“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.”

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 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • 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>