack of current DVD choices and picked up the box for, The Weight of Water, a thriller starring Sean Penn and Catherine McCormack, that was released in 2000 to tepid reviews. The movie intertwines stories about an 1873 ax murder of two women and a contemporary couple. But I haven’t seen it. On the DVD box, I noticed the warning label, “Violence, sex/nudity, and brief language.”

“Brief language?”

It is not that I expect an ax-murderer movie to sound exactly like Thackery or Dickens, but for the language to be so brief as to require an explicit warning is pretty worrisome. I couldn’t risk it. I put the DVD back on the shelf.

I suppose “brief language” must mean something like occasional swearing or vulgarity. But, if so, it is an arresting euphemism. Parent to foul-mouthed child, “Don’t you ever use brief language again!” Student explaining to teacher the origin of a shoving match, “He used brief language in reference to the alleged lack of connubial status of my parents.”

Why wouldn’t the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which controls the rating system, just come out and say, “some swearing” or “occasional expletives?” The mystery only deepened when I checked the MPAA’s explanation of its ratings. Its website shows that the film industry’s stewards can rouse themselves from linguistic torpor. The letter “L” attached to a television program rated “TV PG” means “infrequent coarse language.” The same L attached to a program rated “TV 14″ means “strong coarse language.” And applied to a program rated “TV MA,” the letter L means “crude indecent language.”

TV MA, incidentally, does not mean television originating in Massachusetts, home of Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, and court-mandated gay marriage. Such a warning might be useful, but in MPAA parlance, TV MA means a program is for a “Mature Audience,” i.e. people who, having weighed the world’s ways, find solace in listening to “crude indecent language.”

In any case, the MPAA does seem able to recognize the existence of course, crude, and indecent language, even as it obscures its own gradations of vulgarity behind the hieroglyphic “L.” But as far as I can tell, MPAA offers no explicit account of what “brief language” is. Surely the definition exists somewhere, but you won’t find it explained in MPAA’s posted account of its movie ratings.

Dr. Seuss stands out as a writer who stuck pretty close to “brief language” in the literal sense. But the new cinematic version of The Cat in the Hat does not get the “brief language” warning. It does, however, get its own kind of naughty language label, “Mild crude humor and double-entendres.” Alas.

Among current movies, Master and Commander and the new Halle Berry flick, Gothika, bear the warning “brief language.” The label appears in unexpected places too. DreamWorks’s animated Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, for example, is likewise dangerously terse by MPAA reckoning.

“Brief language” seems an odd and uninformative locution, but the MPAA has other labels that are odder still. The top movie of the day is titled Bad Santa is rated “R” for “pervasive language, strong sexual content, and some violence.” Bad Santa made me wonder if MPAA was aiming at an Aristotelian mean. Bad language is O.K., but it should be neither too brief nor too prolix. But that doesn’t explain MPAA’s PG warnings on Freaky Friday, “mild thematic elements and some language,” and Radio, “mild language and thematic elements.” The R-rated Love Actually gets the warning, “sexuality, nudity, and language.” What do you think? French?

Even if we don’t know what precisely these odd labels mean, we of course get the general idea that the motion-picture industry is willing to tell us approximately how much vulgarity we will have to listen if you choose to go to the movie or rent the DVD. But the evasiveness of this code is corrosive. “Language” ought not to be an acceptable stand-in for foul-mouthed expressions of anger or frustration.

Our language is full of maledicta: rich ways to curse each other and our own luck. In fact, as an anthropologist, I take some interest in the kinds of curses that typify a culture. In Tikopia, in remote Polynesia, you express annoyance by telling your opponent, “May your father eat filth!” The Crow Indians in Montana put down an antagonist by suggesting he is an orphan. The ancient Persians derided a man by calling him a woman. But in the contemporary U.S., we are increasingly stuck with a tiny vocabulary of four-letter words. Comedian Dennis Miller has made the most of this limited vocabulary by splicing it into a more richly evocative intellectual patter, but in general, we have lost most of our capacity to curse. We suffer a dearth of genuinely effective damnations precisely because we have cheapened the merchandise.

Now that virtually everyone down to the second grader on the playground feels free to hurl epithets once reserved for stevedores, no word really has much force as appalling obscenity or ferocious blasphemy. That’s a loss–for there are times in life when we need strong words. The “pervasive language” of the movies, even their “brief language,” has gone a long way towards thinning out the cultural barriers that gave cursing its real power. Once it is everywhere, it ceases to matter.

Not that we have really lost the capacity to offend. It has merely migrated into a different cultural domain. Hollywood gleefully sprinkles sexual and excretory language into everything, including Dr. Seuss, but keeps ethnic slurs for the utterances of its vilest villains. We have liberated obscenity to wander freely among us, and created “hate speech” to take its place in the dungeons of the unspeakable.

The Weight of Water, I gather, was a pretty run-of-the-mill movie anyway. If I want brief language, I’ll just continue talking to Hector. He is all exploding consonants, incomprehensible curses, and defiance of an obscure fate. I hate the idea that Hollywood debases his currency.

Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.

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