Lights, camera, profanity
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It’s tough to cue up a movie with the family these days without instinctively keeping a finger on the mute button. If you feel like language and objectionable content in entertainment are getting worse, you’re right.
Analyzing 60,000 movies for The Wall Street Journal, a filtering service called Enjoy Movies Your Way compiled data this past December about profanity in films. Surveyed movies released in 1985 included a total of 511 F-words. Movies released last year included 22,177 uses of the same expletive.
While there are standards for how much obscene content a movie can include, over time those rules have changed to meet the demands of moviemakers. And, when it comes to streaming services, those standards are “more what you call guidelines,” to borrow a phrase from Pirates of the Caribbean.
Back when motion pictures first became popular in the early 1900s, there was no consistent rulebook for what movies could and couldn’t include. But it wasn’t exactly a free-for-all. Audiences were generally much more sensitive to profanity, and state censorship boards tried to keep the films in check, sometimes with concerns that seem laughable today. Pennsylvania’s board, for example, was critical of references to pregnancy in movies, arguing many young viewers believed storks brought babies.
Seven years later, former Postmaster General William Hays helped form the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, the forerunner of the Motion Picture Association of America. Hays compiled a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” which became the Hays Code and later the Motion Picture Production Code. It wasn’t enforced strictly at first, and “pre-code” Hollywood continued to produce films considered racy for their time, with stars such as Mae West and Clara Bow. By 1934, however, public pressure led the big studios to accept enforcement under a new code administrator, Joseph Breen. Kisses that lasted more than three seconds or uses of liquor “when not required by the plot” became no-gos. Profanity was prohibited. The MPPDA required films to get certificates of approval or face fines before audiences could view the finished product.
But then in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court forced studios to give up ownership of theaters. The production code began to weaken slowly as studios could no longer control theaters and directors began to push boundaries. When Jack Valenti became head of the MPAA in the 1960s, he scrapped the code and introduced the voluntary rating system that labeled movies as G, M (changed to PG in 1969), R, or X (changed to NC-17 in 1990). PG-13 was added thanks to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom since it included too much violence for PG but didn’t merit the severity of an R rating. Because of the new rating system, the priority shifted from what filmmakers couldn’t include to warning audiences about what was included.
Under this rating system, family-friendly movies have performed better in theaters than R-rated flicks. A 2006 study reported that studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount produced 12 times more R-rated films than G-rated movies, even though the G-rated ones tended to gross more profit. R-rated movies in 2022 made up the lowest box-office revenue in 25 years. (Most theaters won’t show unrated or NC-17 films since excluding children is bad for business.) When implemented in 1997, the TV Parental Guidelines resembled the MPAA’s movie rating system.
But over the last decade, the way people view movies has shifted away from theaters. Streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu play an entirely different ballgame. They aren’t bound by FCC rules that regulate obscenity on television, and they don’t have a limited number of screens as theaters do. This means they can offer NC-17 or unrated content with more freedom. In a 2022 study, the filtering service VidAngel found that in two decades, obscenity in movies and TV shows increased by 173 percent. The growth in the number of video streaming service users seems to coincide with the increase in obscene content.
Subscription-based services don’t always have to submit their movies to an outside group to be rated. While most Netflix originals are rated, those labels aren’t necessarily subject to the same scrutiny. If, for instance, a Hulu Original film premieres in theaters, it needs an official MPAA rating. If it premieres on Hulu, it doesn’t. This doesn’t mean a streaming service can slap a PG-13 label onto an R-rated movie. But it does have leeway to let a few more curse words slide. The Parents Television Council concluded that several Netflix programs marketed to teens are far more explicit than their ratings indicate: “Either the content is being rated inaccurately, or there has been considerable ‘ratings creep’ with the criteria used to determine an age-based rating.” For instance, the PTC found obscenity in the hit TV show Stranger Things increased 217 percent over four seasons. By Season 4, the characters in Stranger Things used the F-word 20 times. But the show has kept its TV-14 label so far.
Have audiences been influenced by the influx of foul language? Many video streaming subscribers spend over three hours daily on these platforms. And while it may not be possible to document an exact effect, Business Insider three years ago posted a video explaining that the average American now curses about five times every waking hour.