This is a guest post by Monika Bednarek, a linguist who has extensively analyzed US TV series. She is the author of Language and Television Series and the editor of Creating Dialogue for TV, a collection of interviews with Hollywood screenwriters. She has created a companion website at www.syd-tv.com and tweets at @corpusling.
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The use of swear words in US TV series attracts a lot of attention. There are those who revel in creating mash-ups of swearing, and there are those who monitor and oppose swearing (like the Parents Television Council). Rules by the Federal Communications Commission restrict the broadcasting of profane and indecent speech to the evening and night and forbid obscene speech. But these rules don’t apply to subscription-based television such as cable or streaming services. Elsewhere I’ve looked at how frequent swearing is, but here I want to approach swearing a little differently. Basically, what I’m asking is: How do TV series use swear words? And what are their functions?
Let’s start with the first question. Most TV series do seem to use at least one swear word, especially if expressions such as oh my god are counted. But there are a lot of different ways in which TV series can handle swears. I’ve tried to catalogue some of these below.
Previous bitch chronicles considered the stylistic opportunities that bitch and its derivates (son of a bitch) and euphemisms (son of a me) provide situation comedies like How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM — for basic facts about the show, see part 1), especially in the pace and punch of dialogue and in characterization. Some bitchy items support pop-cultural references bound to resonate with viewers as well as characterize the show’s protagonists. You son of a beech, for example, coordinates with cross-season references to The Princess Bride that characterize Ted Mosby and Marshall Erikson’s inner-childishness, yet it also allows Lily Aldrin a slightly euphemized signature swear consistent with her paradoxical personality. Some bitches in the series may misappropriate African American speech, and sometimes the characters use bitch as a weapon rather than a means of building in-group solidarity, so bitch has its dark side in the series, as it does in life. Thus, HIMYM is a rich, complex, and accurate description of bitch, its uses and abuses. Continue reading
Earlier bitch chronicles have celebrated highly evolved bitches, but How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) acknowledges bitch’s baser uses, too. For instance, you can deploy weaponized bitch against people you hate or despise. You can use it glibly to abuse anyone outside your own group, exactly the opposite of using bitch to build solidarity within the group. But you cannot use basic bitch against a woman friend, neither to her face nor indirectly in a way that gets back to her. HIMYM demonstrates over and over just how rhetorically and stylistically impressive a bitch can be, but some bitches confront a stone face and stop time. Continue reading
Profanity, sometimes the language of celebration, also often gives us something to celebrate. In comedy, it can signify a character’s superiority to situation, the fluid personality unimpeded by almost inevitably hostile circumstance, even if that’s just the prospect of meeting someone in a bar, or dealing with star-crossed love or your crazy parents, or whatever. Profanity provokes a smile or chuckle, too, when it’s used against type, when the good girl emits an unexpected fuck. Who saw that coming? It’s a verbal pratfall.
In earlier installments of the bitch chronicles, we’ve observed these stylistic effects in the situation comedy How I Met Your Mother, its sure-tongued use of son of a bitch and various euphemisms for it, especially Lily Aldrin’s Inigo Montoya-influenced You son of a beetch. It was all in good fun, but some of HIMYM’s bitching appropriates Black Language and whitewashes it for a mass audience. That’s not fun for everyone. On this point, HIMYM is inadvertently political. Its misappropriations of African American-inflected bitch ring false and rather than promote comedy interfere with it, at least for some viewers.
Our last bitch chronicle ended by observing that son of a bitch is semantically poetic. The sounds of son of a bitch can be poetic, too. It takes stress at different points for different expressive purposes: son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch. So, there’s value in the full and precise articulation of the phrase, but also pragmatic value in truncating the phrase, or extending it, or playing with it euphemistically.