Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Other "F" Word

Maybe this will help clarify the whole Dire Straits "Money For Nothing" debate over what the polite media have already begun to refer as "The Other 'F' Word".

We all know that words can hurt -- even in a context designed to reflect reality, ridicule their usage or disempower them. So those who work with words have a particular sense of responsibility, an awareness that correct usage is what sets good writers apart from hacks.

Every professional screenwriter knows the argument that "This is how these people talk" only goes so far and whether your show runs at 8:00 pm or 10:00 determines how many times you can use certain words or if you should use them at all.

We all self-regulate, knowing that if somebody uses a specific word in a specific moment it can have more dramatic impact. In a way, it's like deciding if you're going to use hollow point or regular ammunition to knock down your target.

I remember sitting next to a couple of young black guys the first time I saw Quentin Tarrantino's "Reservoir Dogs", which is generously laced with white guys using the "N" word and not always just to sound "street".

Maybe because I was writing on a show that dealt with the same "street" but was very careful about the same word, I got quite uncomfortable with its insistent arrival in every imaginable context.

After the screening, I got talking to my seat mates and asked if the language had offended them. They both shook their heads and one said, "Only thing bothered me was taking that guy's ear off".

We all laughed. No harm. No Foul.


It used to be what guided writers to the edge of the envelope, where we could do the work that would have the most powerful effect. It used to be that good work was expected to cause a reaction and that some might react negatively and maybe that was -- I don't know -- part of the point of drama in the first place?


Okay, let's accept that a word is just so offensive to so many that it is now gone from the language, never to be heard from again.

Is the problem it was associated with gone too, banished just as easily?

Of course not. Nor is the history gone. Writing a story placed today or in the recent past, I might be using characters who would have used it.

I can quite easily pull out my thesaurus or call up an urban slang dictionary online and find something else.

According to some of this morning's newspapers, Mark Knopfler has often substituted the word "Fudger" in concert versions of his hit. Is that a good substitute? Carries the same "ridiculing the ignorance of the character" ring to it which is the context of the song.

Heck, Stephen Colbert used the extended "Fudge Packer" version in a Senate hearing when confronted by a bunch of sour Republican Senators and received not one word of criticism from either the LGBT or HCC (hip, cool and contemporary) communities.

So if I use that, is that a safe replacement?

I think we all know it's not, that it'll hurt or upset or offend somebody.

Maybe the trick is to not use any of those loaded words at all. Just tell your story and let the audience determine your intent and any behavior they should or should not emulate through a visceral emotional reaction alone.

Only sometimes that upsets and hurts some people just as much.

In 1982, just a couple of years before "Dire Straits" would release "Money for Nothing", another British band, "The Specials", released a song called "The Boiler". It got to #35 on the UK charts.

It was a song that hurt and upset far, far more people than the one guy who dropped a dime on Mark Knopfler. Only it physically hurt them and upset some to the core of their being.

You can't hear "The Boiler" and not carry its unsettling resonance with you for days. Some people can't bear to hear it a second time because the emotional impact is just too raw and painful.

But "The Boiler" is not banned in Canada.

Nor should it be.

And neither should "Money For Nothing".

1 comment:

John McFetridge said...

It's an ongoing debate in the publishing world, too. Avid mystery readers don't mind the most graphic violence (even sexual, like the Specials song) and have even made a serial killer the good guy, but use the word "fuck" and they won't buy the book. Or have an animal killed. These are our priorities.

Probably the most affected by this ban are the many, many classic rock stations of Corus - they're just quietly going along with it, aren't they?

Remember in another era, that movie FM where the plot was the radio station employees protesting because the station was airing ads for army recruiting?

Rock on.