The season of penis and vagina

Trend watchers have been remarking on the frank vocabulary of this season’s television shows. For instance, June Thomas on Slate on September 19th noted “a sudden affection for using anatomical terms for lady parts and manly bits”, and Bill Carter in the New York Times on September 21st maintained that “this year’s hot TV trend is anatomically correct”. And now on the New York Magazine site there’s a video displaying “all the ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ shout-outs on fall TV”.

(Hat tip to Ben Zimmer.)

The text accompanying the video:

It’s been reported over and over and over this fall that the new TV shows are using the words penis and vagina so regularly, it’s like they just learned them. But if you were to guess that amounts to around five vagina mentions and eight penis mentions, you would be seriously underestimating the networks’ newfound love for talking about genitalia in anatomically accurate terms. As Parks and Recreation‘s Chris Traeger might say: “Your DVR is literally full of penises and vaginas.” Don’t believe us? You might want to throw on some headphones and check out our video evidence.

From Thomas on Slate:

I guess the network standards and practices departments decided that if it sounds like something you’d hear in a doctor’s office, it’s fair game for prime time. Vagina seems to be particularly popular, making appearances in at least four pilots: Suburgatory, Man Up!, 2 Broke Girls, and Free Agents. (In the last, the joke manages to be both tasteless and coarse, an admirable achievement: A co-worker asks a woman whose fiance died a year earlier, “Your vagina didn’t die of a heart condition, too, did it?”) Penis makes an appearance in a line sold surprisingly well by Kevin “Drama” Dillon in the predictably dreadful How To Be a Gentleman. Dillon’s gym owner character tells a potential member that his father has “cancer of the penis.” Pause. “I’m messing with you, dude. His penis is fine.” I also heard one anus, and, undermining my claim about the popularity of clinical terms, three balls.

And from Carter:

Forget the singing competitions, cop shows, fairy-tale dramas and the “Mad Men”-style melodramas. For network television this is the season of the vagina. [examples from “Two Broke Girls”, “Whitney”, and “Suburgatory”]

… Pushed by the more free-wheeling language on cable television, network television shows have been including common curse words, then bleeping them out, for years, even in mainstream shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” But this year, with unbleeped references to anatomical parts being tossed around so freely, it is clearly a new era for network comedy, one that might have parents reaching for the remote, or at least for Google.

… Emily Kapnek, the creator of “Suburgatory,” noted that it would be difficult to challenge a woman’s using clinical words for female parts of the body.

“How could anyone take issue?” she asked. “It’s not like vagina should be perceived as a dirty word.”

[Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who specializes in the linguistics of cursing] agreed that the writers were pushing the limits on speech by exploiting legitimate anatomical terms rather the street equivalents.

“I think we’re in lot of trouble if we censor clinical terms,” Professor Jay said. “There’s nowhere to go then.”

… [Liz Meriwether, creator of “New Girl”] has learned, though, that penis jokes do have a limit. In an episode of “New Girl,” the lead character, played by Zooey Deschanel, sees one of the male characters naked. In describing the scene, the network placed a limit on how many times the word penis could be used.

“We had to just come up with euphemisms for every other time we wanted to say it,” Ms. Meriwether said.

That turned out to be a blessing. “The euphemisms are much funnier,” she said.

Some of the limits on language, though, can seem quite arbitrary, the writers say. Beyond the penis sequence in “New Girl,” a character in the show, who often brings sexual practices into conversations with women, loses the thread of a conversation because he can see a woman’s cleavage.

He uses a creative term for what he sees — “party hats” — which Ms. Meriwether said the show had to come up with “because they wouldn’t let us say ‘nipples.’ ”

“I don’t know,” she added, “why ‘nipples’ is not O.K., but ‘vagina’ is.”

The big trend here is not so much about words as about referents. These new shows seem to be talking a lot about lady parts and manly bits. Once the writers have chosen to go down that path, the question is what words to use, and the clinical terms are hard to object to, as Timothy Jay suggests above (though creative euphemisms are an interesting challenge for the writers).

(Like Liz Meriwether, I’m puzzled by the objection to nipples. Yes, it isn’t a Latin- or Greek-derived word, but it’s a doctor-approved term, and mammary papillae certainly isn’t going to catch on.)

 

One Response to “The season of penis and vagina”

  1. lady parts | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the narrower sense, as a synonym for vagina, from “The season of penis and vagina”, on this blog on […]

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