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Cartoons Cussing: What’s Up with the Profanity in Animated Films These Days?

When commenting on the current state of the entertainment industry, there are usually plenty of opportunities for a soapbox spiel. Recently, however, that box is needed not just as an elevated platform but for the bars of soap required to clean out Hollywood’s mouth.

When it comes to the potentially damaging impact of today’s entertainment on children, much of the criticism pertains to the sexual elements. In a confusing and hyper-sexualized world, these worries are not ill-placed. After all, do pre-pubescent kids really need their fictional heroes to guide them through developing their teenage sexual identity?

Christians and family audiences shouldn’t let the sexual agenda off the hook, but I wonder if our narrow focus has caused us to miss another recent trend emerging in Hollywood—the increasing use of profanity and objectionable language in animated films.

Cartoons Cussing

The increased profanity in animated films is obviously relative. Disney movies haven’t suddenly become The Wolf of Wall Street, and characters like Shrek aren’t dropping F-bombs left and right. Nevertheless, as a movie reviewer who is also a parent, there has been a noticeable increase in unwanted language. 

Speaking of that lovable green ogre, I remember when the original Shrek film shocked audiences with the boundary-pushing gag in which Shrek, referring to Donkey, declared, “I have to save my a—!” At the time, it was an edgy joke that smuggled “adult” language into a family film. These days, the clever scriptwriting gymnastics have been tossed aside for a more direct approach.

Films like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse now include characters saying, “Maybe get off the kid’s a—.” In the Puss and Boots: The Last Wish movie, the hero feline utters, “What the h—,” and the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem used “hell” multiple times, as well as several other minor profanities (“d—” or “piss me off”).

The “a-swear-but-not-a-swear” gag used in Shrek has also been recycled. Movies like DC League of Super-Pets and Puss and Boots have featured scenes in which cute, animated characters deliver heavily profane—but “bleeped” out— tirades, or have their swears interrupted before completion. What was once boundary pushing has become commonplace.

Blurring Audience Lines

There are likely several reasons for this recent trend. Neil Postman’s prophetic book, The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) rightly predicted a blurring of audience lines due to television. Whereas literature had the built-in gatekeeping mechanic of literacy, visual entertainment (television and cinema) is accessible to all.

An outworking of that reality, as I explored in a previous article, “How Children’s Entertainment Became an Ideological Battleground,” is that there has also been a cultural shift in that animation is no longer understood to be synonymous with “for children.” The thematically mature storytelling from Pixar Studios pioneered that shift, and more recent movies such as the Spider-Verse films have cemented it by using immersive animation to tell complex stories that transcend a single audience demographic.

As a result, in several of the reviews of movies in which I noted the unnecessary language, I received some quick—and occasionally heated—pushback that the real problem is my own narrow-minded and outdated understanding of animation. Perhaps there is some truth in that argument. But it’s also true that while general adult audiences are warming up to the potential of animated films, the creatives and studios making these movies are clear about their target demographic. The way the movies are marketed, the time of year they are released, and the competition against which they offer “counter-programing” are all designed to draw young viewers to the theater. Adults are a cherry on top, but family audiences remain the chocolate cake itself.

At the Hollywood Box Office, animated movies sink or swim on the back of the family audience. As several significant Box Office “flops” have demonstrated, these films cannot succeed without the family audience. This is why it is perplexing to watch as Hollywood increasingly includes content—such as profanity—that seems designed to appeal more to the secondary audience than the primary one. 

What’s the Justification?

I’m of the belief that profanity in movies is not always unjustified. Not all movies must be “family friendly,” nor should we want them to be. I’m not concerned that the latest John Wick or horror film is not suitable for my 8-year-old twin boys. But I am vexed at the inclusion of questionable content in movies for which the target audience is younger viewers, particularly because I fail to see a justifiable rationale for it.  

Profanity has often been deployed as an easy way to communicate “maturity” and “grittiness.” This cheap trick has even been utilized by some recent religion-based movies. Mark Walberg’s Father Stu features heavy profanity, differentiating itself from the softer, much-ridiculed traditional faith-based movies (although a more sanitized, non-swearing version was ultimately released months later). Even more conventional faith-based films such as Amazon’s On a Wing and a Prayer include several minor profanities in an otherwise squeaky clean and sanitary movie.

Equating profanity with “maturity” or “grittiness” is a simplistic, short-sighted understanding of what makes films mature and gritty. These elements are not a “just add water” shortcut to mature storytelling, and they aren’t fooling people any more than the city slicker who shows up at the rodeo with a new cowboy hat. 

Only the filmmakers themselves know the reasons for including profanities in their films, but I am finding the tactic increasingly tiresome. Either the motivation is deliberate and somewhat sinister, or it is simply a desperate attempt to showcase that these animated stories aren’t “just for kids.” In the latter case, it seems a poor gamble. I’m not sure an adult’s opinion on a cutesy animated movie will be altered by having an anthropomorphic animal drop a minor cuss word. But for this parent, I’d be happy for animated movies to stop trying to prove their grittiness and just focus on entertaining my kids.   

Whether or not you have any moral qualms about profanity, there has typically been an unspoken agreement that such language is not suited for the mouth of children. But at least according to Hollywood, that understanding seems to be changing.  

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