My mother has always had a thing for free speech. A former librarian, she proudly boasts t-shirts claiming “I READ BANNED BOOKS” and delights in squees when any of her four children is assigned to read Tom Sawyer.
This same mother of mine outlawed The Simpsons from our home. Devilishly during my freshman year of college, I dared to watch it. I was duly impressed. I don’t care much for The Simpsons, but judging by why she deemed it unallowable, I’m glad she’s never heard of Family Guy. “Crude,” she’d say.
My father stays out of it, having muttered the occasional curse word himself. It’s simply the domains my parents have chosen for themselves- my dad gets to decide who gets to buy what cars, my mother decides who gets to use what language.
One has to wonder how my mother would feel if she knew her perfect daughter’s favorite song was Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back.
My fifteen year old sister, commonly known as my doppelganger in training, is much more brave than I am. In a conversation one night with our mother, she unthinkingly exclaimed, “What the hell?” This earned a look of surprise from myself, a look of disgust from out mom, and two weeks without music television or computer for her. Seeing as how the punishment should always fit the crime, my mother was insistent that she must have learned this atrocious language from the media, and wouldn’t think to suspect my sister’s friends, teachers, or father.
That day, we learned that “hell” is not okay. Or perhaps I already knew, being eight years my sister’s senior, and having eight years more experience with the way my mother operates.
Those very words that make Tom Sawyer or The Scarlet Letter (“both wonderful books, read them the next chance you have!”) into fine literature are simply not allowed in the Abrams’ household.
But we wondered, where are the limits?
In all of the euphemisms my mother uses so well, I think her favorite “acceptable word” is tush. We might occasionally get away with saying “shut up” when we mean to say “be quiet” and farting doesn’t always have to be referred to as passing gas, but “tush”—that one’s important. Maybe because it has to be used so often in our house, mostly for the question, “Does this make my tush look too big?”
The word “butt,” a common American term for what my Yiddish-raised mother will always term a “tush,” is not nearly as unacceptable as “hell” but it’s still not allowed. When my little sister uses this word it’s often subject to a mere reprimand or a mockful slap on the hand.
“But mom,” we’d ask, “can we say bottom?” “Yes, yes,” she’ll reply, as if we’re simply supposed to know that bottom falls under the acceptable column. The smart-alecky kids that we are, we’ll press on further. “How about rump, is rump okay?”
It was not, for mysterious sexual connotations we’re not allowed to know until we’re two hundred years old or dead, whichever comes first.
Looking for more euphemisms, my sister and I tried out our in-head thesauruses and our mother’s patience. It became a common theme. Whenever something reminded us of anything to do with tushes, we’d think of more words we could ask about. It was a fun game for me and my doppelganger, and I even suspect my mom enjoyed herself.
Out of the blue one day I asked this dear mother of mine if she had any problem with the word “juicy.” A few moments later, if she had any issue with the word “double.” Standalone, she opposed neither, but when asked to “move her juicy double” we found that this favorite phrase of mine coined by Sir-Mix-A-Lot was definitely not okay. We’ve found out more to add to our lists since. Ass is absolutely not okay, and you’re not allowed to refer to that region as a donkey, either. Bottom and behind made the list, along with, surprisingly, derriere. Rear is only acceptable every other Tuesday, but only if there’s a full moon. No pun intended.
In this household we’re so very different from others. Perhaps it’s a love of wordplay combined with the desire to push boundaries. Maybe it’s the innate dedication to getting our way that forces us to expand our vocabularies out of sheer cheek. Again, any puns are unintended.
But where did we learn these words? Surely it wasn’t our mother, and the rarity of my father’s cursing counts him out as well. Is it school? Television? Music? Could these words possibly have been put into context from… books?
One of the more finely written lines in history is Rhett Butler telling Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Gone with the Wind is required reading for any Abrams offspring, placed on a multi-colored, sticker-covered bookshelf right next to The Cat in the Hat and Where The Sidewalk Ends. Even Harry Potter, now expected to be known in-utero, mutters the occasional “damn.” I’m sure my mother grimaced when she read it, but the overall message and the intensity of the situation where Harry mutters the foul word surely give him the slide, and earn Harry Potter books a place on my mother’s bookshelf as well as my own.
So why, then, does she allow and even encourage her children to read these words, if we are unallowed to practice them in context?
Even if you take away all of the bad words our friends say, banish the TV from the house (and believe me, that’s been done before) and only listen to Disney music, then the very things—- reading that my mother pushes still uses and enforces the very words she detests.
As I grow up and become more like my mother, I start to see her side. While some words are fine in literature, it’s inappropriate in every day life. If I’m shopping with my best friend and her two young children, I don’t want them hearing the language that goes on around them. It’s offensive. If I were alone, it might not be, but forcing these words on their impressionable ears is much harder to take. I don’t think a single sibling of mine would use these words in public.
But what of it? Is there a problem if we press our limits of speech in private? We hurt no one through our illustrious word play, or do we? The standards of morality that we hold so dear, are they compromised?
The First Amendment guarantees our freedom of speech. The limits of this are tested daily by congresspersons and citizens. Flag burning and other symbolic speech is covered under this amendment, but when it comes to danger or morals, the situation gets trickier. You can’t yell FIRE in a crowded theater, and you certainly better not cite the First Amendment as your authority to do so. However, what about morals? If we’ve separated church and state, then who gets to deem what is therefore offensive and what is not? I’m not going to comment on my Rabbi’s juicy double, certainly, but the morality of most humans extends outside church walls. In our homes, should we decide? I visit my mom at my parents’ house- in her walls, in her bricks, in her fence. Are certain words any less appropriate than in the same company at my house? In MY walls, in MY bricks, in MY fence? Our morals are tested by what we say daily. Should we stop ourselves from saying that our boss’s clothes make him look dumpy? Absolutely, if you ask me. I’d rather not be terminated. But what of those who don’t censor themselves?
Some people believe that people should be able to say whatever they wish to, regardless of whose impressionable 5-year-old is nearby. They’d say that if you don’t want you child hearing that, don’t take them to the mall. And soon, don’t take them to Publix. And don’t take them to Chuck E. Cheese. Your backyard is now unsafe, too.
Will those who don’t wish to hear profane speech soon pay royalties to listen to clean radio, to shop in filtered malls, to belong to private clubs where you are ensured your morality is not defamed? Will we buy expensive earphones that filter out anything derogatory, according to their own personal specifications? Hear a bad word, press a button, and you never have to hear it again. Chuck Palahniuk touches on this in his novel Lullaby:
“The culling song would be a plague unique to the Information Age. Imagine a world where people shun the television, the radio, movies, the Internet, magazines and newspapers. People have to wear earplugs the way they wear condoms and rubber gloves. In the past, nobody worried too much about sex with strangers. Or before that, bites from fleas. Or untreated drinking water. Mosquitoes. Asbestos. Imagine a plague you can catch through your ears. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but now words can kill, too.” [p.41].
If we are in constant fear of what we might hear, must we hermit and barricade ourselves into a world where we listen to filtered content? Where ARE the limits? Would “tush” be allowed and “rump” be banished, forever? How do our own morals play into it?
I won’t sing a song of death. I won’t even use bad words around children or others that it may offend. I won’t let my baby sister listen to music that I deem inappropriate. I will, however, have my mother saying “juicy double” by next fall.