Monkey See
9:51 am
Fri March 30, 2012

Vulgar, Dirty And Wrong

Originally published on Fri March 30, 2012 9:45 am

On a recent commute to work, I found myself listening to a recording of Cole Porter playing a song he wrote, called "The Kling-Kling Bird On The Divi-Divi Tree." Published in 1935 and introduced in the show Jubilee, it's not an especially famous Porter number now, which is just as well, given the fact that its story of a man visiting strange lands and being seduced by exotic women has an unfortunate feeling of ... well, of "man visits strange land and is seduced by exotic women." Despite that limitation, I am always struck by the fact that of the many vaguely and playfully naughty songs Porter wrote (and there were lots), this is one of the more boldly naughty. He introduces the woman he meets in Tahiti as "pure Tahitian by her mother / and pure French by the missionary's brother." And then this: "It was hard for me to say no / when she asked me to visit her volcano."

That's right. "She asked me to visit her volcano." That's not even an elbow in the ribs, in terms of putting the joke forward. That's practically a mooning.

I am an easy mark when it comes to genuinely joyful vulgarity. Cole Porter is perhaps the best example, but you can find a similar quality in Cee Lo Green's "[The Song Unfortunately Known On Television More And More As 'Forget You']," and in Bruce Willis swearing with sweaty gusto at the dispatcher in Die Hard, in lots and lots of The Simpsons and Monty Python, and in Ana Gasteyer doing Topless Martha Stewart on Saturday Night Live, a weirdly funny, goofy bit I was reminded of this weekend when she talked about it on Wait Wait.

Unfortunately, a lot of vulgarity isn't joyful; it's kind of grudging and nasty, and it's artless, which is giving vulgarity an unfairly bad reputation as in and of itself a sign of artistic weakness, as if nobody writes dirty if they know how to write clean. That's absurd, of course, given that Porter wrote both "she asked me to visit her volcano" and what might be the prettiest and most delicate piece of wordplay Don Ameche ever warbled, in the song "All Of You": "I've fallen for a certain luscious lass / and it's not a passing fancy or a fancy pass." This regrettably low-rent vulgarity is what you get from reality-show contestants who can't get a sentence out without half of the words being bleeped, or people who make movies in which gross things that are funny are replaced by gross things that aren't funny but are still gross, which they imagine to be the same thing in some way, and which isn't. These people are, quite truly, cheapening vulgarity.

Now, I am talking here about what is "vulgar," which is somewhat different from what is "dirty." "Dirty" is an unfortunate word in that if you consider dirt to be a negative thing, as it is on sofas and dishes, it implies a value judgment I am not attaching to content I am willing to concede is, for the purposes of this conversation, dirty. To give one recent pop-culture example, the hilarious opening scene of Bridesmaids is dirty, for instance, not because it's a sex scene, but because it's intentionally as acrobatic and explicit and uncomfortable to watch as possible. (It's a scene far more transgressive than the intestinal-discomfort sequence, by the way. Lots of film have shown vomiting and diarrhea; few have shown a woman's experience of terrible sex with a hot man with such frankness.)

Why bother with the difference between vulgar and dirty? Well, because conversations about blocking and rating and controlling content often revolve (allegedly) around kids, and people, in my experience, are all over the place about kids and vulgarity. I was allowed to listen, for instance, to the political satire of Tom Lehrer as a kid; some of that is marvelously vulgar. Of course, I didn't get all of the jokes then; it is an advantage of vulgarity that it dawns on kids in fits and starts, much like puns do: it took a while for kids of my generation to know why it was funny that Mr. Rogers called his donkey puppet "Donkey Hodie," and probably just as long for me to figure out Lehrer's joke about the man who "majored in animal husbandry, until they caught him at it."

Vulgarity is where you find your casual profanity, your more blunt double-entendre, and yes, your Cole Porter volcano reference and your mooning. (Not your mooning personally. You would never, I know.) Choosing not to be vulgar in polite company is both common and easy to understand; that's the choice you'll see later in this very piece when expletives are abbreviated. There's nothing particularly problematic or controversial about choosing to save your vulgarity for the places where it will do you the most good.

What's legitimately dirty causes a different kind of conflict than what's merely vulgar. I don't know a lot of people who would particularly want kids to watch that opening scene in Bridesmaids if they had that choice in a vacuum, in part because it just doesn't take place in a universe that makes a lot of sense when you're ten, and in part because most adults I know are okay with holding back something for ourselves; kinds of movies and books and stories that take place in Grown-Up Land.

The problems with things that are dirty don't really have much to do with kids. The difference between R and NC-17, for instance, is often fought out over movies that many of us would agree are, within this taxonomy, dirty. (Again, in common parlance, not in value. You can substitute "highly explicit," but it's far less fun to say.) Arguments about R and NC-17 are arguments from economic survival as much as cultural ones; they happen largely because of theaters that won't show NC-17 (or unrated) films, video outlets that won't carry them; advertising spaces where they can't be advertised. You very rarely see those battles (about films like Shame, for instance) fought over whether a gaggle of 14-year-olds need to be able to wander in and see the movie accompanied by somebody's mom, which is what the rating is literally about. They're about whether the movie should be allowed to function in the marketplace at all.

And, of course, they're about what content will be branded radioactive, even among and by adults. Those are the arguments about kinds of sex, kinds of participants, sexual choreography, and standards that filmmakers often argue treat female and male sexuality differently, gay and straight sexuality differently, and so forth. Those aren't arguments about kids; they're functionally arguments about not allowing a film into the mainstream for anyoneif it crosses certain boundaries. Which are not, of course, specifically outlined. To outline them would be to acknowledge that we know about them, which we don't, because we would never, you see.

But the line between PG-13 and R tends to come down (at least with nudity, sex and swearing) to feelings about how toxic you imagine ordinary vulgarity to be. And there, at least in theory, those 14-year-olds do come into the discussion. Has the Weinstein Company learned to harness ratings brouhahas ("brouhahai"?) for its own gain? Of course. Has the MPAA brought that on itself by putting its foot down to stop a hypothetical club of weirdly advanced 14-year-old Anglophiles from seeing The King's Speech by stamping it with an R rating? Well, yes, it has. It's a little unfair to do something that doesn't make sense to people and then, when people hold up a sign and say "THIS DOESN'T MAKE SENSE," accuse them of doing it for attention, even if that's exactly why they're doing it.

In responding to charges of unfairness, the MPAA often portrays its task as giving objective information, not making judgments. Treating everyone fairly, it claims, requires that no exceptions are made based on a subjective judgment of merit, because that would be censorship, and that would be wrong. A perfect example is the counting of certain profanities and the resulting assignment of a rating without regard to context. Tallying profanities isn't terrible as a very rough measure of vulgarity, but it can lead you down a dangerous path if there's no room for context.

For instance, one of the problems with the R rating the MPAA wanted to attach to the documentary Bully, now released without a rating instead, is that the kids who are being documented in the movie swearing at each other are being vulgar, but the film showing that behavior is not vulgar. The film is respectful and peaceful; it is painful, but it is the farthest thing from vulgar. Just as violence in the context of Saving Private Ryan may be different from violence in the context of The Expendables, abusive vulgarity can be the subject of study without that study actually being abusive or vulgar.

Refusing to consider context, of course, is not objective; it is precisely a value judgment. The subjective value judgment is, "This particular triggering word deserves to be treated the same way for ratings purposes, regardless of context." Well — regardless of most considerations of context. If an expletive is used in a sexual context, even one will get you an R rating. In other words, "F--- you" is less problematic — less! — than "I would like to f--- you."] If your expletive is used non-sexually, you can have one and stay PG-13. Of course, there's nothing objective about treating sexual contexts more gingerly than other contexts; that's already a value judgment, and it already assumes a moral stance that many, many people don't share.

The same thing, incidentally, is done with nudity. The MPAA will allow you more leeway with non-sexual "brief nudity" than sexual "brief nudity," a guideline that amounts to viewing a scene where a man walks toward a half-dressed woman with a gun and telling a teenager, "Well, if he shoots her, that's fine, but if they start making out, please cover your eyes." A PG-13 movie's nudity can't be "sexually oriented," but its violence is okay unless it'sbothrealistic and "extreme or persistent." It may be right and it may be wrong to be more troubled as a parent by sexual nudity than realistic (but not extreme or persistent!) violence, but it is not objective; it stands in judgment of the relative inappropriateness of a headless woman and a topless one.

These have become deeply, oddly dysfunctional cultural conversations in which systems designed to give information to parents (like MPAA ratings) become systems that interfere with access for adults (as when theaters won't show NC-17 films to anyone). At the same time, a desire to defend the freedom of artists gets mixed up with defending the value of lazy, misguided entertainment that's substituting shock value for thought, of which — make no mistake — there is plenty.

The single best thing we could do for the endless conversations we keep having about "adult" content (and that is not a terribly helpful label, since it often covers content that, at its best, is gloriously juvenile) is to acknowledge that neither vulgar nor dirty needs to have anything to do, really, with moral goodness or badness. Not wanting your kid to mouth off like Bart Simpson is perfectly understandable; that doesn't make The Simpsons wrong. Not spelling out "f---" in this sentence doesn't make it awrong word; just a word we're not using right here, right now. We might use it later, at home. You would never, I know.

There's no particular heroism in vulgarity, but there's no sin in it, either. Like everything else, its value lies in the way it's employed. If you employ it like a lazy hack, you cannot expect to paint yourself as a trailblazer. But if you employ it like Cole Porter, it's a gift. Ignored or not, it's not content that's king — it's context.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.