Using the F-word in PG-13/12A movies

Feature Mark Harrison 17 Jan 2013 - 07:37

The restrictions set by the US ratings board mean the F-word can only be used once in a PG-13 movie. Mark looks at its impact on films...

Warning: this article uses the word “fuck” a lot. More than once. There's a spoiler for X-Men: First Class if you've not seen it, too.

The best gag in Get Shorty sequel Be Cool (that didn't involve Dwayne Johnson) is at the beginning of the movie, when John Travolta's mobster-turned-movie-producer Chili Palmer talks about why he's leaving the movie business. “Do you know that unless you're willing to use the R rating, you can only say the 'F' word once? You know what I say? Fuck that. I'm done."

This refers to a guideline imposed by the Motion Picture Association of America, the US ratings board, which places a quota upon the number of F-words you can use in a PG-13 film. Despite its popular predecessor's R rating, Be Cool was rated PG-13 in the States, and so this “fuck” is the only instance of the word being used in the film, neatly followed by “I'm done.”

While the meta-joke is one way of deploying your F-word, (see also: Crazy Stupid Love, more on which later) the bean-counting of this particular expletive, still enforced by the MPAA, usually leads to less imaginative, more random uses of the word in the middle of an otherwise innocuous script.

If we remember Your Highness, we remember that entire comedy movies have been built entirely upon the premise of how funny the word “fuck” sounds. But with the archaic quota rule, it's like scriptwriters and filmmakers who are aiming for a PG-13 rating are handed a bazooka with one missile.

This both overstates both the power of the word in question, and understates the precision required to make it memorable. A bullet would be a more apt comparison, but then it's far more commonly referred to as an F-bomb. Still, it's surprising how most PG-13 films miss more than they hit.

Along with a litany of crappy dialogue and misused icons, Alien Vs Predator can count one of these amongst its crimes, with the third-act clunker that was “It's a bomb. Well, I hope it kills every fucking one of 'em!” When a random swear word does more to up the rating than the bloodless violence, you're doing both Alien and Predator wrong.

Likewise, the only real remnant of the grown-up superhero dramedy Tonight He Comes, which turned up on screen in Hancock, is an F-bomb in the middle of a fat joke. In the finished product, it just seems incongruous, but it's far from the worst use of the word, or the most random. Infamously, the producers of The Avengers, (not that one) parachuted an “oh, fuck” by Eddie Izzard into the picture at the last minute, simply to secure a higher certificate.

Once that missile has been fired, however, it's often the case that films go to extreme measures to avoid striking again. Be Cool, for instance, brings characters close to saying “fuck” again, but always interrupts them. In Die Hard 4.0, (or Live Free Or Die Hard) the first PG-13 instalment of the series, John McClane actually shoots himself just to save our poor ears from hearing his already famous catchphrase.

Other films actually bleep out the repeat offences, (not in the same way as the running gag in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, whereby Julie Powers and Envy Adams have the superpower to bleep their own potty mouths with a honk and a black bar) but merely to keep the R rating at bay.

In the otherwise unmemorable college comedy Accepted, the final line of the film is partially bleeped, because they already pulled off a “Fuckin' A” earlier on. Another more notable case is Iron Man 2, which never actually lands an F-bomb, but gets away with “Fuck you, Mr. Stark. Fuck you” by bleeping both F-words.

Here's a case where the use of F-bombs shouldn't be allowed, if I may go off on a bit of a tangent. Somewhere between Star Wars Episode III and Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire, 12A became an acceptable standard for tentpole films, mostly because it allowed for a greater amount of the fantasy violence that often forms the basis of their stories.

In the US, the PG-13 rating is long established, and under-17s can even see an R-rated film if accompanied by an adult, but the boundaries of the 12A rating in the UK still causes confusion with some parents in the UK. In this case, a “fuck” only muddies the issue further.

It's entirely understandable that some parents don't want their kids to hear that language, and might not take their kids to see it if that was a part of the film's content. It doesn't matter if you only use it once, if you only want to use it because you can, and forgetting the young audience is one of the cardinal sins of modern franchise filmmaking.

While Iron Man 2 put the bleeps on, this tangent leads me to why I personally didn't enjoy the gratuitous but apparently popular Wolverine cameo in X-Men: First Class, which is the worst part of an otherwise very enjoyable film. He appears for about ten seconds while Xavier and Erik go looking for mutant recruits, only to tell them “Go fuck yourselves.” Hahahaha. Not big, not clever, it takes everybody out of the movie for a second, and only betrays the fact that they still can't make an X-Men movie without Wolverine hogging attention, even if only for a short scene.

In contrast to the much ballyhooed use in First Class, I found that one of the best uses of the F-word in a 12A franchise movie isn't actually audible - it's just another of the rewarding little details in Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight. When he plays chicken with the Batpod, and Batman wipes out after swerving to avoid him, we get a split-second shot of the Joker mouthing the word, pissed off.

It's not gratuitous, or dropped for impact, and it shows you can use it with subtlety. A mouthed “fuck” wouldn't necessarily even get you up to a PG-13 or 12A - The Living Daylights is rated PG, and it has Timothy Dalton's Bond saying “fucking hell”, muted by a jumbo jet's windscreen, as he simultaneously tries to make good his escape and rescue his love interest. And in that case, James Bond has always been a more grown-up hero - there's less duty towards younger viewers, seeing as how he gets up to far worse than swearing.

In more grown-up PG-13 films, however, the fixation on only saying the word once is peculiar, and occasionally frustrating. Certainly, if you've seen Get Shorty or any of the Die Hard films, you've heard that word before, and hearing it once isn't going to hurt you any more. In cases where the sequels have been down-rated to reach a bigger audience, it actually neuters established characters.

In the UK, the BBFC has long since considered the context of multiple expletives in its certification of 12A movies. The King's Speech was a notable recent example, rated 12A for “strong language in a speech therapy context." In the scene in question, the Duke of York is encouraged to give a salvo of expletives because they alleviate his stammer. Before being reclassified, the film had initially received a 15 rating, to the annoyance of director Tom Hooper.

"I go to see Salt, where a tube is forced down Angelina Jolie's throat and then water is poured down her throat to simulate drowning, that's not a problem.” he complained. This isn't the view of the MPAA, which stands by the one F-word maximum limit. As South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut so succinctly put it: “Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words!”

If you fancy finding out more about the MPAA, you should check out Kirby Dick's excellent documentary about the MPAA, The Film Is Not Yet Rated. The film is more concerned with the inscrutable membership of the board, and their conservative, sometimes misogynistic attitudes, but it's a valuable insight into the lack of accountability for ratings in the US.

So, to conclude, here are five of the best-placed recent-ish (audible) “fuck”s in PG-13 movies. Some of these got the higher 15 certification in the UK, but as they're all American movies, you can safely assume that these strikes were made with the US rating in mind...

1408

“It's an evil fucking room.”

Does anyone say “fuck” better than Samuel L Jackson? Early on in 1408, which is coincidentally the 1,408th movie adapted from the works of Stephen King, Jackson's hotel manager handily summarises the whole plot to John Cusack's tormented author as he checks in. Full marks for customer service.

Crazy Stupid Love

“Fuck!”

Emma Stone, queen of many a movie fan's heart, has a really bad night and decides to cheer herself up by hooking up with Ryan Gosling. After downing a couple of lethal looking cocktails, she rails at her own good girl standards, insisting that the night won't be PG-13. As Gosling gets his inevitable shirtless moment, she loses her train of thought and then masterfully pitches an expletive that plants us in PG-13.

Fast Five

“What's the second thing?”
“Stay the fuck out of my way.”

Between G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Journey 2 and Fast Five, Dwayne Johnson has pretty much become the equivalent of a weightlifting spotter to struggling franchises, providing that extra support that's needed to push the standard up. In his first scene, he immediately sets about telling the Brazilian police how it's done, and launches the film's allotted F-bomb with the same authority.

Skyfall

“I fucked this up, didn't I?”

I won't go into too much detail about this one, (even though the box office suggests that most of you have seen this one by now) but if we leave out Dalton's exasperation in The Living Daylights, this is actually the first “fuck” in the whole Bond series. It's not gratuitous, like some others I've mentioned in this article, and Judi Dench delivers it with her usual gravitas.

Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy

“Go fuck yourself, San Diego.”

This one is perhaps the quintessential use of the F-word in a PG-13/12A movie. It's funny, it's unexpected and it has a huge bearing on the plot from there on out. Ron's unfortunate tendency to read whatever comes up on his autocue gives spurned lover Veronica a perfect opportunity for sabotage, at a point when America was more prissy about swearing in the media than even the modern MPAA. A perfect strike.

Do you think it's necessary to say “fuck” in PG-13 movies? Are the BBFC right to consider the context of multiple “fucks”? Comment below if you have any thoughts, or if we missed out your favourite F-word in movies.

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