If you read Ethics Alarms often, you know about my objections to euphemisms, which I also call “cover words” since their intent is to deceive readers and listeners about the real nature of what is being discussed. My ethical objections to using “cover words” for words that are considered taboo in various settings follows similar lines, except those cover words don’t fool anyone, and thus are not just efforts to deceive, but silly and insulting efforts. If “f-word means “fuck” and everyone knows it means “fuck,” then it’s ridiculous not to just say “fuck.” The same, of course, goes for “n-word.” When we discuss that word here, we use the word. There are no “banned words” under the First Amendment, and I don’t grant anyone the right to tell me what words I can use to express what I want to express when those are the best words to express them..
Civility is, as a cornerstone of the ethical value of respect, important to societal comity. In dramatic works and literature, however, civility isn’t the issue: ideas, emotion and expression are. The bleeping out of “bad words” or shoving mild substitutes into the actors’ mouths on television constitute artistic vandalism; it’s less common now, but still happens too often. The archaic practice is offensive and insults the audience’s intelligence: the first time I hear a character in a film say “Forget you!,” I turn the channel.
Movies, we all know, stopped worrying about such delicate matters decades ago, and let TV stations worry about their language (and sex scenes, and graphic violence) later. Imagine my surprise, then, to hear Steven Spielberg’s redo of the 1961 “West Side Story” movie begin with the same version of “The Jets Song” that was required by the prevailing stage language requirements of the 1950s. The new, updated, woke-minded, spruced up musical with re-written dialogue still starts with the teen-aged, switchblade-carrying gang of punks singing,
When you’re a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You’re a family man.
When the spit hits the fan? Who spits at a fan? That’s not just a euphemism, it’s a terrible one. In 2021, “shit” is ubiquitous. Heck, little boys used it in “The Bad New Bears” in 1976. Now it’s too racy to have a street gang singing it? How? Since when? Why? Later in the song, the Jets end their song singing…
Here come the Jets
Yeah! And we’re gonna beat
Every last buggin’ gang
On the whole buggin’ street
One the whole
I’ve never used “buggin'” in my life, and neither have you. The word being suggested is, of course, “fuckin’,” and the need to say the real word is even more pressing than usual: “buggin'” takes us right out of the movie by calling attention to self-censorship…kind of like “spit hits the fan.”
A few years before “West Side Story” hit Broadway, Tennessee Williams used “fug” and “fuggin'” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” because you literally couldn’t say “fuck” on stage then. “Fug” sounds ridiculous today, but at least there was a reason for it. What possible justification for skirting “fuck” does the new “West Side Story” have?
Don’t tell me it’s “faithfulness to the original.” The movie has made wholesale changes in the dialogue, the characters and the arc of the plot. I find it hard to believe that Sondheim would have objected to eliminating contrived, unrealistic lyrics that were originally forced on him by Fifties sensibilities. So why did Spielberg have his gang members avoid saying “shit” and “fuck” when that’s what they meant to say?
I’m open to suggestions.