Do you remember that movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles? Steve Martin and John Candy have to get somewhere together for some reason. The plot is that thin and unmemorable, but that's fine, the exquisite pairing of the two leads is what makes the film great. Well, that, and this marvelous scene right here. Go ahead and watch, I'll wait...
Wasn't it good? I'm sure it's worth finding the movie on the cheap somewhere and just buying a copy for all the times I've seen it. It's one of those movies constantly rerun on cable, though, and tv standards just murder that scene before your eyes. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was on the other night and I tuned into the car rental scene, which played out like this:
BADLY EDITED STEVE MARTIN: I want a car now.
BADLY LOOPED RENTAL LADY: You're screwed.
Ugh! Painful! But I can see where the tv standards people are coming from. I don't want a family television station throwing the fucks around at 4 pm on a Saturday. Similarly, I wouldn't want explicit lyrics played on the easy listening radio station they play at the candle store I frequent (although you haven't heard jazz piano until you've listened to John Tesh's seminal recording "Blissful Afternoon, Motherfucker").
I suppose the problem with foul language is that it makes something meant to be entertaining potentially inaccessible. I remember working in a video store when that movie Little Miss Sunshine came out. I loved that movie so much and recommended it to everyone. Most people loved it, but I did have one lady return it to me angrily. "The language in this movie is horrible! I want my money back!" she said, and I obliged. But I couldn't believe a few choice words could keep one from enjoying a great movie! I wondered what else people avoid just because cuss words can be alienating.
Dream: Stop swearing in my writing and speaking.
Goal: Achievable, I guess. There are great books, music, movies, tv shows and people without a cuss word in them. Kids wouldn't read To Kill A Mockingbird in school if it was called Enough of this Racist Bullshit. I'd hate to hear Mr. Rogers welcoming me to another goddamn beautiful day in his neighbourhood. And I'd be decidedly horrified if my little nephew Luka's first words were, "You know what? Fuck this." So I really should make a concerted effort to knock off the potty mouth. In a little bit. Not right now, though.
Plan: Make a pros and cons list concerning "adult language" to determine whether or not I should keep cussin'.
PRO: Swearing is powerful. Do you guys remember your parents or teachers swearing? I do. And it always meant that we were out of line and they were in control and enough is enough. I remember being in an all boys health class in the 9th grade, a big portion of which concerned sex ed. Our teacher tried so hard to be straightforward and informative, and never let any embarrassment seep in, but a room full of 14 year old boys giggled like a room full of 14 year old boys at every crucial piece of information. We didn't take anything seriously and soon the class was just one long, extended interruption. Our teacher tried yelling, threatening and scolding to no avail. Finally, one day, two sentences in to a lecture on glands or hair or erections or something, we erupted into laughter that ceased immediately when our teacher looked up, startled and said, "You know, this is bullshit. Your behaviour is bullshit." Because it was! We were acting terribly but as soon as teacher said bullshit, an invisible line had been crossed. We sat there stunned with a new respect for our teacher. I don't know how long it lasted, but we definitely behaved ourselves the rest of the day.
CON: Swearing can be crass. I remember being on a bus once with a group of teenagers and a Dad with young kids. The teenagers were being loud and obnoxious and swearing. Dad turned around in his seat and said, "Hey, come on guys! I'm with my kids! Watch your language!" And the lead streetwise teen yelled back, "Fuckity fuck fuck, fuckity fuck fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck" to the tune of "Thumpity thump thump, thumpity thump thump, look at Frosty go." Dad just threw up his hands and the bus driver hollered some vague threat about kicking them off, but that was the extent of the fallout.
PRO: Sometimes there's just no other word. I remember when I was about ten years old being picked on by some older kid. Nothing too serious beyond being teased, but I think I was shoved in the mud or something once and so explained what had been going on to my mother. After hearing the whole saga she said, "Wow, that kid sounds like a real asshole." For some reason, that turned everything around in my brain. For one thing, my mother didn't ever curse when we were kids. She's not a sailor on leave now by any means, but when we were kids we never heard anything like that. And when she deemed that intimidating older boy an asshole, I know it was true and he suddenly diminished in my estimation. He wasn't a bully, he didn't have this magnificent hold over me, he couldn't really do anything to me, because he was just some asshole who went to my school. If I ever had a run-in with him again, I don't remember it. I suddenly knew this kid wasn't important at all anymore, thanks to a lovely word choice by dear old Mom.
CON: Swearing can be lazy. I want to be a good writer and I want to craft funny jokes. It seems like swearing can be a descriptor that's too easily relied upon, or an all-too-simple punchline. I want to craft prose that doesn't require four letters to be effective. The following is an obscure example of what I mean, but stick with me, as this is delicious.
I often listen to this podcast called How Was Your Week with Julie Klausner. Julie opens every episode with a lengthy monologue about anything and everything and it is often extremely funny. She also writes articles for Jezebel and Vulture, and is an astute cultural critic. She is all that I want to be. Anyway, she is a big animal lover and launched a campaign to pet the spokesdog for a Bush's Beans. Maybe it was a little tongue-in-cheek, but she just wanted to pet a gorgeous hound dog and started a Twitter thing about it, and a Facebook campaign. Her request to pet the dog was officially denied and she wrote a piece about it for The Daily Beast (you can read it here). After she wrote the piece, she checked out comments on that article and recounted in her monologue, that she didn't like what she read. The following is my best attempt at a transcript of what she said. (Also, the entire episode is available for download here and is a great starting point as it is a Best-Of episode)
So I found this comment that this Nobody wrote about it and he was like, "I'm expected to read three pages about how Julie Klausner wanted to pet a dog and couldn't pet a dog?" And I know that I shouldn't read it in the first place, or think about it in the second place, but all I wanted to do is be like, "Actually nobody expects you to read it because nobody thinks about you. Because you imply that people have some sort of awareness of who you are, or that they want you to do something, and in reality, your invisibility is your very defining feature, which is to say, you are nothing."
Oh my GOD, right? Isn't that just the best? Just so scathing without resorting to any bad language. Far worse than any "Fuck off", isn't it?
I really don't think I can cut out the occasional profanity myself, though. I'm not going to dust off the old, "Words are just words, man! They have no power unless we perceive that to be so" argument, because it doesn't hold up. Tell any non-white person that words are just words and they just might point to a few really uncomfortable examples of why that isn't so. I think we beholden to what we say, insofar as one uses discretion depending on to whom one is speaking or writing. Whoever is reading this right now, I'm sorry if I curse gratuitously, or occasionally offend your sensibilities. But I'm also sorry that expletives are such a bummer for you. I don't know what happened in your life that makes you sensitive to such things, but I hope it doesn't ruin this blog, or our friendship, or Planes, Trains and Automobiles. If you can't take some pleasure in stuff like that, you're fucked.