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Culture Watch

Entertainment Industry News by Christopher Gildemeister


For more articles about the influence of entertainment, see the PTC’s new TV Trends column.



Hollywood’s Use of Language: From Class to Crass


Once, actors and actresses were appreciative of the adulation given them by their fans and used their fame responsibly. This sense of responsibility was demonstrated by the way in which such celebrities used to respect their audience, by comporting themselves (at least in public) with dignity, and refraining from profane or indecent speech. 


Such days are long past – as the actions of current celebrities demonstrate.


While receiving an award for her cable reality show My Life on the D-List at the Emmy Creative Arts Awards on September 8th, comedienne Kathy Griffin said, "A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. This award is my god now. Suck it, Jesus!"


And at the September 16th broadcast of the full Emmy Awards ceremony, there were several more instances of indecent language used by award recipients. While accepting a Best Actress Academy Award Sally Field said, "Let's face it, if the mothers ruled the world, there would be no [bleeped ‘g*ddamn’] wars in the first place." Offstage later, she added, “I would have liked to have said more bleeped-out words." Actress Katherine Heigl, upon hearing of her victory in the Best Supporting Actress category could be seen exclaiming, “s**t!”, and while accepting the award continued in the same vein, “"My own mother told me I didn't have a shot in hell of winning tonight…I started when I was a kid but I count it because I worked my ass off.” Ray Romano crassly joked about his former Everybody Loves Raymond co-star Patricia Heaton “f***ing” her current Back To You co-star Kelsey Grammer (the network censors edited this obscenity from the broadcast). 


Objecting to these actors’ use of foul language should not be considered a condemnation of Ms. Field’s or Ms. Griffin’s specific views on politics or religion. Celebrities, like everyone else, are entitled to their opinions; and many actors and celebrities have used the opportunity presented by awards programs to give voice their political beliefs. The recent awards programs were far from the first time controversial statements were made by entertainment award recipients:  in 1974, Marlon Brando refused accept his Oscar for The Godfather, instead sending in his place a woman in Native American garb as a protest against Hollywood's use of Native Americans in film. Vanessa Redgrave, after receiving a 1977 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the movie Julia, condemned the Jewish Defense League as “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums.” And in 1993, Richard Gere used his platform as an Oscar presenter to protest China's policies in Tibet.


However, while in each of the above-cited cases rhetoric might have been heated, the individuals involved maintained some sense of decency and decorum. Such an example can even be found at the recent Emmys: David Chase, producer of The Sopranos, took the opportunity of his award acceptance speech to slyly criticize the current administration, saying, “Let's face it, if the world and this nation was run by gangsters - maybe it is."  Chase made his point effectively without spewing profanities at his audience.  Chase’s action, as well as those of past celebrities, proves that it is unnecessary for actors to fill their speeches with four-letter words.  Surely individuals as experienced as Sally Field and witty as Kathy Griffin could have found a way to make their points without using offensive language. 


Unfortunately, the use of such foul language by these celebrities is merely another example of a trend which has been gaining in strength for several years. In 2003, U2 singer Bono called his Golden Globe award "f---ing brilliant" onstage. Later that year, Nicole Richie used the same word while presenting at the Billboard Music Awards. At last year’s Emmys, Helen Mirren and Calista Flockhart used the phrase “tits over ass,” which phrase aired unedited both times during the NBC Network broadcast of the Emmys. 


“Disinhibited vocabulary is now the normal way people talk on cable TV, such as on The Sopranos or in stand-up comedy…Intense language like this used to be confined to construction sites and corner bars. Now it is normal discourse.” -- cultural commentator Daniel Henninger (Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2006)


In today’s world, indecent speech is increasingly prevalent and Americans are bombarded with profanity more than ever. Nearly three-quarters of Americans said they frequently or occasionally hear profanity in public, according to an AP-Ipsos poll. Moreover, two-thirds of poll respondents believed that people swear more now than they did 20 years ago.

Depressingly, younger people said they use bad language more often than older people, and are less bothered by it. In the same poll, 62 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds admitted to swearing in conversation multiple times weekly, contrasted with only 39 percent of those 35 and older.

Like it or not, children do imitate what they see on television. Many teens look up to actors and actresses and aspire to be like them. And everyone, of every age, is to some degree influenced by what they see and hear. If bad language is what is being heard in entertainment, is it any wonder that it is being heard more often in public?


In the past, it was understood that the use of profanity is a demonstration of incivility and disrespect towards others, and its usage by an individual was taken to imply a lack of maturity and intelligence. Their present behavior implies that today’s celebrities actually want to be perceived as being crass, ignorant, rude and disdainful of their audience. This is a pose detrimental not only to the actors themselves, but also to the cause of civility and decent discourse in public life.


But there is apparently a mentality shared by Hollywood and media journalists alike which positively revels in profanity. When the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences decided to edit out portions of Griffin’s acceptance speech it was roundly condemned in the press. And when it interrupted sound and picture during the swearing at the Emmys, instead of being congratulated for exercising both civic responsibility and an awareness of the content of broadcast indecency law, Fox was predictably criticized for infringing on Field’s freedom of speech. Some critics even went so far as to attribute Fox’s (admittedly unusual) exercise of good taste as an overt conspiracy motivated right-wing politics.


Class, decorum and dignity cannot be bought. It is tragically disillusioning that, while spending literally millions of dollars on dresses, jewelry and makeup, today’s actresses choose to swear like longshoremen. It is impossible to imagine classically feminine stars like Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman or Julie Andrews peppering their speech with profanity. Even exemplars of rugged manliness like John Wayne or Robert Mitchum did not consider cursing a live audience at an awards show as something appropriate -- a position unfortunately not emulated by more recent male stars.  Is it so much to ask that today’s celebrities comport themselves with some degree of dignity – particularly on an occasion as auspicious as that of being recognized by their peers and fans for their excellence at their craft on national television?


Sadly, use of such “disinhibited” vocabulary is being promoted as both “authentic” and even “artistic,” not only among trendy celebrities but even makers of serious documentaries…as will be discussed in the next Culture Watch.

“The question really boils down to manners - being considerate of others. The simplest rule might go like this: If a word describes something one typically addresses in private - that would usually include the bedroom and bathroom - then it should be used only in private. How hard is that?” -- columnist Kathleen Parker (Washington Times, September 7, 2006)               


Caroline Schulenburg contributed to this report.


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