Lights, camera … word bomb!

Movie | Hollywood continues to litter its films with violent language
by John R. Erickson
Posted 2/25/17, 09:30 am

I don’t get it. From the time The Gilgamesh Epic was written on clay tablets 5,000 years ago, until recent times, world literature got along fine without word bombs, and so did the movie business in its first five decades.

So on this weekend of the 89th Academy Awards, I have to ask: Why do filmmakers keep using those words? You know the ones. WORLD Magazine doesn’t print them. My wife and I have a strong negative reaction to them. When Kris and I were growing up, we never heard them in our homes. We never heard them in movies or saw them in books.

That began to change during the unrest of the 1960s, which started as a reaction against racial segregation and the Vietnam War, but became a rebellion against almost everything. Prominent writers (Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Phillip Roth, John Updike, Larry McMurtry, and others) began using forbidden language in books and articles. They won prestigious awards and kept pushing the limits, and the words started showing up in movies.

It’s been going on for more than 40 years. In time, maybe violent, abusive language will lose its punch and fade away, but that hasn’t happened yet. It infuriates me when I spend money on DVDs that bring it into my home. It instantly makes me dislike the movie.

It’s as though I had bought a box of granola that was loaded with salt. I’m buying cereal, I don’t want salt, and why should I be put in the position of eating something that is distasteful to me? It destroys my interest in the product, and it’s bad for my health.

I think violent language is bad for my health—my physical, spiritual, and emotional health. The words we’re talking about are weaponized, loaded with anger, and their intent is to smash and incite. Are we supposed to believe that weaponized language has no effect on an audience that hears it over and over?

Past generations who relied on common sense and Biblical wisdom understood that what we say often becomes what we do. A film that teaches viewers to use violent language moves them one step closer to violent action. A domestic argument that begins with angry, violent words can end with one party in the emergency room and the other in jail.

Our grandparents would have predicted a high correlation between violent language and domestic violence, child abuse, divorce, and murder. Where you find one, you’re likely to find the other. I’m betting that an objective scientific study on this subject would confirm that link.

I think violent language is bad for my health—my physical, spiritual, and emotional health.

A movie director might say that violent language is necessary for explaining the characters, but that is a specious argument. Film is a picture-medium. In a 90-minute film, the director has 5,400 seconds to reveal characters through facial expressions, body language, makeup, lighting, music, camera angles, and the action of the story.

If we turned off the sound and heard no dialogue, we would still know the characters. Charlie Chaplin, one of the most gifted actor/directors who ever lived, made movies for years without a word of dialogue.

Pictures tell us who the characters are. We don’t need to be assaulted by their abusive language. Some of the best movies of all time (Casablanca, Singing In the Rain, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia) contained no violent or abusive language, even though three of those films dealt with military action.

Kris and I have watched Casablanca many times, and have never felt cheated that we heard none of Hollywood’s favorite word bombs.

Has the repeated use of violent language ever brought a moment of joy or enlightenment to any human being? It baffles me that filmmakers continue to inflict it on their audiences. I’m sure they know the effect it has on viewers like me. They show breathtaking sensitivity for the feelings of certain groups, but none for me. Like sullen teenagers, they glare at the audience and snarl, “You don’t like it? Tough. Eat it.”

During the late 1960s, Kris and I were living in Austin, Texas, and I was trying to write important novels that would be relevant to the culture. I went through a period when I tried to convince myself that my aversion to explosive language was silly and irrational.

I was being too judgmental, puritanical, prudish. Words are just words, right? Often you can change just one letter in a bombshell word and it becomes harmless. What’s the big deal?

The argument resolved itself when we left Austin, a city that rather enjoyed using naughty language, and moved to a small town in the Texas Panhandle, whose Protestant culture didn’t approve of it. In the 1980s, when I found an audience for my books, my readers were on the traditional side, and I wrote for them, in their vernacular. I found their language rich enough so that I could accomplish my goals as a writer. I lost my adolescent need to shock them.

Now I wonder … why did I ever think that I needed to shock my readers? Most people who deal with the public and provide a service don’t set out to shock or insult their customers. Tamale vendors, carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, snow cone peddlers, doctors, and mechanics don’t do that. It never even enters their minds.

It’s not smart to insult your customers or to show contempt for their values and sensitivities. If you do it too often, you’ll go out of business … unless you’re in the movie business. There, oddly, it’s viewed as enlightened and courageous.

Also see Marvin Olaksy’s interview with John R. Erickson from the upcoming issue of WORLD Magazine.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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  • JohnSR
    Posted: Sat, 02/25/2017 11:06 am

    A very timely and appreciated article. Last night my wife and I had our date night. We live in a small rural Colorado mountain community with one theater in town about nine miles from our home, so there's only one choice for which movie we get to see. This time it was Manchester by the Sea. My wife had seen the trailer and thought it would be good. However, my bad for not doing due diligence! The movie portrayed the culture and language of Boston country dominated with the "F" word. It had many messages, but interlaced was an attack on Christians. One message conveyed that "Catholics are Christians" but the real message was it's acceptable for a young "Christian" teenager to bed hop between girl friends, and lie to parents who are portrayed as too stupid to know better. Our community is predominantly conservative and christian, but the movie theater is owned by a liberal woman. It was deeply troubling as I watched this horrific movie unfold, with its Hollywood liberal messages, to see three young people, probably in the 8-10 grade range, whom had apparently been dropped off at the theater by their parent(s). I didn't know the movie rating but later found it was "R" (still my bad), so these young people shouldn't have been there. But the theater owner doesn't care about that sort of thing, probably just needs the money because attendances in this small community probably doesn't add up to 100 over the three viewings. So as I ramble, my point is that it's more than just word bombs that has become so rampant in so many movies (and other mediums). Until the consumer stops their patronage of this stuff it's going to continue, sadly. I've learned my lesson and will investigate any movie we think would be good for date night, to avoid turning it into a bad experience. PTL there's more and more christian producers out there doing quality work!

  • philoxfordal
    Posted: Sat, 02/25/2017 12:03 pm

    Excellent article, as always appreciate the Saturday series and John R. Erickson's essays. I think he nailed's the adolescent desire to shock and lack of creativity that keeps these words in the movies. There are multiple ways of developing character, it's just easier to throw in word bombs than to take the time to look for more creative ways to do so. The same could be said for bathroom humor. It's childish, watch any group of four-year-olds who giggle over the mention of it. The sad thing is that as "salt of the earth" those of us who should be the gate-keepers for our families and culture have opened the door wide and in many cases funded their efforts.

  • Allen Johnson
    Posted: Sat, 02/25/2017 02:31 pm

    The pornification of media both reflects and drives a desensitized culture. Just as drug pushers know that opioid drug addicts need increased dosages to maintain their highs, so the "culture drug pushers" increase their "shock and awe" dosages to their desensitized and jaded consumers.

    Clark Gable's infamous use of the "D" word in "Gone With The Wind" has traveled a long downward road. So has Hugh Hefner's Playboy centerfolds to the violentt mysosgeny of gonzo porn in which the average age of first exposure is 11 years old. Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger cleanly shot the bad guys off their horses, but now movies show the gore and guts. As do computer games played by pre-adolescents who get to kills dozens of people every game in gruesome detail. Even wildlife shows increasingly show gory predation in more detail.  And rock music, country music, and hip hop, with sex, drunkeness, and nihilism glorified? 

    The film industry so often portrays Christians as prudish, boring, corrupt, wimpy,  and/or condemning. Romance is not in found in the long-term marriage but in the casual encounter.

    The film industry will counter that viewers can separate reality from fantasy, that their stronger messages don't negatively affect behavior. But then, why would Super Bowl commercials cost $5 million per 30 seconds if but the desired effect is for viewers to be influenced to consume their product?


  • DCal3000
    Posted: Sat, 02/25/2017 04:05 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this column.  When I was a child, people used to be concerned about movie content.  Not anymore, and I had truly wondered if anyone cared--outside of a handful of aging evangelical organizations.  During the last election, evangelical and conservative leaders acted shocked that evangelical laypeople were unworried about Trump's outrageous and sinful statements.  My thoughts--hogwash! Those same leaders taught us not to be concerned--through every edgy sermon, every attempt to be hip by watching (and endorsing) the latest television fad, every frown at the presumptively legalistic prudes in their audiences.  And we learned--in no uncertain terms.  Our leaders liked shows like Family Guy, why shouldn't we?

    That's why it's so refreshing to find a different message here.  The idea that we don't have to be happy about filth in what we watch is so rare now that it almost feels subversive to hear it expressed publicly.  The idea that we don't have to put filth in our own art--that is subversive.  Thank you for daring to utter such ideas anyway! Modern evangelicals worry so much about being authentic rather than legalistic, we forget that the compulsion to sum up complex emotion using only profanity can itself be legalistic and inauthentic.  We live in a fallen world, but God was merciful and left so many things of beauty here.  It would be nice if we focused on what was beautiful a little more--not in a legalistic sense but simply because the beauty with which God infused His creation is worth appreciating.



  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Sat, 02/25/2017 04:14 pm

    Wait, have you read Gilgamesh? Or what about Ezekiel for that matter? The language in both is intentionally shocking and explicitly violent and sexual. 

    I am not saying that sex or violence is necessary for literature  to be "authentic," but we also cannot act like either good literature or the Bible does not resort to language meant to shock or horrify its readers; that's part of what makes it good literature. Sex and violence are ordinary parts of the human experience, and so good literature frequently does dwell on both. So the Bible offers sexual jokes like Samson's accusations about "ploughing," or (comical?) violence like Eglon's fat swallowing the sword that stabbed him. It also offers crass sex like the description of Israel in heat lustings after her neighbors that is meant to shock us, and the disgusting descriptions of mothers eating their children, which are meant to horrify us.

    The same is true if the pervasive violence in Gilgamesh, Homer, Virgil, Beowulf, Dante, and many others, or the sex in Gilgamesh, Horace, or Milton for that matter. 


  • J
    Posted: Sat, 02/25/2017 08:30 pm

    John Erickson's essay has touched a nerve that has been raw for a long time.  Once upon a time in America we enjoyed standards of language in common parlance.  People kept vulgar words out of public discussion, gentlemen did not use bad language in the company of ladies, and a parent never cussed in front of the kids.  Movies varied in quality but did not wallow in the cesspool of the lowest common denominator.  Literature found ways of getting the point across without dragging its readers through a pig sty.  Indeed Virgil, Dante, Milton, and the Bible, among others, have all dealt with rough subjects, but Erickson is addressing something different. 

    Very simply, we have become coarse and common again.  Somewhere in the past our ancestors were trying to crawl out of the mud and achieve a higher standard, but in my lifetime the higher standard got thrown out as the big change happened across the 1960's and 70's.  Foul language became part of the general rebellion of the times, and it only seems to have gotten worse as reflected in the movies and music and other cultural trends since then.  I am offended by f-bombs and other items used for shock these days.  What purpose does all this serve?

    The English language is a great tool of communication, but the use of gutter talk only shows a lack of imagination on the part of our writers and artists.

  • Janet S
    Posted: Sun, 02/26/2017 11:34 am

    Language can and be used in a beautiful way to "shock and horrify" your audience.  And the Bible does do that.  May great writers do that all the time.  I think you miss the point that the language does not need to be in the gutter to be effective.  I can get the point when a writer uses beautiful word pictures to describe a person or a situation.  I do not need to hear fowl, gutter language or have the "F" bomb dropped at every turn to understand a situation or character.  I believe hollywood needs to learn to use their imaginations again and the art of turning a phrase.  I watch very little that is put out these days because I do not need to have the filth in my head.  


  • gibbs
    Posted: Sat, 02/25/2017 07:51 pm

    While I cannot speak for all classical literature, with regard to Scripture, including the few specific instances you note (and Jesus' vivid hyperbole on the impact of sin, especially of leading others, including the most vulnerable, into sin), there may be a key, subtle difference here worth noting. 

    Erickson notes, "The words we’re talking about are weaponized, loaded with anger, and their intent is to smash and incite..."  This is not the role of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth who both reveals the things of God, and enables us to receive what He says.  As we read in James 3: 13-18, there is wisdom from the world, our unregenerate, yet to be fully sanctified selves, and from the evil one, that is at odds with the wisdom from heaven (v.15).

    If in truth, we believe "prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit," (2 Peter 1:21), and "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so the the man/ woman of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16), then this puts a different spin on the clear biblical portrayal of human nature in all its depravity--and its redemption under God's transforming grace. 

    The Bible is a unique book of holy realism."I have told you these things so that in Me, you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!" (John 16:33).  

    Discernment, of a literary and spiritual nature, may be key to receiving Erickson's "enlightened and courageous" point. Thank you.

  • narevalo3437's picture
    Posted: Sat, 02/25/2017 10:09 pm

    The effect bad language and sexuality in movies have on the outside world is tremendous.  Everyone watches American movies. Everyone thinks this is normal American life.  It is an insult to those of us who do not live like that.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Mon, 02/27/2017 01:57 am

    Yeah, it's bad enough that our culture has all these flaws already, but I wish Hollywood wouldn't insist on exaggerating them to the rest of the world. Especially when a lot of that world still thinks of America as a Christian country.

  • psubrent
    Posted: Sun, 02/26/2017 01:51 pm

    Movies reflect culture.  I'm more bothered by the rampant blasphemy than I am by f-bombs, etc.  Of course, I work in law enforcement, where some can't communicate unless they drop a bomb every 4th or 5th word.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Sun, 02/26/2017 04:33 pm

    I think this is where we disagree. There is nothing "beautiful" about any of those passages I mentioned, precisely because those passages are not about beauty; they are about humour (Eglon's fat and Samson's sex joke) or horror (mother' eating their children) or disgust (Israel in heat lusting after the oversized genitalia of her neighbors). 

    I think that we tend to assume that the Bible is "beautiful" because, well, it's the Bible. But that just ignores what is actually happening in the text. I think we have superficially superimposed the words of Paul about keeping our minds fixed on what is good onto the Bible, which is quite often an offensive text. 

    We could add that there are passages in Song of Songs, on the other hand, that are beautiful, though also sexually explicit (e.g. The word "sharar" most likely refers to the woman's pudenda, not her "navel," as it is cleaned up for us in most translations). I imagine that Mr. Erickson's characters would also not make use of such language. That is not a slight against his writing; it is a neutral observation.

    Again, my point is not that we should just revel in offense, horror, and disgust as ordinary. I am instead suggesting that there actually is a time and a place for what offends, as I believe is manifestly demonstrated in Scripture as well as in massive amounts of good literature. That it would be out of place in Hank the Cowdog seems perfectly reasonable; it's children's literature after all. There's a time and a place for simple stories or moral exemplars or childlike wonder and delight (I remain a fan of Narnia for this very reason). That's why I said good literature may not require rough language or coarseness or sex or violence. But sometimes, I think, it also may make use of such things, as shown to us in Scripture (and, ironically, in especially shocking ways in Gilgamesh).

  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 02/27/2017 12:18 pm

    I think I agree with you that the Bible is often an offensive text. It is meant, in many places, to show the consequences of sin, and that is certainly offensive to those who do not want to own up to their sin, and often to those who do want to. And yes, the more sensitive subjects would be offensive to those who have trouble with the idea that God would talk about "that."

    However, the author is not talking about language that portrays sexual and violent and cannibalistic actions, but rather language that is vulgar, obscene and profane, and used for no other purpose than to portray that this kind of talk is totally acceptable, and to purposely shock those who disagree. 

    The Bible (and the best classic literature) speaks of real things, beautiful and ugly. It does it in a way that uses language that, if not always beautiful, is always well-phrased without the use of vulgarities and profanities.  We cannot say the same about most Hollywood scripts.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Mon, 02/27/2017 05:06 pm

    Thanks for the reply; I hope that I am not being obnoxious by continuing the discussion.

    I think that where I have trouble with this line of thinking is that it draws a hard and fast distinction between what we might call "four letter words" and other offensive language that we seem to have decided isn't sinful. I think that there's something fundamentally misguided about that understanding of language--where certain words are deemed in their very essence to be immoral. For one thing, I don't think that language works that way--the "f" word is derived from an archaic Dutch word for copulation. Of course, it doesn't mean [just] that now, but at what point does it cross over the line to becoming immoral in itself? I am not convinced it ever did. I think that language's meaning is contextual, and its appropriateness is likewise contextual. What I say to my wife in private would be wholly inappropriate in public. The way we use language ought to be determined in significant part by what it means to others, which means the issue is not with words in themselves but in how we treat other people with them.

    But that brings us back to the author's original point, which was about "bad" language in movies or books. I think in the case of art, we are dealing with a difficult situation, because four letter words do not necessarily mean poor writing, as he unfortunately argues here. There are some great movies that speak profoundly to the human condition, the nature of suffering, and the hope of redemption, but include "bad" language, which also happens accurately to portray an element of the human condition. Good art (to include good literature) should in my opinion tell "true" human stories, by which I mean stories that illuminate some element of our shared humanity. That's why so many Christian movies (without bad language [!]) are terrible art--because in their effort to tell "Christian" stories they forget the complexity of the human condition, so they tell shallow stories. They are Thomas Kinkaid paintings--a pretty veneer of clichés without substance. Again, I am not saying that a movie or book needs to include "bad" language to be good art; I am merely saying that such language does not make it bad art. 

    Also, I just have to note that I actually laughed out loud when I read the author's opening line about Gilgamesh, because that poem, as astonishingly beautiful and profound as it is, also includes a graphic description of the week long copulation of a wild man and a prostitute. If the author is actually offended by hearing the f-word in a movie, but not at that description, I simply have to think that we have imbued some four letter English words with far more power than they deserve (or than they wield among anyone except for the conservative Christians who don't say them).

  • John R Erickson
    Posted: Mon, 02/27/2017 05:47 pm

    Hans:  Let me restate my argument.  1.  Violent, abusive language is not good for us.  2.  13 million black citizens regard the N-word as violent and abusive, and filmmakers respect that.  3.  Twenty or thirty million or a hundred million Americans consider the F-word (and others) violent and abusive, and our sensitivities are ignored.  4.  We buy tickets and DVDs.  We don't the the abusive language.  5.  I am not taking a position on copulation or Gilgamesh's sex life at this time.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Mon, 02/27/2017 07:07 pm

    Thank you for your direct response; I do appreciate the clarification. I suppose basically we disagree on the first point, mostly on the basis that I don't really think that there is a categorical distinction between "violent, abusive language" of the sort you seem to be referring to (that is, four letter words) and the violent and abusive language found so frequently in Scripture and other great literature. I actually like your salt analogy, though I might develop it in a different direction. Salty language (hah) is only effective and not harmful when it is used carefully and sufficiently sparingly to retain its potency without overwhelming the point. Perhaps we merely have different levels of tolerance, which seems both entirely plausible and morally acceptable.


    Regardless, I wouldn't ever try to convince someone that they ought to embrace rough language for its own sake. I am glad that you have found a successful niche for yourself, and it seems that your intended audience has really appreciated your approach, so it seems healthy all around. Again, thanks for your response to my thoughts here.