The Profanity Problem: Swearing in Movies

Almost every movie nowadays has at least one swear word in it. It’s not a huge issue, but how often does profanity need to be used and how often is it really just a filler for better dialogue?

Think back to the last movie you watched. Did it swear? If it did, was there a point? Did it make the punchline of a joke better? Did it establish a character trait? Was it historically acceptable? Was it integral to the plot at all? If you answered no to all of these questions, you may be in the same group I’m in: Hollywood really needs to cut back on the swearing.

Art Imitates Life

Maybe we can’t blame this all on Hollywood. A lot of it has to do with how people really talk. Cursing is a normal part of dialogue for many people. It’s common for a group of friends to drop the f-bomb more than once in conversation. Swearing while giving a compliment tends to give that praise more weight. Adding in some profanity to an argument or insult adds more power to your words.

Hollywood is only trying to mirror that aspect of humanity. A good example of this is in the blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Throughout the movie, Iron Man makes fun of Captain America for chiding people for their language. However, near the end of the film, the Captain blurts a curse word in frustration, which gives Iron Man more ammo to tease him.


Image via The Nerd 411

It’s reminiscent of kids on a playground making fun of the kid who won’t swear and then laughing when that kid finally gets so mad he curses out his buddies.

But do we really want Hollywood to show off this less classy aspect of us? Some would say yes, it’s good to portray all parts of society–even the less savory ones. However, others (like me) say there’s a point when even reality becomes too real.

Increasing Frequency

If you look at the Wikipedia list for the movies with the most f-bombs in them, you’ll notice that there isn’t a movie before 1978 on the list, and you have to go 32 movies down the list before you find one made before 1990. Profanity in movies has been on the rise since the 1980s, and it seems to show no signs of slowing down. In fact, the Guinness World Record holder for most uses of “f–k” in a film goes to Canadian comedy Swearnet: The Movie, made in 2014, with 935 uses of the word.

This should be concerning for you, not for moral reasons, but for dialogue reasons. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a successful American movie with 569 f-bombs; this comes out to about 3.16 uses of the word a minute. If a movie dedicates that much time to profanity, how much time is it dedicating to true dialogue? How much time was given to truly moving the plot forward with the words they use? Was the profanity necessary, or just filler because the writers couldn’t think of a better word?


Image via Salesman

Alienating a Large Audience

When movies decide to include profanity in the script, they take the risk of losing a big audience. When Logan (2017) received an R rating (mostly for profanity) rather than PG-13, many young fans of Wolverine could not see the movie, and it did not gross as much as it could have (though it grossed a fair amount).

When Deadpool (2016) opted for the R rating rather than toning it down for PG-13, it lost a large group of young followers. Though this movie included other questionable content and was always destined to be R rated, it still excluded young comic book readers not yet 17 (though, it, too, grossed a fair amount).


Image via Nerdist

When movies choose to use profanity, they take the gamble of excluding sections of an audience that would have otherwise viewed the movie; this is especially true of comedies. Sometimes this pays off, as with the two movies mentioned above. However, sometimes it bombs, such as the case with Baywatch (2017) and Snatched (2017).

Morally Gray Area

A lot of people think swearing is bad. A lot of people don’t think swearing is bad at all. Regardless of your stance, you have to understand that this is a divisive issue.

Studies have been done saying that people who curse are more likely to be honest than those that don’t, as an Independent article claimed earlier this year. However, The Guardian published an article in 2011 claiming that swearing can actually trigger a physical stress response. So, what’s the truth?

It’s hard to know. There’s just so much debate and conflicting scientific evidence surrounding it. In the end, it’s really up to you and how you perceive swearing. Maybe you think swearing said in stress is fine, like when someone swears in the heat of battle. Maybe you think it’s always wrong. Maybe you think swearing isn’t bad at all. No matter what, it’s up to you for what you watch and say.


Image via Ross v Ross

Changing Times

I’m no saint–I swear, too (though I try not to). I don’t usually shy away from movies with profanity, even if I find that profanity reprehensible. I’ve just noticed a trend of increasing foul language in movies today.

However, this does not have to be a bad thing. I’m sure 50 years ago columnists were making some of the same arguments I am and lamenting how Hollywood is going downhill.


Image via Quora

Maybe it’s a good thing that Hollywood is including more profanity. Maybe it’s time they start reflecting how people really talk instead of giving characters flat dialogue devoid of personality.

In the end, it’s all up to the viewer. We choose what we want to see, Hollywood takes note, and they make more of what we like to see. If you don’t want more profanity, avoid movies that contain it. If you do want more profanity, seek it out.

Times are changing, and so is Hollywood.

Thanks for reading!  What are your thoughts on profanity in film?  Comment down below!

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30 Responses

  1. Lulu Mendl says:

    I don’t have a problem with profanity in movies. What I DO have a problem with is the continued use of offensive slurs such as the r-word, f-slur, and the like. Strangely, films that use these words are often up for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. REALLY!?!? Come on.
    Can we stop it with slurs, please?!?! And can we stop promoting them at awards ceremonies?!?! Words like that don’t make something “edgy” or “cool” or even more honest. It just makes the writers of the films look like fools, and even distances viewers from the characters. I personally don’t like a character as much when they use a word that’s offensive to an entire group of people. I often want to turn the movie off immediately after hearing it.
    Pretty much everyone uses your average swear words like the f- and s-bombs. Those words are important in movies to show emotion in characters, and that’s fine. They don’t really hurt anyone or mean anything derogatory. But when you use a racial slur, it’s so much more than just a word.
    (Sorry for the mini-rant. Your articles just get me so fired up sometimes.)

    • Kali Tuttle says:

      That’s a good point. I can understand use in historical context, but sometimes they just overuse those words and they shouldn’t if Hollywood is as pro-equality and such as they claim to be

      • Lulu Mendl says:

        I totally agree! It’s okay if the words are used to show that they’re bad and people shouldn’t use them, but they’re often thrown in for the edge factor, like it makes the characters cooler if they use blatantly offensive slurs.

  2. Patricia Henderson says:

    Honestly, the totally overdone profanity (and sexuality) in “Summer of Sam” is what keeps it from being a great film. It had the potential, but it takes me right out of the story. Some is needed in a film like that, but not every. other. word.

  3. Interesting points. My opinion is that I don’t have a problem with profanity in a film if it is consistent with the charcater who is uttering the profanity.

    I remember when “Scarface” came out and there was such hand-wringing over the number of f-bombs (which were a lot at the time, but nothing compared to today). When you go back and watch this film 30 years on, you see how the words fit an amoral character who was controlled by Communists but is now reveling in an orgy of self-expression, both criminal and verbal. (It’s a similar take to the earlier commenter re “Wolf of Wall Street”)

    Keep in mind also that sometimes filmmakers will add or subtract profanity in order to achieve a desired film rating. If a movie is PG-13 or R, it’s because the producers wanted it that way, otherwise they would have done something about it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This was a really interesting read, thanks.

    As an aspiring author, profanity is something I have to consider from every angle. On the one hand, I prefer to utilise a broad vocabulary, on the other hand it can appear prudish or judgemental to avoid cursing completely and using unfamiliar language can actually alienate people. One benefit to writing fantasy fiction is that you can get around it by making up your own profanity: using words and phrases that fit the world or genre without actually employing typically recognised offensive language.

    I’ve noticed that a lot of TV shows lately are dropping the C bomb with alarming frequency and this, more so than the F word, seems to get my back up. Having said that, profanity is also a social construction that conveys offence because people agree that it does. Definitely a tough call to make as a writer, especially when trying to appeal to diverse demographics.

  5. Interesting article, particularly the statistics you gave. I was surprised that Wolf of Wall Street had that many F-bombs. I thought that particular script was brilliant and the F-bombs wholly appropriate considering the kind of people the film was portraying. But I agree much of it is unnecessary and gratuitous. I wonder if the greater issue is that people in general swear more often. I personally cuss like a drunk sailor, but even the construction workers I work with think I’m over the top. I’ve noticed, however, that a lot of millennials I know and read on Twitter, swear like I do. Not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg. But you’re right that many screenwriters use it out of laziness. Nice work.

  6. I totally agree with your point! I’ve be discussing this with my mates and I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks swearing has gotten out of hand. The Vault is a great example for unnecessary swearing, and this made the film unpleasant. More should be discuss on this topic in my opinion.

  7. Personally, I don’t mind swearing in movies. I cuss like a sailor so seeing it in the movies doesn’t bother me as long as the rating reflects that. I would expect movies like Deadpool to swear because that is who Deadpool is. I also saw the Wolf on Wallstreet (one of my favorite movies!) and I didn’t mind the swearing.
    Like you mentioned, I think it is all about personal choice. My mom doesn’t like swearing so therefore she didn’t like Deadpool. I don’t mind swearing and I loved Deadpool.

  8. I think there are situations where profanity is part of the environment depicted and I have no problem with that, but throwing the F. bomb every 5 seconds in instances that do not require it can get really annoying if you are someone who appreciate interesting dialogues in movies. Tarantino gets away with cuss words because he is a great writer and I expect his characters to be foul mouths, and I didn’t even mind Dennis Hopper cussing the night away in Blue Velvet because that was part of who he was, it defined his character. If there are no justifications for profanity then it’s just lazy script writing and I can’t get pass that, it dumbs down the movie.

  9. Brooke Reed says:

    I agree with you. It often seems lazy like “I don’t know any meaningful words so lets throw in an F-bomb. People will be shocked by that and not notice the lack of meaningful interactions in this film!” Only, it’s beginning to become so common place that the shock isn’t as strong anymore.

    There’s also the usual excuse of “well it wouldn’t seem real if they didn’t swear.” that’s not true. Maybe a lot of people in that situation would swear in real life but not all and that doesn’t mean the characters have to as well. If they filmmakers did their job well you will be engrossed enough to believe the situation (with or without cursing). People accept a lot of outlandish things in film as “real” in that moment because it fits the characters that have been developed and the world in which they are established. That’s called the suspension of disbelief!

    To continue the thought of it being “more realistic,” art reflects life and vice versa. So while it is more accepted in cinema because it is more common in society, having it in films spreads it’s use. People (especially children/teens) idolize stars and want to be like their heroes on the silver screen. We mimic what we see and if that’s what my “hero” does, that’s what I’ll want to do. If it is good enough for someone who is supposedly better then it is good enough for me too…

  10. Very interesting article! I personally don’t swear nor like it and a lot of swearing can (and has) turned me away from watching certain films. In a perfect world, I’d love to have my dialogue squeaky clean, but I know that ain’t ever gonna happen, lol!

  11. Great post! Something to think about. Check out some of my reviews at Poppin Kernels!

  12. fxbg says:

    There were actually studies done (in universities) that said people who swear are honest and generally happier people. In the case for movies I think it can be used quite well and sometimes I think it’s not used enough.

  13. Jeff Fluffy says:

    I don’t believe swearing is ever necessary. But I can see the trend. I have watched the Marvel movies and the swearing is becoming a lot more frequent!
    But Captain America is the best, mainly because he has strong morals and doesn’t swear (it is not really from his time I guess).
    Great article!

  14. floatinggold says:

    Swear words in movies might add to the size of the joke when done properly. It can also just mirror real life situation. But sometimes writers seems to be trying too hard. Like “The Wolf of Wallstreet” I did not enjoy that.

  15. edburt99 says:

    Of course we can all answer “no” to all of the questions you ask most of the time. But trying to find instances where the answer to all of them could be “yes,” I could come up with only two examples. Tom Cruise’s character in “Rain Man” doesn’t go a sentence in the movie without swearing for over half the movie; the closer he gets to his brother, the more he learns to understand and empathize a person who can’t communicate with him in any traditional sense, his vocabulary increases. It shows the same kind of connection between excessive cussing and immaturity that you point out. The second one is actually one that you mention here, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Being a film about one of the most narcissistic people that has ever lived, all of his actions are that of perceived entitlement; this is perhaps the greatest degree of immaturity there is, so the excessive language that he and the people who enable all his horrendous behavior in such an amoral way would not be believable on film if they spoke with a greater vocabulary that made them sound more mature than they are.

  16. ExAnimo7 says:

    Profanity for the sake of profanity is ridiculous — IMO, it serves no purpose and is there just for shock value. To me, excessive, unnecessary profanity indicates lazy writing.

    I’ve also been worried by the rise of crude humor in (live-action and animated) kids movies. To me, it’s just not necessary. Some of it is funny, but a lot of it just goes over their heads and is meant more for the adults accompanying the kids.

    Having said all this, I am like the author — I am by no means a prude. But listening to all that swearing definitely makes me uncomfortable, and it has driven me away from seeing a lot of R-rated movies.

  17. Indy Dahling says:

    I strongly object to the idea that Logan and Deadpool made a mere “fair amount.” These movies made mad money and it was directly related to their explicit takes on a generally sanitized genre. A PG-13 version of Deadpool would not have been what it’s target audience wanted nor would it have been an adaptive choice that would have made any sense for the source material.

    • Kali Tuttle says:

      Interesting take! I still wonder what kind of money it could have made if it were PG-13 though. My opinion though. I know the movie has a ton of fans already

  18. Except for those with some moral hang up, this is a difficult topic. Dialogue a story needs to be a mirror of its audience. A group of upper middle age sophisticates will perceive profanity different than a group of truck drivers of the same age.
    Profanity for the sake of profanity is nonsense, but writing for your audience is good business. The difficult part is finding the line between the two. Good article.

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