Is it All Right for Children to Use Bad Words On Screen?

Posted on March 2, 2010 at 3:59 pm

As I have already discussed, the red-band (mature material) trailer for the upcoming film “Kick-Ass” has an 11-year-old character played by a now-13-year-old girl using extremely crude language. The New York Times article focused on the accessibility of the trailer online, though it is supposed to be limited to adult audiences. But there is another aspect I’d like to look at as well. This movie is the third in recent months to feature a child using very crude or obscene language as a source of humor or as a signifier of coolness. I think it is because we are now numb to the shock value of even the strongest language used by adults, so all that is left is to have those words said by children.
In Cop Out a child who is referred to as the top local car thief uses a string of obscene epithets, kicks another character in the crotch, and then is himself kicked in the crotch. Bobb’e J. Thompson, now 13, has pretty much made a career of being the outrageous kid in movies like the 2008 release Role Models, where his character’s extreme and raunchy language is supposed to be funny.
We have a lot of rules to protect child performers. Their work hours are limited and the production is responsible for making sure they do not miss schoolwork. Their earnings are set aside so they cannot be appropriated by managers or family members. I do not want to impinge on anyone’s freedom of expression or artistic integrity, but I do not think that is what is at stake here. This is just exploitation of children who are not capable of protecting themselves. If an adult approached a child in the playground and used that language, he’d be arrested as a sexual predator. Is it really all right for us to allow children to use that language in a movie?

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8 Replies to “Is it All Right for Children to Use Bad Words On Screen?”

  1. I’m so glad you brought this up. I naively used to think that child actors were protected from witnessing sexual scenes or R-rated language in films and TV they acted in–perhaps by having those scenes shot separately. I first realized this was not the case when the younger son on “Weeds” actually used some of those words and appeared in scenes where sex and bad language took place. The media lead the culture, not vice versa. I think we are softening the edges of how we want children to behave by allowing them to appear in adult situations and use obscenities. We have only ourselves to blame.

  2. Thanks, bird. This is not a freedom of speech or artistic integrity issue, as some people across the internet are arguing. This is a question of child abuse — of the child actors and the children exposed to the material as well.

  3. I can see both sides of this. To me, we only give words power if we let them. We even teach the idiom “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” to our children to teach them that only actions can truly hurt us.
    On the other hand, the words that we deem as “bad” words often have to do with either adult activities or our body’s activities. When we take those words and teach the meaning of those words to children, that is child abuse in the sense that we are taking the innocence away from a child before they should be allowed into an adult environment…
    but isn’t kind of forcing children to work before they are adults anyway kind of the same thing on some level. We are taking a childhood away for the entertainment of the masses. I know that some children come away clean from being a child actor, but how many stories do you hear about child actors having their life fall apart as adults because they were moved into the adult realm before they were mentally ready.
    So everyone has their “line” that they think is acceptable for what a child can or cannot do, where really it is up to a parent to define that line.
    I find it funny that we replace “good” words for “bad” ones and then deem it acceptable for our children to use these words in place of bad ones, because they are filtered from the original words meaning. However, just because Battlestar Galactica uses the word Frak to get past censors, we all know what they are really meaning to say. And aren’t we just teaching our children by replacing words for other ones that it is still ok to use them? So again, I believe that words are only as powerful as we allow them to be in our lives.
    I got lambasted for my views on nudity, lets see what my views on language spur. 🙂

  4. Thanks so much, David, for another thoughtful comment. It is always a pleasure to hear from you. Yes, we do give words power, but in part it is because they convey powerful thoughts. We also give body parts power. Just because different cultures have different norms about what is and is not on public display does not mean that we do not respect those norms. In this film, a 12-year-old girl uses a word our society considers crude and misogynistic. She is not old enough to make wise decisions for herself and it is up to her parents to protect her. I think when she gets older she may feel ashamed to have this preserved on film and angry at her parents for allowing it. I believe we should err on the side of modesty, dignity, and strong boundaries for children. Then, when they grow up, if they want to be outrageous, they can weigh the consequences and make an informed decision instead of having one pushed on them by the very people they are most entitled to trust.

  5. An interesting topic. I know I was personally bothered by the Will Farrell video of the profane little kid that got a lot of attention on the Internet; I just couldn’t figure out how anyone in their right mind found that funny (but then I generally feel the same way about most everything Will Farrell is involved in).
    I don’t know that I want to see a blanket prohibition on kids using profanity in movies, because every so often, there is that film that comes down the line that doesn’t use it for comedy or coolness, but to get an audience’s attention regarding, for example, the harshness of the gang culture. I would hate to see directors making movies like that, that would need the language for the increased dose of reality, have their hands tied because we’re tired of seeing kids exploited in the name of juvenile comedies.
    I do agree with David on a lot of points, notably the attempts by TV to get past censors by using “good” words in place of “bad” words even though the meaning remains exactly the same, and in reality, shouldn’t it be the meaning of the words we concern ourselves with instead of an arbitrary list of banned words that censors are to be on the lookout for. Though I should note that I don’t like to watch movies on TV after they’ve been edited to clean them up, because too often the efforts to clean the film up (digitizing or blurring of exposed body parts, bleeping, or even replacing certain phrases with new dialog that almost always sounds different from the rest of the soundtrack and clearly doesn’t match the movement of the lips), it seems like those efforts tend to attract even more attention to the “dirty” moments to me, and make them seem all the cooler. And it can be remarkably easy to read someone lips when they’re saying a four letter word.

  6. Thanks, Dave. I was thinking about the Will Ferrell video, too — I did not think it was funny to have that little girl parrot that language. I agree with your other points as well. I once saw the profanity-laced “Midnight Run” on commercial television with softer-word substitutions and it was appalling. I don’t think words like “freakin'” fool anyone and the dubbing is distracting.

  7. Personally, I find such to be a atrocity, and a blatant contibution to the delinquency of a minor. I’ve often said the same thing as you said…if i were to take a video camera to the park and entice children to curse and swear while I filmed it, I would be arrested on the spot, and rightfully so.

    I’ve never bought into the concept that it is OK to entice children to do such things “in the name of artistic expression”. The bottom line is that children are being directed to say and do such things…period. If one chooses to argue that it’s just an “artistic expression”, then they would be hypocritical to stop with foul language. Sex is a real-life decision that children face, so why not just film that in the “name of art” as well? (sarcasm duly intended, of course.

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