Chloe Moretz’s hit-girl has inadvertently dispatched our last big expletive. There’s more than one reason why we shouldn’t be pleased
Warning: this blog contains quotes that employ very explicit language
In Kick-Ass, an 11-year-old girl calls a roomful of grown-ups “cunts”. And nobody gives a damn. The film has managed to evoke a half-hearted whimper from the Mail, while the Australian Family Association has deemed its language “offensive”. Protest-wise, that’s pretty much it. A sorry milestone has been passed. The c-word has become acceptable parlance for children in mainstream movies. We’ll be the poorer for it.
One by one, the words with which we used to abuse our fellows have been gradually decommissioned. It’s been a long time since you could successfully vent your wrath by calling some pain-in-the-neck a bugger or a bastard. Nowadays, it wouldn’t be worth wasting the breath required. Employ the c-word, however, and you could still conceivably feel you’d made a point. Until now. Chloe Moretz’s hit-girl has offed it too, without a thought for the consequences. Henceforth, road-hogs, round-dodgers and purblind refs will all get a verbal free pass.
A noble history has been brought to a close. What had been merely the label for a body part blossomed into an obscenity in the late middle ages. By 1785, the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue felt obliged to list it as “C**t”. During the 1960s, however, the word’s profanity began to fade. In 1970, it took its first bow on British television, courtesy of The Frost Programme. Two years later, the OED gave it an unveiled listing for the first time. As decontamination gathered pace, cinema was quick to pitch in.
The first mainstream movie to unleash the c-word seems to have been Carnal Knowledge. Back in 1971, Jack Nicholson’s Jonathan saw fit to inquire: “Is this an ultimatum? Answer me, you ball-busting, castrating, son of a cunt bitch.” Four years later, when Nicholson’s R P McMurphy opined of Nurse Ratched, “she’s somethin’ of a cunt, ain’t she?” the shock was already wearing off. By 1991, Multiple Miggs was able to allude both lewdly and bluntly to Agent Starling’s genitalia, while the Brits took things even further with Trainspotting in 1995 and then Ben Kingsley‘s c-word-fixated Don Logan in 2001.
Thus was the puissance of anathema incontinently squandered. Nonetheless, until now, all wasn’t totally lost. On the big screen, the c-word may have been uncaged, but it was only out on licence. Censors continued to treat it with impressive deference, thereby helping to sustain its waning import. For decades, use of this one word was in itself sufficient to earn a film an adults-only rating. Thus, even in 2002, the 20-odd appearances of the word “cunt” in Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen were sufficient to secure it an 18 certificate, thereby ensuring that the kind of people depicted in the film wouldn’t be able to see it.
It’s in this respect that the Kick-Ass case is particularly disgraceful. According to the BBFC’s guidelines, the word is acceptable in a 15-rated film only “if justified by the context”. That might just cover Shaun of the Dead, which crawled under the wire in 2004 in spite of the line, “Can I get any of you cunts a drink?” Surely, however, an otherwise politely-spoken pre-teen could have perpetrated her bloodbath without involving this vulnerable malediction. The word wasn’t even in the Kick-Ass script. It was added on set, apparently at the suggestion of Chloe’s mum.
Yet Kick-Ass rejoices in a 15 certificate. The BBFC says the comic ambience makes everything OK, though true devotees of the c-word may think this makes things worse. Grave execrations are not to be trifled with. In America, the film has been rated R, so no one under 17 will be able to see it without an accompanying adult. Ireland’s given it a 16, Canada an 18A and New Zealand an R18, all of which imply marginally more respect for our sadly doomed expletive than the film’s country of origin has managed to stump up.
It’s a sorry business. All in all, our film censors, Chloe Moretz’s mother and the rest of the Kick-Ass crowd are a complete bunch of utter … what, exactly, can we term them now?