WARNING: This post contains a series of curse words and other terms that are unfit for polite discussion. Read at your own risk.
Before we can begin, let’s consider that there are at least two levels to censorship. When we hear the word “censorship,” the first things we may think about are language and images that might be deemed offensive to mixed audiences. Those words and pictures may be bleeped or blurred out on network television or basic cable. In another sense, censorship can be politically motivated. In these cases, producers and executives may decide who gets to speak, when they get to speak, and what information is being disseminated to audiences.
American censorship is built on a system that is so confusing as to be easily mocked, but the United States is not alone. Often, censors treat sex as if it’s worse than violence. There are also random restrictions on language. Either there are instances of über aggressive bleeping, blurring, or image removal or some views are being silenced altogether. (If you look around the globe, you can see a curious series of standards for certain shows, too.)
In America, we have the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enforce certain decency rules, but cable companies have Standards and Practices. Premium networks like HBO and Showtime can basically show anything they want. Regardless, there will always be executive interference no matter the network to place “other” restrictions on shows and online TV personalities.
How Did Censoring Begin in America?
Censorship in the United States has a long and sordid history, but there was of course censorship even before the dawn of television and radio before that. Also there was always a mix of moral and political motives.
Anthony Comstock was perhaps the most prominent moral crusader in American History. Born in Connecticut in 1844, he was guided by the principles of his late mother — a devout Christian — his whole life. He would live in New York after the Civil War and fight against the sex industry and the distribution of birth control.
While serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, he would join the Christian Commission. That was an arm of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Comstock would formally work for the YMCA in 1872 after he became known for his raids in New York.
In 1873, Comstock drafted the Act named after him. The Comstock law banned the advertisement, dissemination, and possession of information concerning abortion and contraceptives. The transfer of medicines or devices aiding in birth control through the mail was banned, as well. The law would be amended three years later to include any literature, publication or any printed work that was considered obscene.
In radio, broadcasters were partially guided by these laws and a general fear of being shut down by the government. This was apparent during and after World War I. During that war, private radio broadcasts were outlawed. When those bans were relaxed, broadcasters were careful to control what could be heard by audiences. Controversial political speech was cut off by music being played by a nearby phonograph. That was how the modern-day bleeping system arose.
What Can’t You Say on Television?
Today, the loud bleep on television is usually there to signify banned speech. What can’t people say? A number of curse words and sexual terms are banned. Some of the enforcement seems arbitrary, though.
The Banned Words
The late George Carlin touched on the issue of American censorship, especially in terms of language. He was known for his bit on the 7 words banned from television.
“Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.”
But there are really more rules than that. For more detail:
The word “bitch” is allowed on network television, even as a pejorative.
The word “ass” was absent from television programs unless a person was called one (i.e., a stupid person) or a donkey was being referred to as a jackass. “Asshole” is generally not allowed on American television.
Consider the word “cock.” People on TV can say “cocked her head,” “cocky” and “shuttlecock.” However, if someone were to refer to the male member, that might be blurred out. And sometimes, a term like “cock fighting” might be bleeped out, as well.
For a time, the work “dick” was banned unless a man named Richard was referred to as “Dick”. (Example: The Dick Van Dyke Show.) This changed in the late 1990s and “dickhead” was absent until the last decade.
The C-word is banned from American television networks and basic cable. It is often frowned upon in regular discussion.
F-bombs and the word “shit” are not allowed, except in rare cases. For example, some gritty TV shows may be allowed to use those words once per episode (for a price). In other cases, it’s by accident. Some athletes and coaches don’t like that sideline microphones are present. That’s because their language sometimes isn’t fit for network television, and they are occasionally caught swearing on the sidelines. In any case, “motherfucker” is completely banned from network television.
The rules get dicey on basic cable. Networks like MTV, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, the Turner Networks and definitely ban the serious curse words during the day at the very least — and most nudity if they show it at all. Comedy Central is just weird in general. There are some times when every curse word is admissible [between the safe FCC hours]. During Adult Swim, a few curse words, like “bitch,” “asshole,” and “dick,” are allowed.
The airing of racial slurs is a judgment call. Usually, regular TV shows and most children’s programming are free of them due to the sensitivities of various audience members.
Government officials and politicians are kinda handicapped by our media standards. Generally they aren’t allowed to say certain things on the campaign trail or in office. Cheney pushed the limits by telling a Democratic Senator to go fuck himself. That wasn’t televised, but it went beyond the type of rhetoric a news anchor would consider “strong language” between politicians. Donald Trump is pushing the limits now, in terms of decorum on the campaign trail. In one Republican debate, he made a veiled reference to penis size. Heck, in Great Britain politicians can call each other cunts.
On-air personalities are also handicapped politically. If a network is politically aligned, it becomes obvious. Most if not all anchors and hosts may be called to support one candidate. That person’s opponents. Alternatively, there may be a push to give free publicity to one for entertainment value.
Other people can be arbitrarily censored. For instance, controversial speech is sometimes bleeped. If someone has some criticism of the cops, that might be censored. This came into play as Kendrick Lamar was bleeped for reciting one of his lyrics: “And we hate po-po.” Speeches of candidates might be cut short via the dump button — whereby networks use a 7-second delay to edit film. This was seen during a Democratic Presidential Debate as one of Bernie Sanders’ speeches was cut short during the broadcast.
What Can’t You Show on Television?
Anyone remember the dustup over the Super Bowl XXXII halftime show? At the end of the performance, Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed. I remember seeing it and I was surprised. I wasn’t however, appalled, like many people were.
This was a big deal, in part because of American broadcasting standards. There was and still is a window — from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm — where the regulations about obscene, indecent, and profane material may not be shown. In contrast, the halftime show was during a broadcast of a very violent sport.
Many of our shows feature violence. From cartoons to cop dramas, violence is a staple in American programming. And even news stories involving murders and assaults are given more attention and traction. While we are discouraged from indulging in scenes that might appeal to our sexuality or curiosity, we are largely allowed to indulge in on dark aspect of human nature. If you look at our television programs, you would think that this country is violent yet chaste.
Depending on the network, there will be a cap on violence and gore. But in most cases, there are stricter limits on nudity and sex. Most complaints we hear about revolve around, sex, sexuality, and nudity. Nudity has largely been discouraged, unless baby butts are shown in diaper commercials. Even if the It’s as if sex is worse than violence, and there’s plenty of the latter on television.
Why is that? If FCC rules are anything to go by, it looks like an oversight. A look at the guidelines for obscene, indecent, and profane broadcasts reveals that there is no information for violent material. In fact, according to the FAQ’s, the FCC does not regulate violence on television. It does, however, require that televisions larger than 13 inches have a V-chip installed so that parents can keep children from viewing specific programs.
In the meantime, we will hear about complaints about specific programs from time to time. The worst ones range from the outlandish, whereby adults focus on children’s characters who look gay to the completely childish, whereby adults decry the presence of an interracial couple.
What About Worldwide?
From what I have seen, the rest of the world has less restrictive views on nudity and swearing on television. However, Germany is an odd case in terms of violence.
Censorship Run Amok
Germany has been known for bowdlerizing shows. In particular, it butchered various episodes of Naruto. Often, blood was taken out of scenes. So were weapons. The opening themes were replaced, too.
What was the point of carrying the anime, then?
But 4kids took the cake as far as Bowdlerization goes. It carried popular programs like Pokémon, One Piece, and Yu-gi-Oh! but they were heavily edited. All suffered from dialogue changes and the removal of guns, cigarettes, etc. In Pokemon, the dialogue was changed to replace Yen with Dollars or to refer to onigiri (rice balls) as “donuts.” Yu-gi-Oh! suffered from changes to entire storylines. One Piece suffered the worst bowdlerization. Things like changes in pigmentation happened. The dub was so bad, that it had to be redone by Funimation.
Should Censorship Exist?
I think it does if properly applied. There are things we don’t want to see or hear on network television. But important information should always be available for the general public.
If you tend to agree with Maria Bustillos from The Verge, American censorship exists in support of the First Amendment and not in contrast with it. That is a very interesting way to look at it. Her opinion makes sense, given that FCC regulations are enforced by the consumer. There is a general consensus for network television, although cable networks are a different story.
(Btw, check out that article if you haven’t before. It’s very informative and helped me say what I wanted to say in this post.)
I have a mixed opinion on censorship. There are times when I think it’s appropriate and other times when I think it goes too far.
In general, I tend to agree with most limits on language on network television, as well as some of the limits on imagery. There are times when I don’t want to hear a lot of swearing and I respect if someone else doesn’t, either. And there are just some things I don’t want to see, like extreme gore from real-life scenes or excrement. Although it’s not advised, people tend to eat when they watch TV. Who feels like eating right after seeing severed limbs or feces? Most people don’t.
Also, I kinda like the bleeps in some instances. In some cases, the bleeps are funnier than the actual swear words. Deadman Wonderland serves as an example. It’s an anime, but I loved how some American standards were applied to the dub. It was funny because most of the time the audience knew what was being said when words were bleeped. But it was juxtaposed against the violence and a very twisted situation in the story’s premise.
The American censorship system also allows writers to be creative in this regard. As I mentioned above, shows use the bleeps to mine comedy in episodes. Also, shows will get crap past the radar. Animaniacs was known for this, although viewed as a children’s cartoon.
As a leadup in my last post, I quipped that perhaps the censors should work to ban sleazy talk shows. Was I serious? Yes and no. I could understand how someone would hate a show like Married with Children, which was raunchy even for its time. I oddly loved much of the reruns and I still feel like the show had every reason to be on the air. I would like to see the sleazy talk shows off the air, but anything out of a drastic loss of viewership and sponsorship would be tyrannical.
If anyone has seen Shimoneta, it’s an anime show about censorship and freedom fighters who want to take down an oppressive system.
In the meantime, the only thing the networks can do is bleep out the bad language and blur out any nudity. That is fine. (If sponsors pulled their funding, that would be another thing.)
Now, my next post in the series tackles a topic that could help get some crummy shows off the air: ratings. Unfortunately, good shows fall victim to it, too.