When it comes to words in the English language, which do you consider obscene? If Michigan House Majority Floor Leader Jim Stamas were to be believed, one of those words might be vagina. State Representative Lisa Brown was barred from speaking in session the day after using the word while arguing against anti-choice abortion legislation. Interestingly, on Saturday, a particular SNL sketch featured the use of the word penis repeatedly. What’s right? What’s wrong?
Obviously the use of either of the words in italics above should not be deemed indecent or inappropriate, at least not in most contexts. Derivatives of those terms, however – especially those used in profane ways – can be. Where to turn for help? In 1972, the late great comedian George Carlin debuted his famous monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. I will not list them here but suffice it to say the list still holds true after 40 years. It does not, of course, contain the “v” or “p” words referred to previously. Incredibly controversial, Carlin’s bit was also instrumental in the FCC’s establishing of indecency regulations, decades after the advent of broadcasting.
Today, it’s often hard to tell if any regulations are in place. That they do not pertain to cable television or satellite TV clouds the issue further (just watch HBO or listen to Howard Stern on Sirius/XM). A kinder, gentler FCC also considers context when judging whether the use of particular words are objectionable. During the 2003 Golden Globes, for example, U2 frontman Bono got away with using the ‘f’ work (adding ‘ing’), as it was deemed an ‘intensifier’ rather than a description of a sex act. And, how can you censor any type of live TV (including sporting events with emotional coaches and players) without some sort of tape delay?
While we have come a long way since the days of Lucy and Desi (and Fred and Wilma) sleeping in separate beds as well as tempered our Puritanistic tendencies when it comes to what we consider “over the line”, incidents such as what happened last week in Lansing demonstrate clearly that we still have a long (intensifier here) way to go.