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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What a waste of ducking time

Ahhhh DoG .............. bless you. You publish an article that rails (kinda) at the one F-bomb silly rule, and yet we plebians here in Comment world must never be allowed to utter such words.

Oh and the Wolverine cameo is funny and perfectly in character, stop being so precious.

Good article. I have to say that in the last two years I've noticed the f word crop up in 12A films a lot more often. I have no problem with "bad" language at all, I'll admit that I use it far too casually, but the F word in a 12A always shocks me, generally because two out of three times it feels shoehorned in. I don't have a problem with it, that's just often my kneejerk reaction.

I recently rented the Total Recall Director's Cut and it had 3 "f bombs" and 3 boobs. Checked the disc at the end to see it only had a 12 rating! I mention that it was the Director's Cut because I doubt all the swearing got into the theatrical cut.

I'm with Doug Stanhope on this one. Any parent that raises their child to be offended by any word - is not fit to be a parent! It is the context and meaning of the words that should be our only concern.

BLERUGH! - Were you offended by that? No, of course not. Why? Because no one has told you to be! Where as if I punched you in the head, it would be unmistakable.

I assume you meant the recent version.

Galaxy Quest, when Sigourney Weaver and Tim Allen get to the chompers she says, "Screw that!"...But read her lips. Wish they'd change it to what was scripted, would get an even bigger laugh.

I only left that one out because of the dub- I agree, that's one instance that would have been much funnier. Thanks for the comment!

Looks like i cant publish my original comment as it contained a naughty word i cut and pasted from the article (as part of the overall paragraph). Come on DOG! Anyway - I enjoyed the Wolverine scene.

I've had a few comments (I assume) rejected due to my use of bad language. This is a bit of a joke!

When I wrote this, I hadn't realised the irony of not being able to drop an F-bomb in the comments. I think we're only allowed one, and we're saving it.
In the meantime, please direct your comments along the lines of "you're an effing idiot, Harrison!" Cheers for the comments everyone.

I couldn't disagree more with this article's opinion of the F-bomb
dropped in X-Men: First Class -- it was brilliant! It was one of my
favourite cameos (alongside Bill Murray's turn in Zombieland) and I
burst out laughing when Logan tells Charles and Erik to "Go f***
yourselves." It didn't take me out of the movie at all, and I've never
thought of Wolverine to be "hogging attention" in the X-Men movies; he's
just a very charismatic character. My seven year old son watched it
with me on DVD and was a little shocked (as was I), but there was a
smile on his face too. He never swears himself (and scolds me if I do
it), but he expects nothing less from Wolverine. It was completely fitting to the character and I'm glad that Vaughan et al. took the chance to leave it in there. Kudos.

Just to point out: The clip from Fast Five that you've included actually has the "fuck" edited out. He just says "Stay out of my way".

I couldn't disagree more with this article's opinion of the F-bomb
dropped in X-Men: First Class -- it was brilliant! It was one of my
favourite cameos (alongside Bill Murray's turn in Zombieland) and I
burst out laughing when Logan tells Charles and Erik to "Go f***
yourselves." It didn't take me out of the movie at all, and I've never
thought of Wolverine to be "hogging attention" in the X-Men movies; he's
just a very charismatic character. My seven year old son watched it
with me on DVD and was a little shocked (as was I), but there was a
smile on his face too. He never swears himself (and scolds me if I do
it), but he expects nothing less from Wolverine. It was completely fitting to the character and I'm glad that Vaughan et al. took the chance to leave it in there. Kudos.

The irony isn't lost on us that, due to software issues out of our immediate control, you're not allowed to swear in the comments. Er, sorry about that. Perhaps we can all agree that we're motherfunsters? - Simon

Judy Dench dropping the F-bomb in Skyfall is all kinds of wrong.

Yes, Bond isn't aimed at kids, but it doesn't need swearing to get its point across - that one line rankled greatly.

But in Anchorman, he drops the f-bomb multiple times right after. As they're dragging him out of the studio through the mob, he screams "I would never say f***! Don't you know I would never f***ing say f***!"
Isn't there some loophole in the MPAA system where you can only use it once in a sexual connotation, but can use it multiple times elsewhere?

This trend has been going on since the 90's when Titanic really popularized the "one F bomb per PG-13 movie" trend. (and felt out of place even then). It takes me out of the movie because my brain thinks "ah, there's the one F-bomb they get!"

Similar article idea: Time to retire the Wilhelm scream?

Actually a mate of mine was on a flight around the time Die Hard 3 was released. He'd already seen it, so wasn't paying much attention right up until the iconic line. And it had been changed to 'Yippee-ki-yay Melon Farmer!'

Because, ya know, melon farmer is one of the biggest insults you can hurl at some one in the midwest of America ............. apparantly.

Quantifying the use of the F Bomb is silly for any ratings board. As The King's Speech proved, it's all about context.

HEY! Don't use that kinda language around here mister! There are journalists present.

That's in the unrated version.

I'm surprised you guys forgot about the rare 1992 PG-13 Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia, Geena davis movie 'Hero'. Where the "F" bomb is dropped 11 Times!!

Editing language in any capacity is completely outdated. Any kid can flip on FX and listen to Dennis, Dee, Frank and Charlie drop f-bombs like it's going out of style. Cable televisions current prominence (Showtime, FX, HBO, etc) combined with the I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T...seems pretty stupid to try to sensor a film at all anymore. Kids hear it. Get over it.

I wasn't really saying it should've been included, was just mentioning it as one that got away. Enjoyed your article. Thank you.

there are two uses of the f word in The Social Network. maybe youre allowed two if theres no violence in the film.

Personally I think it's about a certain type of parent, who feel uncomfortable with their offspring hearing anything like that. When there's a film that is12a only because of the F-word when it should be a PG then it increases the shock to the parent that they've exposed their child to that.

I've sat through many a pic with my kids and been caught off-guard at the sudden, out-of-place (for a kids movie) use of a swearword. If they ask about it I just say well when you're in a stressful situation sometimes you can't help but swear as I'm not going to tell them it's wrong, but when I think back to some of the classic movies of my youth such as E.T., Goonies and Ghostbusters I realise that for me most of the bad language just went over my head as I never really knew what it meant.

That said I think allowing even just the one use of the F-bomb in a movie that children might watch will probably have more of an impact than if they watched a movie where it was commonly used in a natural way. It does kind of stand out a mile when it happens.

Sunny doesn't usually contain the F bomb...

Dude the Wolverine cameo was f-ing classic. That was true Wolverine! And the fact that you think it took people away from the film is just ridiculous. If anything, thats everyones favorite part because it was real and not bubble gum. Get with the program guy, or stop writting non sense.

There is only one Total Recall, and it has an 18 rating. At least that's what I like to tell myself.

It's a game the MPAA has mixed results with, some of which literally damage the film's potential if not a guaranteed hit.

Adam Carolla went nuts about this when releasing his film The Hammer, a truly harmless film (not even violent, unless you consider boxing extreme) that had once use of the f-word (and it was the ONLY curse word in the whole movie) and his little under-$1 million budget movie got slapped with an R which killed it's already low potential of making back a profit.

Meanwhile, As Good As It Gets has four f-words in it, not to mention racist jokes and Helen Hunt's boobs (granted, not In Session boobs but still) and that was Rated PG-13.

Beetlejuice has an F-word in it and that is PG though that came out before the PG-13 rating, methinks. Spaceballs too.

On another note ... and I heard from a English friend of mine that it is different in the GB-release, but Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as a brilliant one-time use of the f-bomb. When Costner and Freeman catapult over the castle, the US version has Christian Slater saying 'f--- me, he cleared it'. Awesome.

Honestly, these days, kids have heard numerous swear words, including the dreaded F bomb, by the age of 8, whether its on TV or in the movies.

I have no problems with the F bomb being mentioned in PG-13 movies, in fact, I remember when there was no swearing allowed at all in PG-13 movies. But the standards have been lowering for years now. If they rated movies by the standards 25 yrs ago, last years Avengers movie would have been rated R, not PG-13, because of the violence. Of course I also grew up in an era when X was used as a rating still(although never recognized by the MPAA), and it was even rare for movies to get it. Those types of movies were usually extremely violent(The Evil Dead).

You failed to mention one of the most screwed-up aspects of the MPAA's arbitary swear word rule. You can one use your one f**k as as a curse or an insult, but in UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES are you allowed to use it to describe sex. So your PG-13 movie can tell someone to f**k off, but not ask someone if they fancy a f**k.
The MPAA get their priorites in completely the wrong order when it comes to sex, nudity, violence and swearing. Anytime someone moans about the BBFC, I advise them to watch "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" to make them realise how lucky we are in the UK.

The day the film industry retires the Wilhelm scream should be the day that the film industry calls it quits.

I disagree with everything you said about X-men. You can't say that they can't make an X-men movie without Wolverine hogging the spotlight, the fact of the matter is that it is a very glaring issue that in the 60's, while trying to recruit more mutants, Xavier and Magneto are going to come across Wolverine. You can't just ignore Wolverine. The question would come up "where was Wolverine during first class?" And the point of him using the F word, was to express his disinterest to the extreme. If he said no, then Xavier and Magneto would try to convince him why he should listen, and that would have validated what you said by Wolverine having an unnecessary, and obvious, scene stealing scene

Other interesting examples:

Titanic actually gets away with using it twice ("fucking hand", "fucking hell"), which along with the famous sketch scene, makes it the luckiest PG-13 movie to come out in quite awhile.

The Social Network also gets away with it twice ("Fuck you", "Fuck-you flip flops"), but originally went for 3. One of the Winklevoss twins gets dubbed in the movie, so you can still see his lips say "fucking" but in the final cut you hear "fricking".

That being said, I enjoyed the article and I detest the MPAA.

That was my first thought, too. The dub is just terrible, since the two words look nothing alike when you're speaking them.

What? He just meant that it was time he could have spent ducking. That's an essential skill when training for the zombie apocalypse, or boxing with a midget.

Actually, Little known fact is that Gosling Park used this to their advantage. They didn't want kids going to see it becasue they knew they would be bored out of their minds. So they added "Fuck" several times into the final script. Voila! Instant "R" rating.

The X-Men: First Class use of the word is a of reference to the comic books, where Wolverine was first known as a foul-mouthed hard ass with an attitude......

I saw Galaxy Quest in the theater and laughed my head off because the print my theater was running was not edited. Sigourney Weaver did, indeed, say "Fuck that!"

It's not censorship if all they're doing is making it so that people are aware of the kind of content a film is going to have.

There's drug use in TSN too, that was an automatic 15 certificate not long ago, I thought. Fairly rated movie though, in my opinion. It's about the target audience as well, that'd be weirder in Pirates of the Caribbean or something.

I agree with the article. I'd rather a scene like in Skyfall, with casual, conversational profanity, that has the word there to be forceful, than a scene built around swearing for the sake of it like X-Men: First Class.

Only he wasn't, because Marvel was still adhering to the Comics Code Authority back when Wolvie was introduced.

That is the good thing about the BBFC, they do use their guidelines as guidelines.

Yeah, the BBFC is a great classification board. They actually understand audiences.

WHY do people still post that bullshit claim that you are allowed to say the F-word once in a PG-13 movie? MANY movies have said it more than once and still gotten the PG-13 rating. Many movies continue to do that, yet morons still claim that is some hard and fast rule.

Someone tell The American President about this rule, because then they wouldn't have had Michael Douglas, Michael J. Fox and Annette Bening each say it once. Luckily, I guess the MPAA board went out for sodas when two of them were said.

There is no "getting away with" anything because IT IS NOT A RULE! It is just something that someone idiot on the internet made up and millions of even bigger idiots just accepted as a fact.

Sure you could. In the 60s, they would have been recruiting thousands of mutants. This movie chose to show just 5. They showed just ONE that turned them down. There is no reason why they needed to show that. They didn't show the thousands of others.

Wow! You remember when there was no swearing in PG-13 movies? That is amazing since there was NEVER a time that that was true. My god...did you really think people would just blindly accept your bullshit claim as a fact wen it is so easy to check it out since it has only been around for 29 years and it is still easy to see early PG-13 movies and hear all the cursing?

Neither Beetlejuice, nor Spaceballs came out before the PG-13 was introduced. My god...you are ON the internet. So you obviously know the internet exists. Why would you not use it to do SOME research before making such an easily refuted statement?

There is no rule whatsoever. IT is just something that stupid bloggers claim because stupid blog readers will accept anything on the internet.

One...it is not sensor. Two...this is not censorship.
The same worthless idiots who say "Parents should take a greater role in raising their children" are always the ones who whine when parents are given help to do so. No...NO parents will be able to personally go watch every movie that their child is interested in seeing before they make their decision to allow them. You certainly would not be that good a parent if someone ever let you have sex with them, which is unlikely. The rating system does not censor anything. IT simply gives parents a guideline so THEY can decide.

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