More reporting the profane

Faced with the task of writing about the new tv series Veep, in which the title character (the vice-president of the United States) and a number of others break into florid swearing, the New York Times has opted for allusive characterization of this talk, without attempting to convey (however indirectly) the actual expressions used; contrast this with the paper’s recent treatment of Samuel L. Jackson (here).

First, from Carina Chocano in the Magazine of April 15th, “Julia Louis-Dreyfus Takes the White House”:

There is one way in which Louis-Dreyfus is like her new character: She curses like a sailor. “I’m a big swearer in my life,” she says. She sees it as a way of keeping the private self separate from the public, and of releasing some of the tension that builds from being constantly on display. The proclivity comes in handy for “Veep,” where characters’ frustrations tend to culminate in soaring arias of profanity so ardent and genuine and unguarded that they can only be described as life-affirming. What better way to purge the phoniness from your system, Louis-Dreyfus says, “before you end up eating your own arm off, you know?”

And then from James Parker in the Arts section on April 21st, “What’s It Like Having Power? How Would I Know?”:

“Veep,” HBO’s new comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as vice president of the United States, has an awful lot of cursing in it. Too much, perhaps: if you fear the de-electrification and eventual domestication of swear words, you may feel that “Veep” takes us a little farther down that road. On the other hand, political people do swear. They have to, for their mental health. Today’s public servant is gaffe-phobic, linguistically constipated, mortgaged in spirit to this lobby or that. He must speak — when on display — in ceaseless, toneless platitudes. Then the heavy door closes, with the press and the people on the other side of it, and the air splinters with profanity.

So Vice President Selina Meyer swears her head off, as do all the members of her staff. And they have a great deal to swear about, because it’s not easy being veep.

Nicely done, in both cases.

There’s been quite a lot of commentary on the swearing in Veep — on blogs, on the ADS mailing list, and so on. Here’s one blog entry, from Michael Barthel, contrasting British (which he calls “Anglo”) and American swearing:

The swearing in “Veep” has so far not been as satisfying to me as it has been in [Armando] Iannucci’s other work, and I think it’s because the writers aren’t entirely getting the important differences between Anglo swearing and American swearing. Anglo swearing is ornate, clever, and florid; American swearing is brutal, repetitious, and earthy. There’s a reason they sell t-shirts on St. Mark’s Place that read “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKIN FUCK.” Swearing in ”The Thick of It” [Iannucci’s British tv series] showed control in the midst of a tantrum, like a well-placed kick in the middle of a marital arts routine. It demonstrated that the speaker was ready to just let forth a string of invective but was powerful enough to channel it into something laced with cultural references and word-games. In America, though, swearing tends to signal the threat of violence, the moment when coarse language gets even coarser. It’s a heightener. “He’s got his eight-track playing really fuckin’ loud” would, in the Anglo incarnation, be something like “His eight-track was so fucking loud that Helen Keller could hear it four fucking blocks away” or something. Anglo swearing is punctuation or noun, American swearing is a self-modifying adjective or adverb. If “The Thick of It” represents one sort of apogee of Anglo swearing, “Uncle Fucker” [from South Park] still stands as the ultimate example of American swearing, at least to me. They got it right when Julia Louis-Dreyfus yelled “I’m busy apologizing to that shit-tard!” Ah yes, that’s it: the mellifluous tones and soul-stirring majesty of good ol’ American profanity.

Such subjective characterizations of cultural differences are always suspect; you’d like to have some way of checking them out. And I just hate the grammatical metaphor in “Anglo swearing is punctuation or noun, American swearing is a self-modifying adjective or adverb.”


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