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Essays — Thinking About the F Word

Last night, I was flipping channels and ended up watching a good part of Martin Scorcese's 1995 film 'Casino.' The movie chronicles the rise and fall of gambler Sam 'Ace' Rothstein and his childhood friend Nicky, played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. A pair of self-described street guys, Sam and Nicky are 'handed the keys' to the Tangiers casino in Las Vegas. With Sam running the casino, Nicky breaking heads, and Sharon Stone's Ginger providing the accelerant, it doesn't take long for their utopian lifestyle to ignite in violence and consume all of their dreams.

The language and the tone of the film are both inevitably coarse and violent. Among other images in the film as broadcast last night, we see:

  • Nicky and his crew brutally beat a fellow gangster, getting him to succumb only after placing his head in a vise.
  • Countless gunshots to the head as characters get whacked.
  • Nicky and his brother Dominick beaten with baseball bats and buried alive.

I have a very low tolerance for violent blood-drenched scenes like these and generally look away. What struck me while watching yesterday was that as disturbing as these scenes are, network television shows them to us, while at the same time safe-guarding us from truly awful stuff like a woman's bare breast, a man's muscled nether regions, or two people making love. The same is true for even more violent and ugly scenes in movies such as 'Pulp Fiction' and Scorcese's 'Goodfellas', both of which recently aired on preferred basic Comcast stations. In Quentin Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs', a police officer is taken hostage and tossed in the trunk of a car by Michael Madsen's 'Mr. Blond' after a bank robbery goes very wrong. Mr. Blonde takes the cop to the gang's rendezvous spot and proceeds to torture him to the strains of 'Stuck in the Middle with You' by Stealers Wheel. The scene was so ghastly that Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde had trouble filming it. In the original Terminator movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator kills cops with abandon. And television shows it all to us.

So, what is it about the power of a word, a word like the 'F' word that makes it verboten, and by implication more heinous than any of the carnage in scenes like those described above? Is it because it immediately conjures those dreaded images of bare breasts, muscled nether regions, and people making love? Or is it more complex than that? Does it sit at the linguistic crossroads of sex and violence for many of us? In Casino, Ginger shouts, "Freak you Sam! Freak you! Freak you!" as she storms out of their house. No one says "freak you" in real life. Watching her lips, it was easy to see that she wasn't saying 'freak.' According to, the 'F' word is used 252 times in 'Reservoir Dogs.' That's a lot of 'freaks' or 'fudges' or other acceptable 'F' words to plug in when it airs on BRAVO or AMC.

Conversely, why do the networks give the 'OK' to the 'N' word in films like 'Pulp Fiction', or to its variants like 'Sand s' in 'Casino.' Why is a derogatory word or phrase for an entire race of people deemed acceptable dialog while the 'F' word gets the dub treatment? Indeed, what the f**k is up with that?

How does something like the millisecond-long and decidedly un-erotic sight of Janet Jackson's exposed nipple ignite a firestorm of controversy, while the prime-time broadcast of torture, murder, and mayhem of all description not even register on the media or FCC scale? Bono uses a variant of the 'F' word while joyfully accepting a Golden Globe award in 2003 and the FCC pounces.

Most young people will, at some point, use the 'F' word during their lives. Many of them will likely use it a lot. They will use it to register surprise. Or pain. Or awe. Or anger. Or like Bono, joy. But they will use it. Like a lot of other words, it can be a verbal weapon. If you've ever watched 'Inside the Actor's Studio' you probably know that the 'F' word and its variants are high on the favorite curse word list of many celebrities. It has become something akin to the Swiss Army Knife of the English language. It's a verb. It's a noun. It's an adjective. Like all words, it's a tool for the construction of thoughts, ideas, and feelings into communication. It has punch. It has, not surprisingly, life. Language and art and media all evolve and change. Words continually come into the language. Many die out. For better or worse, the 'F' word shows no signs of going away anytime soon.

I'm not advocating that everyone start walking around cursing and swearing. Nuanced rules of societal and conversational norms keep most of us in check from swearing willy-nilly. The hypocrisy of the FCC and the networks seems to have convinced us that the power of one f***ing word is more damaging than racial epitaphs and sadistic images of human beings harming and killing one another. And that is truly f****ed up.

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