A reckless little slut: Inspiration for a digital narrative is born
About seven years ago, my then-three year old sister walked up to our mother and proudly pronounced her a “reckless little slut”. She had no idea what she was saying of course, but that hilarious memory has stayed with me for a decade. She had borrowed the phrase from the 2008 PG film Mamma Mia. This got me thinking; in the context of the film, the word ‘slut’ was contextually appropriate – Donna is recalling her regretful, youthful actions with disgust. Out of context, when used by my younger sister, it became inappropriate.
One word, two settings, two very different levels of appropriateness. Where is the meaning in this? Why is it so hard to judge?
Although I wasn’t certain of the direction of my project initially, I knew it would be in the area of profanity in film. It interests me to hear of the history of profanity in cinema; the word ‘damn’ uttered in Gone with the Wind in 1949 sparked outrage, yet nowadays that same word could pass without incident. Why? With this in mind I created a generic survey on profanity in various spaces. The findings, as summarised in the video, were that the word ‘c#nt’ was deemed as the most offensive. This view was seconded by the research of Ofcom, a television regulatory body located in the United Kingdom. Given this strong view, and my recollection of numerous Hollywood films which have featured the word in recent years, I decided to narrow my focus to the use of the word ‘c#nt’ in cinema. Then, just like magic, my research question formed itself in front of my eyes: is the c-word ever necessary to tell a story?
I produced a survey on my blog to determine social acceptances on the use of profanity in society and in cinema. 66% of my questionnaire was numerical; respondents were required to rank words or select them. The final question was much more open; asking respondents for a discussion of their views on profanity in cinema. I filtered through in an attempt to discover a pattern, a unanimous vote or ideal of what is appropriate in cinema, but there was none.
The complexity of the results captured in the survey illustrated the density of ethnographic research; sometimes numbers just aren’t enough. Qualitative research is imperative for ethnographic discovery and understanding, yet its subjective nature makes it extremely difficult to collect and navigate.
The five minute word limit was restrictive; I’d have liked to explore and contrast more examples and go further into the ambiguous nature of television rating guidelines, yet I had to choose the most important elements to incorporate into the narrative. I spoke about the history of cinema, in particular its development into a semi-public. When televisions grew popular in the home, the audience for cinema changed. I focused on contrasting the profanity in the 1949 film Gone with the Wind with the 2012 films Ted and Mental. It was difficult to organise and sort through the data I collected due to its qualitative nature; what is true to one person isn’t necessarily true to another, even with all outside factors equal.
I chose to compose a YouTube video because I have very little experience doing so, yet this is something I would like to become more skilled at for future projects. I found it to be an effective tool to construct a comparison between the aforementioned films. I also chose to publish it on WordPress because I am confident using it and I enjoy the convenience of having all my projects and assessments in one place.
Such a diverse collection of responses, some of which are discussed in the video, seemed to be loosely (but not exclusively) related to age. Younger participants, aged below 25, were quite lax in what they deemed to be appropriate for cinema. Many had no issue with even the most extreme words being used in film. As the respondents became older, racial slurs, which seemed inoffensive and humorous to the younger audience, were a strict no. The oldest respondent was my grandfather, who remains opposed to the notion of profanity in cinema.
“I consider that use of any of these words reveal a writer who is short on language skills … I have been known to walk out of films relying on excessive use of obscenity”
Whilst undertaking my comparison of the use of ‘c#nt’ in Mental and Ted, I discovered the contextual argument for profanity in film. Initially I just did not see why that word in particular was the best choice for those films, however studying them more closely, I discovered that in Mental, it uncovered layers of the characters and reinforced the themes of the film and its story. Ted, on the other hand, seemed to throw it in purely for the sake of it, and it is my belief that multiple other words could have replaced it. This has shown me that the legitimacy of profanity in cinema is purely spatial; its capacity to belong in a film is dependent upon its context and audience.
Usefulness to Media Industries
Research of this kind could prove to be valuable to media industries. From a linguistic sense, this study suggested the immense impact profanity has on some audiences, particularly older ones. In terms of advertising and powerful film genres, the use of various swear words could prove to be powerful in imprinting a message on the consumer mind and potentially swaying public opinion. Spatially, the study also used the case study of Australia, where ‘c#nt’ is often used colloquially, to demonstrate the contextual balance of profanity. In an increasingly globalised world, research such as this could be used by international companies who wish to market their products, be it films or otherwise, to an Australian or otherwise foreign market. The format of this project is brief enough to be of interest to industries, as suggested by Duncan Green.
In the future it would be interesting to expand on my findings here. A much more comprehensive study over a wider audience and a wide range of films from different genres, decades and ratings would be an interesting way to compare profanity in film.