A Curse by Any Other Name: Faux-Profanity

starbuckSometimes bad language makes good storytelling. What would the end of Gone With the Wind be without Rhett’s final line? Stephen King would have to work even harder to meet his daily word count. Die Hard might as well be a silent film without the creatively vulgar heroism of John McClane.

While literature and HBO can include whatever language their characters insist upon, network television is less inclined to pardon much French. Books and movies can still be banned, of course, particularly in conservative schools (Catcher in the Rye, anyone?), but no regular network show could go from script to screen if it contained certain words. The difference is a matter of audience. The regular networks cater to a wider viewership with narrower moral compasses. The more people are watching, the more possibilities there are to offend.

So clever writers came up with substitutions. “Shazbot” from Mork and Mindy became so popular it was used outside the show’s context. Such humorous echoes of recognizable profanity, however, are not the only purpose such inventions serve.

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The British colonial empire, Nazism, American imperialism, and more oppressive regimes appear time and again in under different names in science fiction and fantasy – the Imperial Empire, Hydra, Weyland Corp. They simply wear special costumes and sneer at different races/cultures/theologies. None of these subjects make for comfortable entertainment, but the illusion of fiction makes them not only palatable, but engaging. Simply dress a tricky subject in a costume, and we can ignore the reality lurking behind the mask. Just like politics, profanity masquerades as alien profanity – and suddenly it’s acceptable.

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Just as substituting Chiquita with RDA in Avatar allowed reflection on our own predatory business practices – not to mention the global impact of deforestation – replacing curses with an imagined world’s equivalent offers society a mirror to understand shortcomings, potential, and deeply rooted hatred rendered invisible by habit. Battlestar Galactica has some of the most well-known faux-profanity ever invented: “frak.” Less obvious, but more pointed, is “toaster,” a racial slur for Cylons, which blends with other curses to make some very believable swearing. The story’s personal and political elements demand careful scrutiny, and beloved characters’ paranoia about being the thing they hate – the supposed epitome of evil – yanks attention to the paradoxes of social racism and fear-mongering in an equally convoluted reality.

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“Sithspawn” in Star Wars echoes parentage-related insults popular in modern culture. I’m sure you can think of a few. Although not so clear as the racial slurs in Battlestar, the most obvious correlation is to illegitimacy, equating the woman’s role in the slur with a Sith – the baddest of the bad. The fact that Luke and Leia are actually Sithspawn shadows the insult with the pain of familiar characters, forcing viewers/readers to consider the implications of the phrase and its equivalents.

Whenever judgment falls upon genre fiction for its escapism, tropes, or even childishness, it is important to remind the accuser that all fiction is implicitly false. Stories are lies explaining the truth, and often the grander lies dig into deeper truths society may not be ready to address face to face. Sometimes, genre fiction can even take restrictions and transform them into opportunities for reflection.

Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant”

Emily Dickinson

M. Leigh Hood is a rare beast of the Cincinnati wilderness typically preoccupied with writing, nerding, and filming The Spittoon List. For more articles and stories by M. Leigh Hood, look HERE.

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