Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Language in Kids Movies (Warning: Parental Discretion is Advised for this Post)

This is something that I've wondered about several times over the past few years, as our daughters have grown old enough that Melissa and I have enjoyed sharing with them some of the great PG-rated entertainments of our youth: not just the usual geek stuff (the original Star Wars only, please!) but E.T., Back to the Future, The Karate Kid, Raiders of the Lost Ark (I refuse to acknowledge the title change), and most recently The Goonies. (Next up: WarGames!). And I've noticed something, which I don't remember noticing when I watched them in my adolescence and teen-age years 25-30 years ago (and perhaps that's the point): the kids in these movies curse a lot.

Not especially harsh cursing, to be sure; no f-bombs. (I can remember that there were two "fucks" in Adventures in Babysitting, and that was, like, a big deal.) But it appears to me now, watching them as grown man with adolescent and teen-age daughters, to have been pretty much a given in the minds of the scriptwriters, directors, and the actors themselves at the time, to have these 10- to 15-year-old characters to shout "Shit!" or "Asshole!" or "Goddammit!" every five or ten minutes or so. It's not enough for me to ban these films; it's not as though my daughter in high school and my other daughter about to start middle school don't hear that kind of language or worse on a daily basis; they do. (And we always watch these movies after the bedtime of the two younger girls as well.) But it does make me genuinely curious. I think about the films marketed as family-friendly or kid-appropriate adventures or comedies today, and I don't hear anything like that kind of language. Not that there isn't plenty of harsh language out there, of course; we live in the post-Tarantino, post-Scorsese world, which have made the "adult" dramas and comedies of even as recent an era as the 1970s seem purposefully tame by comparison (Slap Shot being a notable exception). But it seems to have moved out of kids and family films.

Am I wrong about this? I'm going completely off my own idiosyncratic viewing, and have no data to back me up. But if I'm right, I wonder if there might be a systemic explanation. Perhaps it's because we live in the post-Little Mermaid, post-Toy Story era, in which a certain style of innocently fantastic story-telling has become the dominant approach of most films that wants to attract both kids and their parents as an audience? Perhaps it's the rise of comic book and fantasy movie franchises, in which loud and violent set pieces provide whatever pretension of "realism" that were presumably once being supplied by having little Corey Feldman call some authority figure a "son of a bitch"? I don't know. Any thoughts, parents out there? Am I totally off base here?

8 comments:

David said...

There was a strong notion for a long time that a movie had to be PG-13 to make money (and before that PG) to make money. That teens would not see a G rated movie. This was before Beauty and the Beast changed everything during the years when most G fare was terrible. So in ET they had Drew Barrymore say one curse word to get the PG. Casual cursing helped secure PGs (and later PG 13). But gradually the crop of G-rated movies that made money showed that ratings didn't matter. High School Musical 3 was proudly G-rated, for example and did boffo.
-Western Dave

Russell Arben Fox said...

You know David, I'd forgotten about that. But you're right--I don't know when or how it started, but by the late 70s, and throughout the 80s, that principle really was in operation, wasn't it? I recall some story, perhaps apocryphal, that Star Wars was originally going to be rated G, and Lucas & Co. hurriedly went back and put in a shot of the severed arm in the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, to make sure it wouldn't. Even that story wasn't true, in reflected the broad understanding: kids movies didn't make money. Then came the Disney Renaissance, and that idea went into the dustbin. Perhaps that's where all the casual Goddammits went as well.

DrJubal said...

It's funny you mention it. A few weeks ago my wife picked up a copy of Goonies on VHS for 50c or something (maybe at the D.I.?) and told the boys - "here's a movie I think you guys will like - something I really enjoyed as a child."

I'm NOT that conservative, but we had to turn it off because of the language. It was all fart jokes / dick jokes all the time.

Is it weird that I'm apparently more sensitive to language than I am to violence?

Raven said...

My 10-year-old and I just recently watched The Goonies, and I had the same reaction... I had no recollection of all the foul language, crude humor and innuendo, and I was kind of surprised. (I was a junior in high school when it came out.)

But what's odd is that my son's going into middle-school next year, and his biggest impression of MS was, "Wow, those kids cuss A LOT." They told him they'd have him cussing like a sailor in no time. And this is a good school that expects its students to move into the IB program in high school. And I remember quite a few foul-mouthed kids from my own MS days.

So were the movies really a reflection of how kids were, or wanted to be, at that age, or did kids end up acting that way because the movies modeled it for them? As you note, movies aimed at tweens and teens just aren't like this any more... yet middle school is apparently as bad or worse than it was when I was that age.

Anonymous said...

i think it's mostly a function of the PG13 rating not having been introduced yet. most of the movies we think back on from our childhood were not "family" movies, they were proto-PG13 films aimed at teens that our parents were too careless to prevent us seeing.

only one thing still puzzles me: did elliot from ET really call his brother "penis breath" or did i just imagine that? please tell me they cut that out for the re-release.

Russell Arben Fox said...

DrJubal, I'm the same way--in all likelihood, a gunshot in a movie will register with me as a viewer less emotionally than a "fuck" will. Part of that, I think, can be blamed on the way violence has been stylized and played with in the movies; while a gunshot can be (and, admittedly, often is) depicted in films in such a way for us to real see and appreciate the horror of its effects, more often it's causal, just played for laughs. Harsh language can as well, of course, especially in our post-Eddie Murphy, post-Spike Lee, post-Taratino age, but assuming we're not talking about some consciously-marketed-for-adults comedy or drama--if, for example, we're just talking about some run of the mill, supposedly family-appropriate movie--than yes, an f-bomb out of the blue will really catch me off guard, much more than some act of violence might.

Raven, part of my whole question about these films is a reflection upon the fact that I don't really member how I felt about them at the time. I saw The Goonies in the movie theater, and I was probably 15 or so, and I have no memory whatsoever of the language in the film. Did I just not register it back then, but I do now because I'm a parent? I wonder. It's particularly striking because I was brought up in a fairly strict religious home, and "crap" is what passed amongst us as a pretty serious epithet.

Anonymous, you're thinking the way David did, and you're probably right; what you saw emerging there was a struggle to make "family films" at a time where people were convinced G-rated films wouldn't make money. The whole PG-13 innovation came along because there will films like Gremlins (that was the first PG-13 film, yes?) which just kept pushing it, because there was assumed to be no financial pressure to keep them from not pushing the envelope. So I guess, in a since, we as parents have really been blessed by Pixar and the like; it showed studios how to make family-friendly films that needn't pretend to be "adult."

Oh, and yes: Elliott definitely said "penis breath". I don't know if Spielberg took that out in the re-release though.

Colene in Texas said...

It's definitely related to being a parent for me. I wanted to introduce my kids to the Back to the Future trilogy, and didn't remember any really offensive cursing, but there it was, every time Marty McFly opened his mouth. I also find that I am far more aware of the extent of language, innuendos, etc. when the kids are actually sitting and watching it with me than when I'm previewing something without them around. Kinda like little gospel standards reminders built in to the couch.

geoffsn said...

http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57421/Less-swearing-in-teen-movies-BYU-study-finds.html