December 26, 2006

Linguistic filth at the movies

Last Sunday's Los Angeles Times gives capsule reviews of 53 recent movies (either opening, on release, or just out on video) that are assigned to MPAA categories (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17). "Language" is cited as one of the reasons for a non-G rating in no less than 38 of the 53. That's 72% (or 75% of the non-G-rated films). What the hell (oops; PG, language) is going on in a culture where for 72% of the movies currently on offer, parental guidance has to be supplied concerning the danger that children might hear a stray swearword or the name of a sex-specific body part?

I stress that it is not just movies for grownups that are being labeled as having language too strong for young ears. It is films for kids. The distribution the different ratings is wildly skewed: the number of NC-17 films on offer is zero, and less than 4% are G. About half the films are rated R, a quarter are PG-13, and 20% are PG, the latter rating being basically the default for movies that are obviously intended for kids. But 73% of the PG films (8 out of 11) are certified as having language problems bad enough to call for parental oversight: cartoons like Flushed Away, comedies starring kids like Unaccompanied Minors, fantasy comedies like Night at the Museum, inspirational sports dramas like We Are Marshall, gentle romances like Sweet Land (all these are plain PG films: children can attend on their own, but parents are advised to give them guidance).

I'll tell you what I think. I think we have drifted away from sensible caution about exposing kids to obscene language, and wandered into irrational superstition about common words and phrases. We have become so anxious about word taboos we are behaving like a culture gone crazy. Our priorities are out of kilter.

I happened to view The Queen twice (by choice; it is extraordinary, and when Helen Mirren walks up to receive her Oscar for best actress I will be there cheering from the Language Log film critics' box). It is rated PG-13 for "brief strong language". I have scratched my head and wondered where in that graceful yet riveting film of family tension, administrative complexity, and governmental protocol there was an episode of language so foul that "parents are strongly cautioned to give guidance for attendance of children younger than 13."

I have come up with only one possibility as to what it must be. There is a scene in which Queen Elizabeth drives her Land Rover solo across a ford on the Balmoral estate and breaks the drive shaft on a rock, stranding her vehicle in shallow water. As she gets out to check under the vehicle, suspecting the worst, she quietly mutters "Bugger" to herself. For this, parents are strong cautioned to consider keeping their twelve-year-olds home. We are going collectively insane.

In Casino Royale a naked man is tied to a chair with the bottom ripped out of it and is tortured by having a knotted rope slammed into his testicles again and again until he howls in agony. The film gets the same rating as The Queen: PG-13. Something is profoundly wrong with our beliefs about the evil powers of everyday language, and with the movie guidance that is being supplied to us.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 26, 2006 12:40 AM