Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

They Cuss in E.T.? WTF!

Is violence now more permissable than swearing or nudity in our movies?

Elliot knows what to say when he see's an alien!
“What was that?”

My 6 year old daughter’s head perked up off of the bed. She stared at the laptop computer. E.T. had just done that cool stretchy thing with his neck. It was the scene when Elliot realizes with delight that he is taller than his new found alien pal, and then E.T. seems to defy the basic laws of biological physics by extending that huge head on top of that flimsy neck a good six inches above his frog-like alien shoulders.

“He can do that,” I told my daughter. “He can stretch his head…”

She stared at me.

“He’s an alien,” I tried again. “He can do stuff.”

“I know that, Daddy,” she replied. “I’ve seen aliens in other movies.” She paused. “I mean, what did the little boy say?”

I hadn’t really noticed so I went back a bit on the DVD. Turns out he dropped the “s bomb.”

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He said sh#t.

“Ummm, he said a bad word.” I mumbled.

“But he’s a kid!” my daughter exclaimed.

I felt a need to defend Elliot’s response. If I had an alien pal, I’d swear like a sailor.

“Yeah, he’s a kid, but he just saw ET do something cool.”

This was a lame answer. I knew it was lame right when I said it.

But then my daughter helped me to understand why it was lame.

“They don’t talk like that in kid movies today, do they?” she asked.

And I got to thinking.

She’s right. They don’t.

Something strange, and insidious and emblematic of shifting values has happened in our entertainment world with regard to what we’re comfortable, as a culture, with letting our kids see and hear.

When I was a kid, I watched E.T. I also saw Logan’s Run (the first movie I saw with nudity). And I watched shows like Love American Style and Fantasy Island. These were not on the whole great examples of entertainment (well, I’ll maintain that E.T. and Logan’s Run are pretty great) but they were rated for or considered appropriate for the eyes and ears of children.

E.T. and Logan’s Run were both rated PG. Parental Guidance. And both had appropriate use of obscenities (that’s an opinion, I know) and Logan’s Run had references to sexuality. Love American Style certainly had sex all over the content. And Fantasy Island felt like a big advertisement for songs like Afternoon Delight. Hell, the little kid in A Christmas Story drops the ‘f-bomb” with genuine finesse.

So what happened?

It seems we flipped on what we’re cool with our kids seeing. Now, things can get PG or PG-13 ratings with all sorts of violence and guts and bleeding and gore, but, notably, they don’t cuss. And they don’t show skin.

I will submit to you that this is messed up.

Swearing and feeling physically passionate are normal. Blowing people away with shotguns is not. How did it happen that we decided that we’re more comfortable with our kids seeing people killed and maimed than we are with having our kids hear the occasional and well placed obscenitie or seeing love and tempered sex?

I know this is controversial and oversimplified, and also I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike violent movies. I’m a big fan of violent movies when they’re done well. Watch Eastern Promises, or A Touch of Evil and you’ll see what I mean.

But, WTF? My daughter takes more note of a boy saying sh#t then she does of E.T.’s marvelous neck? She thinks it odd that a kid would drop an obscenity or two at making contact with alien life?

She’s more wowed by his words than by his alien.

Again, this is messed up.

So, besides the fact that we now have a culture that allows kids to see killing as long as those who kill don’t cuss, and we let kids see violence as long as there are no sexual scenes, there’s a more pernicious bottom line.

Kids can’t swear these days. They use too many obscenities at once. And they use them too often. Lot of good the change in movies has done us, huh?

Maybe some day we’ll get all these values straight.

I f’in’ hope so.

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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