We had cursing in our movies and we were OK.
September 2, 2016 9:08 AM   Subscribe

From E.T. to Stranger Things, an Oral History of Kids Cursing On Screen What made 80s movies so accepting of children swearing? What does it say about character construction and realism? And why is it no longer accepted today? "As long as you stick together and save the day, if you say ‘shit’ a couple of times, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world, you know?”
posted by Hypatia (32 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
You're missing the "penisbreath" tag.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:15 AM on September 2, 2016 [21 favorites]


But that’s among the more tame name-calling and swearing that takes place in The Monster Squad. Jason Hervey, the king of 1980s bullies, who also played Kevin Arnold’s irritating brother, Wayne, on The Wonder Years, calls Fat Kid a faggot. A 5-year-old girl tells the older boys of the squad not to be chicken-shit. Gower’s character, Sean, says that his school principal is “homo-ing out” because he was patting his friend on the shoulder.

I'm....gonna go ahead and say that, like, not using homophobic language in kids' action comedies is a net improvement, just like how even in the eighties kids' action comedies were not filled with racial slurs.

I actually was a kid in the eighties. Two things: Kids in a lot of those movies cursed far more - and far more casually! - than the actual kids around me. And as a fat queer kid, hearing "fat kid" and "faggot" ruined those movies for me and made it really clear that I couldn't even have a little holiday in movie world.

Also: kids' action comedies are not documentaries. You need a certain degree of plausibility of behavior for the movies to work, but you're already not replicating the actual world of the kids. And it's not just because there, like, are not actually vampires. I never saw a kids' film that replicated the horrorshow of violence and bullying that was normal in my suburban middle and high schools. Even films that purported to be about the real power structures of those places were mere saccharine imitations. And those were the serious films! Kids' action comedies already present an idealized world.

Curiously, I really loved Stand By Me as a child, and of course it's full of cursing and rather ugly interpersonal dynamics. But that was because it was a much darker and more serious movie, and because even when he's a schlocksploitation writer, Stephen King does about the best job out there of capturing how kids interacted around the time I was young. He really does create a comparative documentary effect in his books if you discount for all the blood and killer clowns and so on.

Also, when I was a kid watching those movies, I always felt that the kids' cursing was more played for adult laughs than kid realism. That was maybe a difference between the comedies and the sorta-comedy of Stand By Me.
posted by Frowner at 9:21 AM on September 2, 2016 [33 favorites]


The article does go on to lament the past use of homophobic slurs, so yeah, it's not all bad. I'm with Frowner, too: the kids on screen cussed in a way none of my friends did. I can believe that those movies reflected the reality for some kids that age, just not me or my friends.
posted by pwinn at 9:24 AM on September 2, 2016


Good article - my wife and I showed the kids E.T. last summer, and we were both a little surprised at the things we had forgotten about the film, including the language. But boy is it still a solid film and watching these things as an adult you pick up on things that you were completely oblivious about as a kid.

And the films discussed in the article never talk down to the audience; there's an emotional authenticity to them that I think is present and I think it's there despite the language. It would be great to see the homophobic stuff go, for example; you can get the feel without it. It's not the cursing that gives that feel; it's the situations, the dynamics, the depiction of what kids are dealing with that gets to the heart of it.
posted by nubs at 9:27 AM on September 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


My favorite: "A pile of shit has a thousand eyes." - Teddy DuChamp
posted by Bob Regular at 9:30 AM on September 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


I had no idea what "boofoo" meant in Frank Zappa's "Valley Girl." Moon Unit was fourteen or so when she said that, and I believe she came up with it from real life. Come to think of it, I had no idea what the "Valley" in "Valley girl" actually meant, but when we were kids we loved that song and loved to imitate it; some kids even dressed up as Valley girls for Halloween. A strange time.

When I was the kids' age, and wanted to be a star myself, I always wondered how the kid actors in movies were allowed to do their scary scenes and grownup dialogue. Someone vaguely assured me when I was little that the kids' parents were there and made sure everything was okay for them. Having seen those kids grow up in the media, I can hazard a guess that everything was not, in fact, okay for them.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:31 AM on September 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


I feel like the whole "authenticity" framing is a pretty poor way to go, though. "Authentic" kids said far worse things than ever appeared in these films - and I know well, because some of them were said to me. I'm sure that with the ready access to porn online now, kids say a great variety of things to each other that my generation literally would not have had the language for. And I'm not sure how you argue that it's important to be authentic and therefore kids should be able to say "shit" onscreen, but they also should not be able to say "homo".

I think that what they're really talking about is an "authenticity effect", and that's a much trickier thing conceptually. "What makes this feel authentic" is harder to work through than "we should replicate what already exists", and for that reason, people who are actually working to create an authenticity-effect like to pretend that they're documenting.
posted by Frowner at 9:32 AM on September 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


For what it's worth, Tanner Boyle was and remains one of the American male's spirit animals.
posted by delfin at 9:40 AM on September 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


You know, this trend of "the oral history of..." makes me think that maybe people don't really know what an "oral history" is?

Or maybe I'm the confused one, and an article with a couple of quotes qualifies?
posted by blue_beetle at 10:05 AM on September 2, 2016 [13 favorites]


with the ready access to porn online now, kids say a great variety of things to each other that my generation literally would not have had the language for

Heard on an elementary school playground: "What's up reverse cowboy!"
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:08 AM on September 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


:0

Well, there's the treadmill of language for you. In reading primary sources from the 18th and 19th century, I am reminded sometimes that a "rascal" was then a thief or a murderer, and not a puppy who was caught chewing on a book.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:14 AM on September 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


Yeah, this article really glosses over how important and influential Bad News Bears was. It was the breakout hit of 1976, ran for years in second-run and revival theaters back when those were things, screened in rentals for home 16mm projectors before VHS was widespread, and spawned two sequels for those who couldn't get enough booger-eatin' morons.

For what it's worth, one of the movies that defines the 80s for me was Back to the Future. My mother took me to see it in the theater, and when rather-sexless-teen Marty McFly yelled "Holy shit!" I asked my mother in all seriousness "What does 'shit' mean?" I didn't figure out the actual definition for a few years after that. Oddly enough, I know there was some minor swearing by the 11-year-olds in D.A.R.Y.L., which she'd taken me to see a month before, but I don't remember any of it affecting me viscerally like Michael J. Fox's reading.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:14 AM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Famously, the family film Fly Away Home dubbed a swear word into the film to make sure they got a PG rating rather than a G, which they worried would doom the film commercially. Clearly our attitude towards kids and swearing remained troubling well after the 1980s.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:29 AM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Kids cursing onscreen always felt, for me, more authentic, by comparison, to senior citizens cursing onscreen, which was always a heavy-handed sort of humor of incongruity, as sweet old Granny lets loose a "shit!" or "asshole!"
posted by the sobsister at 10:46 AM on September 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think that what they're really talking about is an "authenticity effect", and that's a much trickier thing conceptually.

"Verisimilitude" is perhaps the right fifty-cent word to be throwing around.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:28 AM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Man, I fucking loved The Monster Squad. Wolfman's got nards!

And yeah, the constant stream of homophobic slurs was pretty true-to-life, but probably unnecessary. Kids sure-as-shit talked like that -- do they still, though? The "official" response to the AIDS crisis thirty years ago was somewhere between a shrug and a that's-what-they-get, and today we're finally starting to see some state protections for LGBT folks, so ... I hope not. I don't know any kids of the right age.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:29 AM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm with Frowner, too: the kids on screen cussed in a way none of my friends did. I can believe that those movies reflected the reality for some kids that age, just not me or my friends.

complete opposite for me, though I spent my kid-dom in a 1970s where you couldn't be considered remotely cool if you didn't have a completely different vocabulary for outside of home and school. I recall young adult me being completely unimpressed with Wonder Years, for instance. Here was this show about pre-teens/young teens purporting to be realistic that not only didn't include any proper swearing, but also precious little smoking-drinking-overall-messing-around. Not that Ronald Reagan wasn't smiling.
posted by philip-random at 11:38 AM on September 2, 2016 [10 favorites]


"Authentic" kids said far worse things than ever appeared in these films - and I know well, because some of them were said to me.

I recently picked up "The Body" (the Stephen King novella that was the basis of Stand By Me), and holy crap, did those kids say some racist shit--as, I'm sure, did the kids of Stephen King's childhood (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the kids of my own).
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:46 PM on September 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


I feel really uncomfortable with the way certain words doom a narrative - I saw it with Stranger Things and some people I know online, who slammed it as irredeemably misogynist and homophobic because the kids call each other 'pussy' in the first ep. I mean, beyond any ideas about character development and shift, or the narrative as a whole over an entire film/miniseries, it has an uncomfortable ring of purification that doesn't match the narrative itself, or the idea of critique and criticism, or even activism. It elides that there are parts of the world, of cultures, of communities, where children swear and pick up homophobic language and sling it around without really understanding its effects (see the differences between the ways 'pussy' is used as an insult in Stranger Things, but also the language shift between kids-alone and kids-adults) and instead demands a standardised landscape for stories to be put into.

Beyond versimilitude and authenticity and the appearance of those things, the language characters use is a method for showing character development. Showing thoughtless, reactive, unexamined misogyny through language is a thing that is done, and can be done, and I think it worth doing (with or without overwrought confessional apologies for it). Similarly, lol child-swearing is shitty lazy storytelling a lot of the time, because the way children use swear words and insults is different to how they are used by adults, and how they are viewed by adults. So when you have a kid call someone a slur, it exists in an uncomfortable space where how the kid uses it in real life is different to how it is appearing in the media, and that an adult wrote this in. It complicates how to analyse and critique that usage.

But mostly? You cannot pull a word out, a sentence out, and expect that to substitute for analysis. It takes place in a fairly complex matrix of language usage. Even when it is something with intense meaning, provoking intense emotion. Really really good article, touching on a lot of issues I've been having with language in media and online lately.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:36 PM on September 2, 2016 [6 favorites]


But the whole point of the article is about depicting kids for kids. That's different from making a movie about kids for adults. Stranger Things is a show aimed at adults - I'm sure there are kids who view it, but it's not a kids' show. Whereas the ones in the article are being discussed as movies to be watched by children, and it's mostly talking about adventure comedies, not even about shows that are going for some kind of critical effect.

I remember very clearly how much I learned about the world from movies, television and books. Abusive language, hatred of queer people, hatred of women, women's bodies as gross/ridiculous/sexy, hatred of fat people - those things were all completely normalized for me by movies, television and books. That didn't mean that I accepted those ideas - it meant that I learned that it was completely normal that they would all be weaponized against me and no one would care. Kids are smarter and more sophisticated than they get credit for being, but I think an awful lot of "big kid" or adult media is taken as being "authentic" because it's more complex and sophisticated and deals with vaguely taboo or "adult" topics.

I think it would be very, very difficult to make a kids' adventure comedy which combined "realistic" use of slurs and a fun plot and a distancing critique in a way that was accessible to kids.

I also want to point out that we automatically accept that kids' media and most adult media should not use racial slurs unless there's a pretty clear dramatic purpose. We don't say "this is a fun, lighthearted comedy set in suburban St Paul, so we're going to have the kids break out the casual anti-Semitism to make it seem real", and yet no one starts talking about how we are going soft on this issue. I am completely comfortable with saying that racial slurs don't belong in most light entertainment even if they make the dialogue more "realistic", and I would like us to extend that reasoning to slurs based in gender and sexuality.

I recognize that saying this risks being all "gay is the new Black", and I repudiate that line of reasoning. There are many areas in which more care is taken over gender and sexuality than over race. But in this one instance, I do think that it's odd that we are so willing to leave out racial slurs while saying that gender slurs need to be included.

People said racist stuff when I was growing up, but only "pussy" and "faggot" and "bitch" made it into kids' movies.
posted by Frowner at 5:03 PM on September 2, 2016 [6 favorites]


Something I meant to include: a bad thing that came from the normalization of hatred was that I firmly believed that no one would ever help me, so I put up with a lot of bad stuff that I should have reported to adults. Now, movies aren't magic, but I remember very, very clearly feeling that I was getting a glimpse of the "real" adult world when I was about 8-12 and saw teen and adult movies on television. I really believed that it was entirely normal that everyone from teachers on down would be against me all the time, would say inappropriate stuff, would hurt me or mess with my possessions, would call me fat and ugly and bitch and so on, and in fact that no one would help me because everyone hates fat ugly weirdos with glasses...because that was the adult world that I saw in the movies and on television. And everyone knows that everyone really hates a snitch.
posted by Frowner at 5:07 PM on September 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


And the landscape has changed, dramatically, since the 80s. Thank fuck. As much as I am an 80s kid, I grew up almost totally 'protected' from media so I have no emotional resonance with any of the films discussed (saw them as an adult and went 'eh?').

Part of the landscape changing is that there is a normalisation of queerness for one thing - not in the sense that Applejack and Rainbow Dash get together on screen, but they normalise a divergent kind of femininity. And nerdiness. Fatness less so but then there's Steven Universe and a few other shows. Race to a certain extent too, although I think that is far less examined in children's media than elsewhere. The abusiveness of 80s children's media is one of the reasons I don't quite understand the nostalgia - I don't have the contemporaneous memories and when I watch it now it is just ugly, or awful, or downright triggering. But those narratives being that way doesn't necessitate all of them must be. And I think making it about specific words, rather than the context, is less useful than reading it as a whole where those slurs are part of a wider abusiveness. Does that make sense?

I don't think gendered slurs need to be included in children's media. I don't think they need to always be erased either. I think a casual continual usage with no narrative heft is weak and lazy storytelling, and I think their inclusion in well-written narratives makes those stories stronger.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:18 PM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


I was a little boy in the 80s, and in the small town I grew up in, kids were more foul-mouthed than the kids in Stranger Things. I curse less as an adult.
posted by tantrumthecat at 5:46 PM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


What about "Holy s-h-i-t!" from the Goonies? That line always cracked me up.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:44 PM on September 2, 2016


It is strange, because kids on those 80s movies cussed far less (and far less effectively, I think) than actual kids I knew. I was more of the Bad News Bears generation, and it was shocking at how realistic it presented to me at the time, especially being a kid living in the San Fernando Valley. And even then, we were more foul mouthed than the kids in that movie. As a kid, I hated when movies dumbed down, or cutsey upped kid characters in movies, even when they were allowing them salty language. Which I think is the case with many of those 80s movies.

I do get a sense that lots of kids these days are really far more sophisticated than my generation was in quite a few ways. I'm often more shocked more by complexity of their language usage than by the cursing.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:55 PM on September 2, 2016


But the whole point of the article is about depicting kids for kids. That's different from making a movie about kids for adults. Stranger Things is a show aimed at adults - I'm sure there are kids who view it, but it's not a kids' show.

I would have LOVED Stranger Things when I was a kid.

I guess the question becomes at what point is a kid still a kid? I recall as early as age eleven being desperate for something/anything that wasn't Walt Disney level wholesome and two-dimensional, that had some relevance to my actual life (ie: kids behaving like the kids I actually knew). The original version of Bad News Bears gets mentioned in the article. I would've been around sixteen when that came out and remember thinking, thank fucking god, they finally got it remotely close to right. Normal kids are foulmouthed, mean, and really, whatever they can get away with.

I'm not saying there isn't a danger that this kind of portrayal will get mimicked to evil effect (there obviously is), but there's also a danger in imposing a homogenized worldview on kids.
posted by philip-random at 8:24 PM on September 2, 2016


Seconded. 11 year old me would have loved Stranger Things. Really loved. Or as we used to say: Puta madre güey, no mames, estranger things es una chingoneria, te cagas de risa, pero cuando sale el pinche monstro te cagas pa' dentro otra vez. Y en una parte se ponen un cogidón unos morros!
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 8:39 PM on September 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


Oh did we ever have filthy mouths, I say, rocking back in my chair. Really vile, hateful stuff that would make me uncomfortable now--because I know what the words mean (without having to ask my dad, you know, after I got him a beer from the fridge). All the films with cleaner language were for babies!
posted by mrcrow at 8:53 PM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


I was a high school senior when E.T. came out. I remember hearing of mothers all over town trying to convince their younger children that the line had been "peanut breath." Mine might have been one of them, come to think of it.

Also, pardon my tangent, but why is each use of the letter "x" in TFA a point size larger than all the other letters?
posted by bryon at 11:24 PM on September 2, 2016


Y en una parte se ponen un cogidón unos morros!

I would loooove to see some scholarly work on children and cursing in different cultures. When my 3-year-old son says something is "una miiieeeerda" the spanish-speaking adults around me laugh, or at most tsk tsk affectionately. In my childhood in the US all the adults I knew would have been seriously appalled if they heard me say "shit".
posted by lollymccatburglar at 7:09 AM on September 3, 2016


Kids cursing onscreen always felt, for me, more authentic, by comparison, to senior citizens cursing onscreen, which was always a heavy-handed sort of humor of incongruity, as sweet old Granny lets loose a "shit!" or "asshole!"

You have clearly never played Bridge with Granny.
posted by chainsofreedom at 8:12 AM on September 4, 2016


Also, pardon my tangent, but why is each use of the letter "x" in TFA a point size larger than all the other letters?

This came up in a different thread a few weeks ago. It isn't anything to do with the article, it has to do with how your browser is displaying the font.
posted by hippybear at 9:25 AM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]


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