Bobbing and weaving with the Gray Lady

The New York Times coping with problematic vocabulary continues to provide amusement and amazement. Two recent adventures: ostentatiously avoiding the least problematic of George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words; and talking at length about the relaxation of taboo avoidance in women’s magazines — without mentioning any of the items finding their way into print.

(Tips of the hat to Ben Zimmer.)

The Carlin Seven: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Carefully arranged in a cascade of increasing length (four monosyllables, a trisyllable, and a tetrasyllable), ending with the anticlimactic tits. Such a *sweet* word, tits, all packed with phonesthematic tininess (in contrast to the more sound-symbolically ample boobs; how does boobs get by under the wire as merely crude slang?). But still tits is verboten, as we can see in Ben Brantley’s November 15th review of “The Performers” on Broadway. Here’s the build-up:

“The Performers” offers proof positive that it’s possible to talk real dirty and still be the squarest show in town. Even in a season featuring two works by a king of Anglo-Saxon expletives like David Mamet, this comedy by David West Read may well clock the most obscenities per minute of any play on Broadway. Nonetheless Mr. Read’s perky account of innocents in porn land, centered on a film awards presentation in Las Vegas, feels like a throwback to the more discreetly risqué entertainments of 40 and 50 years ago. Though its author is only 29, “The Performers” is like an early Neil Simon farce with an X-rated vocabulary, or a blue-tongued episode of the smirky but sentimental TV series “Love American Style.”

… Lee (Daniel Breaker), a journalist, and Sara (Alicia Silverstone), a schoolteacher, are finally going to tie the knot after years of contented togetherness. The rub, though, is that in their entire lives they have had sex only with each other. Could they be missing out on something?

The answers are waiting in Vegas, where Lee has been dispatched by The New York Post to write a profile on a rising porn star whom he happens to have known in high school. That hunky, dimwitted friend of yore is now going by the name Mandrew [characteristically, the NYT omits the character’s last name, Rod-Dick], and the good news is that he is played by Cheyenne Jackson, a master of finding goofy charm in salacious innocence.

More good news! Mandrew’s wife and sometime co-star, Peeps (short for Pussy Boots [ok, how does pussy make the cut?]), is played by Ari Graynor, who turns out to be Mr. Jackson’s ideal comic match. In endowing cartoon characters, whose punch lines are visible long before they land, with something like sincerity and spontaneity, these two work wonders. Unfortunately, with “The Performers,” wonders soon cease.

The show, which also features Jenni Barber as a starlet called Sundown (for reasons you can infer) and Henry Winkler as a very old hand in the business named Chuck Wood, raises mild hopes in its opening scene. Lee is interviewing Mandrew, who’s assuming he’ll win big at the awards ceremony that night for his performance in a movie whose title — last time I checked with my editors — can only be paraphrased here. (Let’s call it “Planet of the Mammary Glands.”)

Brantley is pretty clearly having his editors on here; mammary glands is just the sort of thing the Times affects to avoid, along with the expression it substitutes for.

Here’s Variety’s version of the story (by Marilyn Stasio):

Mandrew Rod-Dick, the manly porn star played with endearing enthusiasm and great comic commitment by Cheyenne Jackson (who won immortality in “Xanadu”), is confident he’ll take the prize for male performer of the year for his soulful performance in “Planet of the Tits.” He gets all emotional trying to explain the beauty of his work to Lee (a well-cast Daniel Breaker), the wary journalist who’s interviewing him for a newspaper feature. Lee’s schoolteacher fiancee, Sara (Alicia Silverstone, looking sweet and playing funny), is just as sexually repressed as he is, so it’s obvious where that plotline is going.


On to Christine Haughney, on January 2nd (in “50 Shades of Vulgarity”), faced with the absurd task of writing about the relaxation of strictures while being totally bound by those strictures. Substantial excerpts, with my tally of ridiculous avoidance in square brackets:

Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour, was searching for the best way to draw readers’ attention to an article in the November 2011 issue about how women could better organize their closets and bank accounts. “12 ways to get your act together” didn’t have much punch. “12 ways to get your stuff together” also fell flat. So she decided to substitute “act” with a word unprintable here and waited for the angry letters to pour in. They never came. [#1: no shit — but an asterisk of avoidance, which the Times rejects on principle]

… The long-running debate in women’s magazines — how frank can they be? — seems to have shifted, as editors throughout the industry are sprinkling more curse words on their covers and weaving expletives into the headlines and the copy between the photos of celebrities with flawless skin. For the September 2012 issue, Ms. Leive kept the title of the YouTube series by Graydon Sheppard and Kyle Humphrey about what “Girls Say” on the cover. The full title begins with a four-letter word; Ms. Leive used it, with an asterisk in place of one letter. [#2: more shit shit girls say — again with the unacceptable asterisk]

In the November 2012 issue there was an article, with a headline that included a vulgar word, about workouts to improve the derrière; Ms. Leive kept that word off the cover, however, because she felt it was poor taste to place it next to an interview with President Obama. [#3: derrière for ass]

… For many years women’s magazines simply did not allow any strong language, said Bonnie Fuller, the former editor of Cosmopolitan and US Weekly. Now that Ms. Fuller edits the gossip Web site, she is still pretty conservative. She allows certain words if they appear in a direct quotation and often substitutes an asterisk for a vowel. She said curse words didn’t attract younger readers.

“It’s irrelevant to them,” she said, adding that if the subjects of articles do curse, readers “don’t want their quotes altered.”

… Linda Wells, the editor in chief of Allure, said that she would not use curse words in an editor’s letter or on a magazine cover. But she kept Lady Gaga’s salty quotations about her new perfume — more precisely, about how she did not particularly care about perfume — in an interview in the December issue. [“To be completely honest, I would quite like to sell my album with a fucking bottle of perfume.” (here); #4, fucking merely alluded to indirectly]

Ms. Wells said in the case of Lady Gaga, “it’s part of conveying a personality.” She said that replacing expletives with asterisks would have drawn more attention to the language.

… Cosmopolitan, long the saucy cousin in the women’s magazine family, has always pushed the boundaries of frankness and good taste. The January issue includes an interview with the actor James Van Der Beek from the television sitcom “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23,” and an article with a vulgarity in a headline and a reference to an explicit tweet about Demi Moore’s behind. But Ms. Coles said that she felt uncomfortable putting certain words on the cover and noted that cursing could look unattractive for women. [#5, bitch, cited with an avoidance dash; and #6, ass again (behind)]

… Kristin van Ogtrop, managing editor of Real Simple, said that she would only include a curse word on the magazine’s cover “if someone drugged me, and I lost all my faculties.”

But in Real Simple’s November issue, she featured a $24 Pinch Provisions Minimergency Kit makeup bag with an obscene abbreviation on the side.

[#7, WTF, unacceptable in the Times because of the initial F for fuck]

Some reactions:

As Blake Eskin said on Twitter, “This piece is classic #fittoprint: an entire article about how profanity is no big deal anymore that takes excruciating pains to avoid it.” And Sim Aberson on Facebook:

From Linda Holmes at Monkey See: “This piece about vulgarity in women’s magazines is impossibly precious (not in an entirely bad way), not least because they have to write an entire article about profanity without even using asterisks or dashes or anything, to the point where at times, I genuinely have no idea what swear words they’re talking about.”

I keep hoping that the Times will just give up on ass; as with tits, times really have changed (quite some time ago, I think). And avoiding taboo-evoking initials just looks silly. The paper seems determined to hold the line on fuck (even in non-copulatory uses) and shit (even in non-defecatory uses), and presumably piss (even in non-urinary uses) and cunt (even in non-vaginal uses) as well. Plus dick, cock, and pussy, which didn’t get on Carlin’s list because they have non-taboo homophonic counterparts (as Carlin pointed out in his routine, though not quite in those terms).


One Response to “Bobbing and weaving with the Gray Lady”

  1. The Gray Lady stands her ground « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in the saga of taboo avoidance in the New York Times — in this blog, the last chapter was here — this time in the Public Editor’s Journal on January 30th: “Does The Times Have […]

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