LOS ANGELES — Those extra expletives you’re hearing at the multiplex these days aren’t just echoes.
PG-13 movies, officially allowed one nonsexual F-word per script, are making increased use of that allotment — and more — as filmmakers work the rules in a world where R-rated comedies full of both male and female trash talk have become a summertime staple.
Recent PG-13 examples include F-bomb reactions to Ryan Gosling’s abs in Crazy Stupid Love, Bryan Cranston’s boorish behaviour in Larry Crowne and those rampaging robots (they’re children’s toys, for goodness sake) in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
“Filmmakers are certainly using it more often, taking advantage of it,” says Joan Graves, head of the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration.
Using the F-word outside of the R-rated world certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, prior to the adoption of the PG-13 rating in 1984, the F-word would periodically pop up in PG movies.
Even after the creation of the PG-13 rating, movies like Big and Beetlejuice sneaked in the F-word and still secured a PG rating.
Those days are gone, but the expletive isn’t — now uttered outside the province of the R-rating nearly as often as Hollywood does sequels.
“Making a PG-13 movie, it’s always a pick-and-choose battle of where do you want to use one because, often with improvisation, a couple of F-words will creep into the movie,” says Crazy Stupid Love screenwriter Dan Fogelman. “So you want to pick the best one, the most appropriate one.”
Actually, as watchers of The Social Network and The Tourist can attest, PG-13 movies occasionally have more than one F-word. So how the (bleep) does that happen?
Officially, the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Administration’s guidelines state: “A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context.”
But the MPAA’s guidelines then add that if two-thirds of the rating board members believe that multiple F-words are used in a legitimate “context or manner” or are “inconspicuous,” then the movie could still be rated PG-13.
Besides The Social Network and The Tourist, add The Adjustment Bureau, Iron Man 2 and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps to recent films that have dropped more than one F-bomb and still secured PG-13 ratings.
Says the MPAA’s Graves of the rating board’s two-thirds override for language: “It’s hard to explain. But if you’ve just seen the film and you think they’ve been innocuous . or they’re an hour and a half apart . or they’re in the background or not emphatic. Or sometimes they’re in the same scene, just repeated twice.” Each of those qualities can make a difference to the board, Graves notes.
“All the raters are parents, and they’re charged with rating a film the way they think a majority of American parents would rate the film,” Graves adds. “So that’s the overriding focus.”
Then, too, there’s the way a film like Transformers: Dark of the Moon will have characters mouth the F-word or start to use a variation of it and trail off just before the offending expletive is fully stated. Technically, it’s only used once. But in actuality, it’s peppered throughout the movie.
Perhaps in an age where the faux children’s board book Go the (Bleep) To Sleep tops The New York Times bestseller list and Cee Lo Green’s song (Bleep) You becomes celebrated as a kiss-off anthem, there’s just no avoiding the word.
“For most people, it’s hardly noticeable any more,” says Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of The F-Word, a detailed history of the expletive in question.
“That said, there’s a disconnect between what happens in reality and what happens in representations of reality, like the movies,” Sheidlower adds. “Filmmakers are always going to play games to get around the use of certain words.”
Critics of the MPAA’s policy toward language say Hollywood’s game-playing can actually go both ways — that filmmakers intentionally insert profanity into movies in order to secure a PG-13 rating instead of what critic Nell Minow calls the more “babyish” PG designation.
Minow points to the 1998 Drew Barrymore movie Ever After as an example. The MPAA rated Barrymore’s variation on the Cinderella tale PG-13 for “momentary strong language.” When the film was released on DVD, the expletive was deleted and the film’s rating changed to PG.
“It’s a very calculated formula,” says Minow, who reviews films as The Movie Mom for the Beliefnet website and radio stations nationwide. “Hollywood manipulates the ratings to get to that PG-13 sweet spot.”
Which is why he believes the MPAA should simplify its code and not allow the F-word in PG-13 movies.
“Allowing it once or twice just doesn’t make sense to me,” Minow says. “The word is something you’re OK with a child hearing or you’re not. And, still, in 2011, I’d argue that it’s outside the safety zone for children.”
The MPAA’s Graves says she’s receptive to Minow’s idea.
“If we have tremendous outcry from parents, we’ll consider that,” she says.