Why don't children swear in movies anymore?
September 27, 2023 12:21 PM   Subscribe

I've been watching a lot of movies from the 80's with my kids: Uncle Buck, Goonies, Flight of the Navigator. These are movies for kids about kids, and the kids swear a lot to each other (rarely to adults, but sometimes). The adults rarely swear, if at all. I feel like the 80's had the christian right and moral majority in the US, so I'm pretty surprised that movies would have children swearing then, but not now. What changed?
posted by Toddles to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you're noticing something different, content-wise, between 80s movies and contemporary ones, it's likely due to the MPAA ratings board. Nowadays, I would expect a movie about "They're kids, and they swear!" to be rated R.
posted by emelenjr at 12:40 PM on September 27, 2023 [1 favorite]


As of 2010 a PG-13 rating was limited to "A motion picture's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words". Anything more and you get an R rating.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:48 PM on September 27, 2023 [5 favorites]


In the eighties, it was a little shocking and funny to hear children swear. (If you were a child at the time watching those movies, it was behavior that was vicariously enjoyable because it was transgressive, and you wouldn't get away with it if you did it, but it also wasn't genuinely harmful.) It also works as characterization: this is the kind of child who would say this kind of thing.

Now, it's been 25 years since the premiere of South Park. The joke of "children say things that are adult and vulgar!" has been absolutely stretched to its limit. It is no longer possible to extract any additional humor from it.

(But also, I feel like there are much fewer movies these days being marketed specifically at kids in that 9-12-ish age group. If it's marketed as a kids' movie, it has to be appropriate for 5-year-olds, and 10-year olds are just going to see the same PG-13-rated action movies as everybody else.)
posted by Jeanne at 12:48 PM on September 27, 2023 [25 favorites]


I think there is some kind of MPAA guideline now in terms of how much swearing can be in a given film depending on the rating - i.e., if it's PG, you can have X number of swear words, if it's PG-13 you can have Y, if it's R you can have Z. They even get as granular as "you can use the f-word X number of times for a PG-13 film, if you do more than that you have to have an R rating".

Given those constraints the producers/directors probably pick and choose more carefully.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:49 PM on September 27, 2023 [2 favorites]


This isn't a direct answer to your question, but there's a scene in The Goonies where Data yells "Holy S-H-I-T!" as rocks are about to crush him. In interviews at the time he said it was because his parents wouldn't let him swear, even in a movie, so he spelled out the swear word.
posted by tacodave at 12:56 PM on September 27, 2023 [10 favorites]


Those so-called-Christian groups were more about sex and satanic stuff, if I recall. Cute kids saying "shit" and stabbing pirates were less of a concern.
posted by bondcliff at 1:21 PM on September 27, 2023


In the USA, three "Fucks" = Restricted.
posted by dobbs at 1:23 PM on September 27, 2023 [1 favorite]


IMO, the distinction between 'kids movies' and movies for adults is just a lot more rigid than it used to be, so kids swear a lot in 'adult' movies, like IT for example., and 'kids movies' are meant for really young children, and or public appearance where lots of kids are present (like shown on DVD at school) or 'movies at the beach' type things.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:26 PM on September 27, 2023 [2 favorites]


The US is more puritanical now.

The first one I remember was Drew Barrymore calling her brother a "penis wrinkle" in E.T.
posted by rhizome at 1:39 PM on September 27, 2023 [9 favorites]


As a child of the 80s and now with friends who are parents, I think parents generally gave less of a shit at paying attention to what we were watching. I certainly know my parents never watched any of your referenced movies with me, and they were considered pretty uptight for the time.

But parents today seem to vet every single with with eagle eyes and are way more protective of exposing their kids to the the tiniest spec of anything even remotely questionable. Helicopter parents and all that.

So yeah, the US is way more puritanical for sure.
posted by greta simone at 1:41 PM on September 27, 2023 [2 favorites]


The US is more puritanical now.

Wuuuuuuuuuuuut? This is the complete opposite of my impression, and my 30 seconds of searching makes me sure I'm right: In the early 80s, almost 30 percent of people said premarital sex was always wrong; now it's about 13 percent. And support for marijuana legalization has gone from about 20 percent to 70 percent. Counterexamples welcome.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:55 PM on September 27, 2023 [4 favorites]


The first one I remember was Drew Barrymore calling her brother a "penis wrinkle" in E.T.

As I remember it, it was Elliott calling his older brother Michael "penis breath".
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:04 PM on September 27, 2023 [14 favorites]


The thing about the '80s is that many of its cultural trends were continuations of the '70s. Language in pop culture got a lot coarser in the '70s, and that trend continued in the '80s.

The famous 2 Live Crew censorship case, which led to a ruling clearing the rap group of obscenity charges, ended in 1990.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:08 PM on September 27, 2023 [1 favorite]


This is the complete opposite of my impression, and my 30 seconds of searching makes me sure I'm right

It's one thing for general public opinion pools to say something, and quite another for laws and regulations (even self-policing regulations like the MPA's ratings) to be enacted, the latter of which is happening much more frequently these days.

And with SCOTUS the way it is, unpopular opinion-based laws are being upheld whether the general public likes it or not. (Witness the fall of Roe v Wade now versus the '80s, even after Reagan put Scalia on the bench and elevated Rehnquist to chief justice.)
posted by tubedogg at 2:15 PM on September 27, 2023 [3 favorites]


Also because if the movie was on broadcast TV, the naughty words could be bleeped out. Streaming services really don’t want to be bothered, so the studios would rather just make 1 version.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:18 PM on September 27, 2023


As I remember it, it was Elliott calling his older brother Michael "penis breath".

Yup. And his mother laugh-scolded him. Because, really. Penis breath?

IMDB confirms this and that there were few other incidents of swearing in the movie, but that's about it.

Also, the cute girl (credited as "Cute Girl") whom Elliot kisses in the science class was future Baywatch and "Under Siege" babe, Erika Eleniak.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:41 PM on September 27, 2023 [4 favorites]


There is an LA Weekly article about this. My read is that directors had more influence back then and could sneak in elements like profanity, and also studios today make movies for a vastly expanded audience and cannot afford to offend anyone. (I think kids can still find lots of profanity on streaming services, my nephew is particularly fond of it.)
posted by credulous at 3:13 PM on September 27, 2023 [4 favorites]


Child of the 80s/teen of the 90s with friends who are parents now, and now in a job where I work with a lot of teens (and a previous job where I worked with young college kids): kids seem *somehow* more sheltered now. They are very sweet, very polite, and accepting of others! They’re also kind of boring. They also aren’t expected to do much and mom and dad/parentals/guardians are on their EVERY MOVE. Supervised constantly, even as late elementary/middle/early high school. They don’t have chores, they don’t really babysit. They don’t seem to have the same exposure to pop culture as older folks do because now their entertainment is curated and vetted for them; either through family/friends or social media algorithms.
Caveat: this is all from a middle class perspective. I am grateful to have grown up in an earlier era. :::shifts belt of onions:::
posted by sara is disenchanted at 4:01 PM on September 27, 2023 [14 favorites]


If you want to get a sense of how kids movies have changed, watch the original Bad News Bears, which was released in 1976. I remember seeing it and loving it when I was a kid. When I showed it my kids, I almost fell out of my chair.

I'd love to give you an example of a line spoken by one of the kids -- Tanner Boyle, played by Chris Barnes -- but my comment would be deleted by the mods, and rightly so. This one kid uses the N-word, and the equivalent for a bunch of different ethnic groups and identities, and that's pretty much all that comes out of his mouth the whole movie. But it's all in good fun.

Oh, the movie was rated PG. It might have gotten a PG-13 rating, but that didn't exist at the time.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 5:15 PM on September 27, 2023 [8 favorites]


As a child of the 80s and now with friends who are parents, I think parents generally gave less of a shit at paying attention to what we were watching.

I graduated high school in 1983 and my wife's a bit younger, so we grew up watching movies with swearing kids and it's no big deal. Our 11 year old daughter is shocked by swearing and covers her ears. We don't make a big deal of it. I figure it's how people really talk and she's heard it all before (including from us!).
posted by kirkaracha at 5:40 PM on September 27, 2023


pre-teen kid drops an f-bomb here in Cocaine Bear, but I guess it's probably got an R rating (for its violence if nothing else).

While part of me is deeply annoyed at the current state of censorship (that's what it is), another part isn't that worried. Kids will find the "cool" stuff. They always have.
posted by philip-random at 8:04 PM on September 27, 2023


You're talking about an era when children were far less coddled but also far less protected. When I was 12 I'd get to school by taking the bus through downtown Long Beach by myself, and if a fight broke out or some old guy started ranting about how bugs were eating his brain, I'd just try and switch seats (not always possible, on a packed bus). My friends and I would ditch class to go play in the rubble of demolished office buildings, chucking bits of broken concrete at each other. We were constantly stepping on rusty nails, and we'd just tease each other about getting lockjaw and then we'd go back to chucking concrete.

I did a dozen things every day that a kid simply could not do now without their parents getting arrested. So did almost every kid in America. And of course we all swore like sailors. We were practically feral children by modern standards, and if we stepped on a rusty nail we weren't gonna say, "Aw, beans!" And the entertainment of that time reflected our reality. '80s kids didn't laugh at "penis breath" because it was shocking to hear a kid cuss; we laughed because it was a particularly inventive cuss.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:24 PM on September 27, 2023 [10 favorites]


and also studios today make movies for a vastly expanded audience and cannot afford to offend anyone

I think that's a crucial reason here, on top of the already mentioned requirements for ratings in the US. I read something recently about movies having fewer sex scenes these days and one of the main reasons for that is indeed a simple business motive when aiming for big audiences, at global level, not just to avoid offending more conservative audiences but also to avoid running into actual censorship in countries with strict rules about what's permissible to show in a movie. I imagine this factor plays a big part also when it comes to kids swearing.
posted by bitteschoen at 11:56 PM on September 27, 2023 [4 favorites]


But parents today seem to vet every single with with eagle eyes and are way more protective of exposing their kids to the the tiniest spec of anything even remotely questionable. Helicopter parents and all that.
It is not just the parents that are doing the vetting: any film, TV show, or even Youtube clip uploaded - will likely have its script scanned for swearwords and automatically graded. That grading will be done without any consideration of context - so it is probably just easier for creators to self-censor.
posted by rongorongo at 1:30 AM on September 28, 2023


Back in the day, your "content" was 3 channels on the TV and the movie theater. If you were a true 80s baller you had HBO and a VCR. So yeah, to a certain extent everything had to appeal to everyone and everybody was going to see everything.

With VCRs/DVD players and now streaming, it's much easier to make entertainment that's "set and forget" for kids. That means no cussing.
posted by kingdead at 8:19 AM on September 28, 2023 [2 favorites]


I have a nine-year-old and my impression is that the old PG category for that age group has more or less disappeared. Everything now is either bland enough for the under-7s, or else it's for teens or older.

I think it might just be the trend for ever fewer but more expensive blockbusters. To maximize their market the studios either want to make it suitable for young kids, or with enough grown-up stuff to appear to adults as well. Swearing-but-little-violence is too narrow a niche for movies today.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 6:41 AM on September 29, 2023


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