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Every so often, we’ve heard folks complain about swearing and obscene gestures like the middle finger, either here in our blog or in frock flicks themselves. Since bitchy is always on brand for us, we’re gonna break down why we’re OK with cursing a blue streak in our own writing and in historical costume movies and TV shows, and why you should just deal with it too.
1. It’s historically accurate
The word “fuck” with a meaning of crude copulation has turned up multiple times in casual writing from the 16th century. Earlier still was the nickname “Roger Fuckebythenavele” in a court case dated 1311 — indicating this guy was clueless about how to do the deed. There’s also a cheeky poem from 1475 about monks fucking the town’s wives. It wasn’t the go-to, go-with-everything word we know and love today, but “fuck” was certainly used in speech and writing as a slang term for having sex.
The word was so common that “fuck” was outlawed in print by the Obscene Publications Act of England in 1857 and by the Comstock Act of 1873 in the U.S. “Fuck” was frequently used among men in both World War I and II, and some credit the usage among American GIs in WWII from “privates all the way up to the top brass” for popularizing usage back home and ever since.
But humans have always had swear words of some kind, and the fashion for specific ones has gone in and out, just like dress fashions. “Bloody” rose up as shocking and offending in the 18th century only to become worth a mild titter in the early 20th. “Bugger,” “shit,” and “cocksucker” were equally words of contempt in the 19th century.
While data is limited, scientists who study these things haven’t found that we’re swearing more or that society is getting worse because of it. People are just doing what we’ve always done.
2. If you think it’s brand-new on film, that’s because of the Hays Code
Movies and even TV productions produced now, in the 21st century, do feel more free to include normal, everyday swearing in their shows, historical or otherwise. If seems feels different, yeah, it is! Because we used to have a hell of a lot more censorship in Hollywood, et. al.
The biggie was the Motion Picture Production Code that ruled from 1934 to 1968. Called the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, then president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, this agreement among major studios restricted what was considered “decent” onscreen. Disallowed was any profanity, even “hell” or “damn,” along with sex, drugs, homosexuality, interracial romance, and much more. While the Code was finally abandoned in the late 1960s, theatrical releases still have to deal with the motion picture rating system.
On American TV, usually it’s been the broadcast networks and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that tightly control what can be said or shown. In 1972, George Carlin famously joked there were seven words you can’t say on TV: “shit,” “piss,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker,” “motherfucker,” and “tits.” But the FCC obscenity guidelines don’t apply to non-broadcast media such as cable TV or streaming networks, so on HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc., it’s swear city! Plus, these channels can show uncensored versions of theatrical releases, so yay, more swears (and maybe more actual fucking, who knows)!
3. We DGAF!
Our blog, our rules. As we’ve said many times before, we dislike policing our own words or images because someone else says so. If you think we have inappropriate content on this site, that’s your problem, not ours. We’re foul-mouthed bitches, and frankly, we’re a lot cleaner on this blog than we are IRL. We have endless FAQs that explain what the fuck we’re up to here. If you don’t like this, there’s plenty of other shit online.
When it comes to swearing and such in frock flicks themselves, all we might care about is if the swearing makes sense for the story. We’ve already established that swearing is historically accurate, so let’s take a look at some recent flicks that folks have gotten pissy about … The Great (2020-) is an “occasionally true” version of Catherine the Great‘s life, thus it’s already taking the piss out of any idea of a Serious Historical Drama. Characters like Peter constantly talking about fucking (and actually fucking) is true to who he is within the context of the show. Ditto the more straightforward historical drama of Becoming Elizabeth (2022), where the creepy cad Thomas Seymour drops F-bombs left and right. It suits him.
But swearing doesn’t have to mean a character is an asshole. It can be a sign of outsider status in a stratified society. Some of the queer female baseball players in A League of Their Own (2022-) swear in their private conversations, and that feels natural and conspiratorial, showing how close they are with each other. This use of language is yet another thing the straight, conservative 1940s world around them wouldn’t understand about these women.
This delightful promo image for Corsage (2022) works in the same way. This is showing how the character of Empress Elisabeth of Austria felt like an outsider even though she was at the pinnacle of insider status as a wealthy, beautiful, royal woman. It’s using the contrast to show how her inner feelings contrast with external perception of her.
Swearing and crude gestures have always been part of culture. Frock flicks are finally able to reflect that. We say, fuck yeah!
C’mon, admit it, you swear at the TV when a frock flick turns out shitty! What’s your favorite curse?
My grandfather (WW2 veteran) once told me about some military terms they all used: FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition) and FUBB (fucked up beyond belief) and some others but those are the two I remember.
Personally I love cussing. I cuss so much that my 4-year-old niece has been known to drop the f-bomb. Fortunately my sister is pretty chill about it and explained to her that Fuck is a word for home and not for daycare!
I’ve been saying FFS a lot lately, especially today (I was trying to do my taxes online). :)
My favorite curses at the moment include “may your asshole develop tastebuds,” “may you live as a chandelier; to hang by day and burn by night,” and “may an umbrella open in your belly.”
In terms of profanity, “ta ma de” (Mandarin for “fuck your mother’s cunt”) is a classic. I also like “gui wang ba dan” (two ways of saying “bastard” rolled into one.)
Points for creativity!
I think that one difficulty people have in accepting obscene language in historical drama and fiction is that Really Bad Words have routinely been avoided in writing for centuries: so much so that etymologists tracking their use rely quite heavily on reports of trials and courts martial. Because someone writing a description of a dust-up for a newspaper or even in a letter to a friend they had witnessed might put ‘The bosun called Higgs a “lazy beggar”, whereupon Higgs struck him with a belaying pin’, but if he were giving evidence in court he would have to say “lazy bugger” and the clerk would have to record that. So if you read period books, letters and newspapers they consistently give you an impression of a much cleaner-spoken society than was actually the case.
That said, I’m not convinced that Tudor aristocrats would have said “Oh fuck”, simply because it wasn’t a taboo word for them. The Tudors, like medieval people, had no problem calling bodily features and function by their plain proper names even in the politest of company, so an f-bomb would simply have made no sense. It was blasphemy – “profane cursing and swearing” – that carried a frisson.
Most literature that survives pre-20th century was written by elites & has some element of moralistic &/or political tone, so it’s less likely to use everyday common speech. Dickens, for example, in writing about the poorer classes, was hugely moralistic vs. realistic. That’s why we have to use court records to find traces of what ppl actually said — that’s still filtered, but less so.
Not to mention that anything widely published was subject to censorship by most every country.
I ushered at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC for over 20 years. There is nothing like a live performance to highlight that Shakespeare is full of dick jokes, and if there are dick jokes in a play, there are dick jokes IRL. My favorite is from Hamlet — a colleague lamented that I had ruined Hamlet for her by explaining the true meaning of when Hamlet asks to lay his head in Ophelia’s lap for “country pleasures.”
I’m surprised that it surprised her, given that just before that Hamlet has first asked “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” and when she squeaks, scandalised, “No, my lord!”, amends his suggestion to something less overtly sexual: “I mean, my head upon your lap”, to which she feebly agrees. It’s surely already obvious that he’s deliberately harassing and embarrassing her with double entendres. And later on he caps her “Nothing” with “That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs”, so anybody who doesn’t register the first syllable of “country matters” as another in the series really isn’t paying attention!
Shakespeare was very risqué, and his audiences loved it!
On point. Just finished the book “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing” this week. Interesting read for anyone who wants to learn more about what has constituted swearing a various points in history! It’s always been there – it’s just that the words that pack a punch have changed over time.
Great topic! I personally swear A LOT, but as an European I have the feeling that it is much more accepted here than in the US (for example, we use „Shit“ or „Scheiße“ colloquially in every third sentence) and I love to see this represented on screen. Also, as an Austrian-Italian I can tell you that both German and Italian have their own exquisite swear vocabulary, which is worth learning!
And European frock flicks tend to have more swearing too. It feels natural :)
Is the middle finger appropriate for Sissi as a nineteenth-century Austrian, or should she be giving the “dulya” or “fig”?
This is rather a Frock Flick pet peeve of mine. In the milieu in which I grew up (born in 1953) white, middle class, the f-word was never used in casual conversation. My father may have used it in the army in WW II, but he did not bring it home with him. Have you seen those blooper reels of 1930s movie stars flubbing their lines and swearing? They say Goddam and Son of a Bitch, but never the f-word. It did not become common in conversation until after the Vietnam soldiers brought it back with them. So, any first half of the 20th century film that uses it casually seems wrong. I know contemporary speech makes it into period films, and if you have a reason for it, fine. People may have fucked in the suburbs, but they did not SAY fuck in the suburbs.
There used to be an academic journal on abusive language called Maledicta. One of the papers I remember reading was on how what is considered profane and swear-worthy varies considerably by time, place, and class. For example, sailors have been noted for their profanity since at least the 1600s. Also, the current popularity of George Carlin’s seven words is not a constant. Blasphemy for example used to be considerably more popular among English-speakers than it is today.
I need the “Fucketh Yeah” gif on a tee shirt. Righteth now!!!!
It’s one of my faves, & I have to resist not over-using it :D
Back in college, I came across a book on language from the 1960s. It had an entire chapter on the etymology of the word “fuck.” One of the interesting takeaways from that chapter was that English is virtually unique in having created “taboo” words—when I mentioned this to one of my professors, she said, “What’s ‘Pog Mo Thoin’ then?” and I responded, “Crude, but not taboo.”
It also said that the taboo was slowly eroding, and that the more it was used in common parlance, the less taboo it would be. And I have really seen that in my own lifetime. These days, I’ve heard it from kids. Heck I’ve heard it from my own kids, who don’t get soap in the mouth like in A Christmas Story. They get told that they shouldn’t say that, because if they do, it’s going to come out at some point that it’s not okay. (I also had to tell them to stop saying “what the ——” when the last word was perfectly fine, because it came out as WTF once or twice.)
The really interesting part is watching older movies, like Spaceballs, and realizing that even though the swearing is mild by today’s standards, it hits harder because it was transgressive when it was filmed. And I laugh at anyone trying to be edgy and transgressive by throwing around swearing today. It’s no big deal anymore.
The 19th-century adventurer and Arab scholar Sir Richard Burton, translator of the Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra, with all the naughty bits not only left in but commented on in extensive notes (whose surname was nicked by a young Welsh actor born Richard Jenkins, when he found there was already a Richard Jenkins on Equity’s books), pointed out that while cursing really seems to be universal in human culture, swearing is not. He said – is there anyone here who can confirm or deny this? – that while ‘Damn you!’ makes perfect sense to an Arab, the word ‘Damn!’ on its own does not.
Failure to build in differences like that – cursing vs swearing, obscenity vs blasphemy, and so on – when writing strong language for a period novel or movie can really grate. Yes, Imperial Roman and 15th-century Norwegian rough characters certainly cursed and probably swore, but just lazily scattering 21st-century swears such as ‘Shit!’ and ‘Fuck yeah!’ into the dialogue just doesn’t cut it, for me anyway.