Swearing During the Cold Snap

Raised on Jane Eyre, I am appalled by the language of women on TV

Growing up in a small university town, I was an avid reader of classics (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Lord of the Rings, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles) and was oblivious of the harsher profanities of language. My mother said, “Darn it.” Even “Dang it” was trashy. And so I was spared from the reduction of emotions to obscene graffiti on a restroom wall.

Am I imagining it, or has the mentality of graffiti been translated to TV sitcoms? I constantly hear the f-word (and that is one of the milder profanities) on TV comedies. On Netflix and Hulu, it has become an integral part of the language of comedy. If the writers can’t think of anything amusing, the actors just say the f-word over and over. It’s like Greek comedy, you might say, but somehow it isn’t at all. Even worse, women in sitcoms now use the p-word and the c-word. “The word is vulva,” I tell the TV.

But back to the omnipresent f-word: it has been around since the fourteenth century, “says the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Fast-forward in time… D. H. Lawrence was uninhibited with the f-word in his brilliant 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (banned till 1960). Henry Miller also wrote brilliant novels about sex, in which there is much f-ing. In Doris Lessing’s novels of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, she described sex from the female point-of- view, usually calling it sex, or, on rare occasions, “making love.” Lessing associates the f-word with the male point-of-view. In The Golden Notebook, she uses the word only once. “When George looked at a woman he was imagining her as she would be when he fucked her into insensibility.” In The Four-Gated City, Lessing again uses the f-word once. A highly-sexed man with multiple lovers says: “I’ve noticed with my girls, when they’ve been with a man, even their husband…–something gets switched off. Then you just have to start again, you have to have a good ordinary fuck to make the contact again.”

The f-concept does and did seem very male, because women are traditionally its objects, and the men are in control. Perhaps that is one reason why Kate Millet was so critical of Lawrence and Miller. And so I never use the -word in my own relationships. In sitcoms, the women have no control–they are looking for sex or love, and though they may have great careers, they will ultimately be the objects. Nothing changes, except the language.

The f-word probably became hip during the ’60s–that’s just a guess. In the next decades, my peers and I were not shocked by it, but we rarely used it, because we were readers and writers and knew so many words. By the time the f-word became hackneyed on cable TV in the 2000’s (or perhaps earlier?), it must have been strictly for commercial value. To hear it on TV was supposed to be funny. But are people really thinking, “Let’s watch HBO or Netflix because they use the “f” word”?

And yet I am not immune.

Doctor Zhivago

” F—ing Doctor Zhivago,” I said this morning when I shuffled into the mudroom.

The mudroom is unheated, the windows were frosted up, and I was reminded of the ice palace scene in the movie Doctor Zhivago. I opened the door to look outside and a blast of cold air nearly annihilated me. And that’s when the f-expletive escaped “my teeth’s barrier,” as Homer would have said.

Why couldn’t I have just said “damned Dr. Zhivago” or “goddamned Dr. Zhivago,” I wondered. Why did I have to choose the No. 1 TV expletive (it’s because it has seeped into the culture). And then I wondered which is the greater sin (“goddamned” takes God’s name in vain; and as for the f-word, the nuns never mentioned it)!

What if I start to sound like a heroine on a sitcom?

You know what to do, Kat. Turn off the damned TV.