“Modern Family,” the F-bomb and the power of suggestion

The prudish wing of the Internet is up in arms over a young "Modern Family" character who simply appears to swear

Topics: Modern Family,

"Modern Family," the F-bomb and the power of suggestionEric Stonestreet, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in the "Little Bo Bleep" episode of "Modern Family"

Just take some deep cleansing breaths into a paper bag. Go to your happy place of rainbows and sea otters. Because tonight, there will be bleep.

In an episode of ABC’s “Modern Family” sure to corrupt your children and ruin your crops, the preschool character Lily will appear — thanks to some clever bleeping and pixelation — to drop the dreaded F word. The network has assured viewers that the young actress, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, really said “fudge” during taping. But that’s not sufficient for the adorably named McKay Hatch, an 18-year-old Brigham Young University-Idaho student and founder of the No Cussing Club, from getting plenty of attention for his campaign to get the network to withdraw the episode. Hatch told the Associated Press that “people all over the world don’t want to have a 2-year-old saying the ‘F-bomb’ on TV.” Oh, Mr. Hatch, I don’t think you’ve been watching enough television.

It’s true that Hatch’s crusade has about as much chance of success as Paris Hilton’s new album — the show’s creator and executive producer Steven Levitan said last week that he’s “proud and excited” about the story line because “as parents, we’ve all been through this.” But it’s Hatch’s insistence that this is about “a 2-year-old saying the ‘F-bomb’ on TV” — and the way that claim has gone unquestioned by the likes of Babble and the Inquisitr, which noted  “the little girl will be using a cuss word on television” — that is so telling.

Of course, the idea is that Lily is cursing. That’s the comic plot point – a child letting rip with a taboo word, to the humiliation of her parents. It’s just like in “A Christmas Story,” when young Ralphie drawls out a slow motion “Oh fuuuuuudge,” as his older self narrates, “Only I didn’t say ‘fudge.’” The child isn’t really cursing. ABC isn’t broadcasting the word. So settle the eff down already.

The bleep has, in recent years, become a joke unto itself. It’s deployed regularly on “Up All Night” and “The Daily Show.” It made it all the way into the title of William Shatner’s ill-fated “$#*! My Dad Says.” And it will unquestionably be heard elsewhere on television Wednesday night, as Steven Tyler unleashes a whole new season of colorful, expletive-laden catchphrases on “American Idol.”

You Might Also Like

But a bleep is not a naughty word, and neither are a few well-placed dashes. They are a suggestion of one. They coax the listener to do the heavy lifting and imagine the word, not aloud but there inside his or her own head. It’s its own special kind of profane, which is probably why it so unnerves young Mr. No Cussing.

What’s amusing is watching television networks figure out how to accommodate our varying levels of tolerance for cursing without P-ing off their viewers and the FCC. Already this year the forthcoming “Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23″ has morphed into “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23,” while “Good Christian Bitches” has cleaned up as “GCB.” And just last week, the Supreme Court mulled the “inconsistent standards” regarding both nudity, profanity and broadcast decency, which are sloppily applied in an age in which rapidly evolving technology is making the rules harder to articulate, let alone enforce.

When the Supreme Court took up the subject of broadcast decency in a potentially landmark case last week, some members of the court, as Garrett Epps put it, “all but begged America’s broadcasters to remain an island of decency in a sea of filth.” There’s no question that raising or eliminating the standards for indecency would increase the number of things television shows could portray or say on air, but it would also mean that they could tell different kinds of stories about the way we talk to each other, the sex we have and the cruelties we commit against each other.

In television as in life, not every word is appropriate for every audience, and sensitivity and respect for those parameters needs to be considered. But it should be a whole lot more obvious than it apparently is that “b—-” is not “bitch,” and that no matter what you call it, that Christian chick show will be canceled too soon for anyone to care, anyway. For now, however, networks will stumble through the clumsy terrain of pixels and dashes, attempting to have their profanity and not actually utter it — and in a manner that can only be called crude.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>