by Hugh Rawson
The 2010 Academy Award winning film, The King’s Speech, was toned down for its re-release in the Spring of 2011. And “toned down” literally, as it happens, with the deletion from the soundtrack of curse words uttered by Colin Firth, who received one of the movie’s four Oscars, for his portrayal of King George VI’s struggle to overcome his stammering.
The scene is – or was – a key one. At the urging of his speech therapist, the King lets himself go, rapidly repeating a forceful, four-letter, Anglo-Saxon expletive a dozen times or more, with a few other epithets thrown in. Artistically and emotionally, the scene was a triumph. But as so often happens, art gave way to commerce. The naughty words were muted so that the movie’s rating could be changed from R, which stands for “Restricted,” to PG-13, where the PG stands for “Parental Guidance.”
The R presents a box-office barrier. It means, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, that the film “may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually oriented nudity, [or] drug abuse.” Children under age 17 are not supposed to be admitted to theaters showing R-rated films unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. PG-13 allows a much larger audience. It means only that some material in the film may not be appropriate for children under 13.
Just how many teenagers would be shocked by the F-word is debatable. In real life, one hears it almost every day, usually, as in The King’s Speech, in nonsexual contexts. It is a versatile word, employed more often as an exclamation or modifier than in its literal, sexual sense. Be that as it may, once the MPAA blessed the re-release with the lower rating, a new series of ads proclaimed that “The film that won best picture of the year is now the family event of the year.”
Thus, we slide down the slippery slope of language into the land of euphemism and double-talk. The word family generally has warm and positive meanings, referring primarily to people who are closely related by marriage or descent. But what family really signals in such phrases as family entertainment, family event, family film, family hour, and family newspaper is “no sex, no profanity, no violence” – nothing, in other words, that would cause the slightest distress to middleclass families of the sort that began to disappear in the 1960s and now constitute an endangered species. A leading example in this department is family values, as exemplified by the American Family Association, founded in 1977 by a Methodist minister, Donald Wildmon, because he was, as he said at the time, “disgusted at the sex, profanity, and violence being shown on television.”
This usage of family is by no means new. Rev. Wildmon merely followed along in the well-worn footsteps of Thomas and Henrietta Maria Bowdler, whose Family Shakespeare made bowdlerize into a by-word for prudish censorship. As Thomas explained in the second edition (1818) of this work: “Nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot be read aloud with propriety in a family.” (Though Thomas is most closely associated with The Family Shakespeare, the first edition, published anonymously in 1807, was the work of Henrietta, his sister, who apparently chose to leave her name off because she didn’t want the public to know that she, a maiden lady, understood the meanings of all the words that she cut out.” )
Where family signals “no sex,” adult means the opposite, as in the MPAA’s references to adult themes and adult activity. This also is true in such commonly encountered phrases as adult film, adult magazine, adult novelty, adult theater, and adult video. Back in 1957, when American audiences got their first good look at Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman, the film, risqué for its time but rather tame by today’s standards, was advertised in newspapers as “Adult Entertainment.” A few years later a section of Boston, an otherwise great cultural center, achieved some fame as an “Adult Entertainment Zone.” Featuring strip joints and adult cinemas, it also was known as “the combat zone.”
Adult also has other euphemistic uses. Technically meaning anyone who has reached the age of maturity – generally 18 to 21 in legal contexts – the term often is used to refer to people who are considerably older. For example, an adult home is a residence for elderly people (what once was commonly known as an old-age home or nursing home) and an adult community is a retirement village (typical age minimums for residents are 48 or 52). Thus, the generalized adult softens the hard fact of growing old in much the same way that it turns adult book, adult entertainment, adult video, and so on, into phrases that can be printed in family newspapers because their true meanings are not self-evident. In each case, adult conceals more than it reveals.