Words, *bleep* words

Mr. Bookworm rented a movie called Tigerland the other day, about men being trained to go off to the Vietnam War. I found it unwatchable, in large part because every other word was a filthy obscenity. There was almost no substance to the dialogue, just foul language. Thinking back, this has been part and parcel of Hollywood war movies from the past twenty years or so. According to Hollywood, anything military personnel says is wrapped in dirty words (and sex), from ig to zack.

I’d sort of buried this thought in my mind, but resurrected it when I read this NY Times story about new censorship guidelines, and whether they’ll affect a PBS documentary. Read the start of the story, and it’s clear that you, as a good American who believes in the virtues of Ken Burns’ documentaries and is opposed to censorship, should be shocked:

The PBS documentarian Ken Burns has been working for six years on “The War,” a soldier’s-eye view of World War II, and those who have seen parts of the 14-plus hours say they are replete with salty language appropriate to discussions of the horrors of war.

What viewers will see and hear when the series is broadcast in September 2007 is an open question.

A new Public Broadcasting Service policy that went into effect immediately when it was issued on May 31 requires producers whose shows are broadcast before 10 p.m. to adhere to tough editing requirements when it comes to coarse language, to comply with tightened rulings on broadcast indecency by the Federal Communications Commission.

Most notably, PBS’s deputy counsel, Paul Greco, wrote in a memo to stations, it is no longer enough simply to bleep out offensive words audibly when the camera shows a full view of the speaker’s mouth. From now on, the on-camera speaker’s mouth must also be obscured by a digital masking process, a solution that PBS producers have called cartoonish and clumsy.

In addition, profanities expressed in compound words must be audibly bleeped in their entirety so that viewers cannot decipher the words. In the past, PBS required producers to bleep only the offensive part of the compound word.

This sounds bad, because we know from the Civil War series Burns did that he is a masterful documentarian, and it would be a shame to mess with another American masterpiece. I’m almost ready to call the FCC myself, when I read down two more paragraphs:

Mr. Burns, in an interview, said he was not worried that his work, which he called a “very experiential take on the Second World War,” would be affected by the policy, noting that while the series includes some “very graphic violence,” there are just two profanities, read off camera. [Emphasis mine.]

So this really isn’t about Ken Burns’ at all, is it? In a 14 hour documentary, two seconds might be affected. The news story’s real goal picks up steam. First, we get the obligatory Bush dig:

Mr. Burns, perhaps best known for his prize-winning series “The Civil War,” insisted that “The War” would be shown in the preferred time slot of 8 p.m. He said he was “flabbergasted” that F.C.C. policy was being applied to documentaries, particularly when President Bush himself was inadvertently heard using vulgar language, broadcast on some cable newscasts, at the recent Group of Eight summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Then we find out about the shows PBS and the NYTimes are really worried about:

Margaret Drain, the vice president for national programs at WGBH in Boston, said her station was already examining how it would probably have to edit references to sexual activities in a coming “Masterpiece Theater” production, “Casanova.”

She said that while she understands how PBS arrived at its policy for documentaries, the station might not adhere to it for series like “Frontline” and “The American Experience,” particularly when tackling war topics where strong language reflects reality.

“The decisions we make in the future, to pixelate or not, may put us in the position of negotiating with or telling PBS about our position,” she said.

Ms. Sloan of PBS said, “This is an unhappy situation for all of us and we’re very concerned about the situation,” but added that producers are required to submit F.C.C.-compliant material.

In mid-June, shortly after the PBS edict, “Frontline” scheduled a last-minute rebroadcast of an episode on the Iraqi insurgency and digitally obscured the mouth of a soldier. Ms. Drain said that the same decision might not be made today, “now that we’ve had time to absorb everything.”

Frontline, by the way, is so hostile to the Bush administration you can practically see the producers foaming at the mouth in the back rooms as they make the show.

I don’t like profanity. I don’t use it and I don’t like to hear it used around me. I especially hate it when I hear it spewing out of childrens’ mouths. Nevertheless, I recognize that, in the entertainment world, there are certain places when it is appropriate. A well-made documentary that uses profanities in context may be acceptable, where a trash TV show or movie that relies on them in lieu of dialogue is, to me, unacceptable. I do recognize, though, that certain sectors of society don’t speak like saints. Indeed, if we were to wipe all obscenities out of movies, we’d end up with every movie being filled with the stilted dialogue that makes Guys and Dolls so charming.

In any event, I want to go back to a point at the beginning of my post, which is Hollywood’s love affair with soldiers and obscenities. My question to those of you who are now, or who have ever been in the military, is this: Do military personnel really use extreme profanity in practically every single sentence they utter? And, guys, I know you’re young, hormone-filled, and female-deprived when you’re in the military, but are all your references to women really in such graphic and demeaning terms as these same Hollywood films would have us believe? It’s okay if you answer yes — I won’t respect you less because I respect what you do, and it’s none of my business how you talk to each other. I’m just curious and want to know where the truth ends and Hollywood begins.

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  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    The military doesn’t do the sexual references. Too much trouble.

    Here’s the two links you should see and read to get a hands on perspective on the military.

    http://www.blackfive.net/main/2006/07/keepin_it_real_.html

    http://avengerredsix.blogspot.com/2005/10/atomic-sit-up-revenge.html

    You decide compared to Hollywood, what is different and similar. Tell us what you found out, after you see the clip at Dollard’s site.

    WIth women being in the military now, they aren’t as deprived as in the past. You still can’t have relationships with people in your same command chain however. That’s always been a no no. Oh ya, the teaser for PatDollard’s site is not WORK SAFE. Btw. Or child safe anyways.

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    Oh ya, I’m pretty the officers don’t talk using barracks language to each other. It’s probably not a good idea to cuss in front of the President or your superior officer.

  • http://ruminationsroom.wordpress.com/ Don Quixote

    I was never in the real military, but I spent 5 1/2 years in a military jr high/high school and the language the kids used was more salty than you could ever imagine. I have no reason to believe that the real thing is any less profane.

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    There’s two links awaiting moderation, just so you know if you want to find an example of what they will or will not say.

  • edwardv

    My service is about a half century ago, the vietnam era which is so often depicted in these Hollywood movies. Candidly, while the “M-F” term was often heard, its primary use was by blacks. “REMF” was used by everyone and the “F” work appeared to be used in inverse proportion to the education and combat experience of the speaker.

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    Did you get a chance to watch Pat Dollard’s videos, linked off blackfive, yet bookworm? If you did, how was it different similar to what Hollwood showed you, book?

  • http://bookwormroom.wordpress.com/ Bookworm

    I did watch them (before my internet crashed — again), and it seemed as if the obscenities were reserved for those they disdained, not for each other. That’s significantly different from Hollywood.

  • Kevin

    During my 6 years in the Navy, the f-word was used constantly by the majority of the enlisted men (including myself) and even many of the junior officers (but very rarely by the senior officers). For those of you who are familiar with the smurfs, imagine every time they say the word smurf or any of its variants, replace it with the f-word and you’ll get the idea of what conversations were like. I broke this bad habit when it accidentally slipped out in front of my mother while I was home on leave–the look of shock on her face was something I never wanted to see again. Unfortunately, I got to see it once more on that same visit–when I happened to take off my shirt and she saw the tattoo I got in Hong Kong.

  • http://ymarsakar.blogspot.com/ Ymarsakar

    Hollywood tries to act cool by portraying gang behavior. You know, where people call each other fers, and mofos, and n***ers. They’re doing it to make themselves feel superior, bad arse, and all that. There’s a jutsu harmony between members of a unit that has seen combat together. There is competition, but the teamwork trumps all that. They are confident in themselves and their abilities, and of their buddy’s abilities as well. I interpret the need to curse in the military to simply because the depth of emotions that are produced in a unit are so strong, normal polite words do not describe things adequately.

    Gang members take pride in being the sum total of putative curse words, bad mofos. The military feel emotions so strongly that words do not describe things adequately, so the best they do is to use curse words all the time. That and the screaming and the praying, as well. Because the bond is so strong, normal social politeness is stripped away, the veneer of civilization in combat is stripped away. Combat buddies do not treat each other in a formal, polite manner. All of that is gone, melted away.

    It’s hard for Hollywood to see beneath the language and the visuals, to the spirit and the soul. Their version of things is rather faded out and bland.

  • http://stevehouchin.blogspot.com Steve

    On my second day of basic training, our TI informed us that there was to be no profanity in his flight. He then told us that sometimes slips happen, and he wouldn’t hear them if we didn’t hear them. While we weren’t as coarse with our language as, say, the Sopranos, there was a lot of swearing going on. This continued throughout my time in the military, though it would wax and wane depending on the situation. In the office, not much swearing except during the mission, but outside the office, it was pretty commonplace.

    It reminds me of the saying “mouth like a sailor.” After a while, though, you don’t really notice it.

  • Jose

    I have just finished a 20yr career in the Air Force, and while the AF is considered the least macho of the services, I think my experience is representative.

    Like any office or social group, military personnel are influenced by their leaders. I never encouraged profanity among my co-workers, and with reinforcement from one or two others I usually didn’t hear much of it. This would vary from workcenter to workcenter.

    The amount of profanity used by an individual generally decreased in inverse proportion to their visibility. You don’t hear a lot of profanity when you’re in a meeting with the General and his staff, compared to when you’re taking a break with the guys.

    Disparaging remarks about women are generally discouraged, as the military is subject to the same prohibitions on discrimination as everyone else.

    Generally, the most profanity comes from the young troops, who, aside from hormonal influences, may expect the military environment to reflect what they’ve seen on the big screen. It seldom does.

    Use of profanity simply varies from extreme to non-existent, just like anywhere else.

  • Derek

    Currently serving in the Navy and I would have to agree with the smurf analogy. Enlisted personnel definately cuss a lot along with LDO’s and junior officer’s. Senior officers rarely use profanity as it is looked at as ungentlemanly. You can always pick a sailor out of a crowd just by hearing him talk.