[15 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Move over f**k – there’s a new expletive in town, and it’s taking over the R-rated motion picture dialogue domain as never before. Where once it was merely a scandalous bit of European slang, a way for one Brit to put down another with sexuality free cheek, it’s now morphed into the mainstream cinema’s number one epithet. Over the last six months alone, it’s been heard in comedies (Knocked Up, The Heartbreak Kid), dramas (Feast of Love, The Brave One), genre efforts (Hostel Part II), and able action fare (Shoot ‘Em Up). Applied to both male and female characters, used as both a humorous and hateful retort, it argues for the desperation of screenwriters eager for another explanatory extreme, and the changing social sentiments toward the acceptability (or lack thereof) of language.
Back in the pre-MPAA days, before David Mamet received his four letter thesaurus, dialogue was almost always mannered. This didn’t mean that people spoke in elaborate Elizabethan couplets laced with poetic pentameters. It simply meant that certain unmentionable words were never considered part of proper human interaction. Adults spoke in carefully peppered bon mots, while kids gave the ‘golly gees’ a run for their money. Even criminals and lowlifes spoke in a guttural jargon that indicated their intrinsic illiteracy while showcasing an inventive use of street slang by the individual at the typewriter. For decades, cursing was considered uncouth, ill-mannered, and a sure sign of a person’s passé moral compass.
All of that changed with the neo-neorealism of ‘60s/’70s Hollywood. When film decided that mimicking real life was a valid artistic approach, it brought along with it all the flaws and foibles that made up the human condition – including the potty mouth. From the introduction of such previously unheard of horrors as s**t, and g*****n, to far more frank allusions toward sex and the reproductive organs, movies started “talking like regular people”. The collective sigh from the critical community (which saw such a brashness as some manner of cinematic sacrilege) was quickly replaced by a heralding of the newer, bolder breed. Suddenly, ‘working blue’ was no longer a taboo. It was a proletariat response to the blatant bourgeois nature of Tinsel Town’s Golden Age.
According to motion picture lore, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H may be the first feature film ever to use the heretofore unmentionable F-bomb. The potent anti-war missive didn’t necessarily popularize the use of the bump and grind euphemism, but as with any cultural dam, once the flood gates were open, the trash talk breached all linguistic levees. Throughout the Me Decade, the infamous FCC terms that were verboten over public airwaves (made infamous by George Carlin’s classic satiric slam on censorship, the “Seven Words”) slowly crept into the lexicon of big screen legitimacy. Thanks to the pulse pounding efforts of blaxploitation, which strove to incorporate the feel of its inner city demographic streets, and equally reflective works by future auteur Martin Scorsese, the medium couldn’t ignore the message. It was right there, up in its m****f***ing face!
Yet it was comedy that probably fueled the final ascent of swearing’s universal acceptability. Humor has an amazing ability to soften even the most miscreant subject. With masters of the foul mouthed art like Richard Pryor suddenly turning superstar, language was no longer seen as a limit. In fact, for someone like the masterful stand-up, the ‘colorful’ conceits of the words he choose made the brutality – and the brilliance – of what he was riffing on that much more pointed, and realistic. Naturally, there were people who took sailor speak to all manner of ridiculous heights (Andrew Dice Clay, anyone?), but for the most part, profanity was excused as a way of masking individual pain with an universal human expression of same.
None of this really excuses or explains the sudden fascination with the ‘C’ word, however. Some would argue that, as with any aspect of film, the overuse of certain stalwarts in combination with the loosening standards concerning same results in artists seeking new or unused ways of courting creativity. When Oliver Stone laced his sensational script for Scarface with as many four, ten, and twelve letter quips as Al Pacino’s quasi-Cuban accent could handle, audiences thought they were experiencing the first of the four horsemen of the cinematic apocalypse. Today, Tony Montana’s trenchant take on his non-mother tongue is viewed as pure screenwriting poetry.
Others will argue that popular culture dictates the dialogue. After almost two decades with rap dominating the First Amendment format, it was only a matter of time before such extremes became commonplace. Heck, even cartoons say s**t now. Yet a scan of lyrical content fails to reveal a general reliance on such specific sexual slang. Even more telling, the use of c**t seems particularly Caucasian. With its continental rooting (a film like Hot Fuzz, from English eccentrics Simon Pegg and Edward Wright, drops the C-bomb dozens of times) and suburban shock value, the application outside a specific demographic seems rather farfetched. Honestly, it’s easier to see Seth Rogen working the vaginal quip than, say, members of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Perhaps the most perplexing element of the across the pond translation is the gender element. In almost every film listed at the top of this piece, c**t is used exclusively as a means of undermining women – and almost always in situations where the female is being victimized or violated. In Hostel Part II, it’s the ‘magic word’ that drives our heroine to acts of castration. Of course, she needs to be beaten and almost-raped before a mere word triggers her ire. Similarly, Jodie Foster’s New Age vigilante is haunted by her acts of murderous desperation, crimes so heinous that no further justification for her gun-based payback seems necessary. And yet she must be referred by the aforementioned derogation before popping her caps in gang member asses.
Even in a sappy, maudlin disease of the week styled film like Feast of Love, the C word shows up to belittle a woman. Granted, the character in this case is an unusually cold and calculating slag who is using her newfound husband as a cash-flow cushion until her married boy toy gets that long promised divorce, but in a movie overloaded with less than likeable characters, our insidious ice queen needs an additional dressing down. So out comes the crudity. And for the most part, it works. Since it’s so new, so untapped as a source of strongly worded disparagement, it’s jarring. It gets the listener’s attention, and changes the entire course of an onscreen discussion. Where f**k has gone from incendiary to inevitable, c**t remains the conversational neutron bomb.
The sudden influx of this heretofore unapproachable word may have some link back to the previous mention of hip-hop after all. Thanks in large part to the ‘b*tches and hos’ stereotyping of the genre, there’s been a decided backlash against the use of that particular canine curse. Indeed, over the decades, the previously impotent b*tch has become fuel for lawsuits, boycotts, and pundit pronouncements. Indeed, when you think about it, the forbidden status of the formerly lax putdown (you can find examples of its casual use in family oriented sitcoms from the ‘80s and ‘90s) required a new, nasty anti-lady remark. But c**t seems much worse than anything an MC can concoct. Film makes it unfathomable.
Indeed, in the context of a UK jive, characters calling each other all manner of acceptable accented atrocities, it tends not to resonate. It seems silly, slightly foolish even. But when an angry male, staring down his opposite with implied hatred, lets fly with such blatant vitriol, the effect is seismic. It stops the story dead, and focuses every element of the narrative on the word itself. Even multi-syllable mouthfuls loose their largeness in comparison. Where once it was unthinkable in even the most adult of companies, the C word has become the exclamation point on a sentence no one ever thought of saying out loud.
Naturally, overuse will deaden its impact. Already, with just a handful of films crass or crafty enough to feature this newfound verbal violation, c**t is becoming cliché. You can almost predict the moment when a fed up individual, incapable of rationally expressing their disapproval or disgust, let’s out a long tirade. After being rebuffed by the smug, seemingly superior female, out comes the reproductive putdown. If feminists had a field day with the chauvinism of the ‘70s, the misogyny of the ‘80s, and the disrespect of the ‘90s, what will the embracing of the C-word bring? Already, performance artists are trying to take back the term, that old standby of empowerment via encroachment. Perhaps they should ask the African American how successfully they’ve been re: the N-word, huh?
While it’s hard to tell if c**t is here to stay, it’s clear that screenwriters feel it’s somehow necessary. In a vocal sparing match, where words replace stylized fisticuffs, it’s apparently the finesse free finishing move that ends discussion and mandates action. Oddly enough, there’s been little fuss over the C-word’s commonplace application. Back in the ‘30s, when a smarting Rhett Butler told a desperate Scarlett O’Hara that he couldn’t give a good “damn”, viewers practically swooned at the vulgarity. Today, our Southern dandy would pull out the C-word. Our spunky heroine would slap his face – or worse, open up a can of semi-automatic whoop-ass on his foul mouthed butt. And audiences would sit back and accept it. Hard to tell what’s worse, when you think about it.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-c-word/