Dick Day

In its role as national arbiter of decency, the Federal Communications Commission declared Monday that it’s mostly all right to describe someone as “a dick” during primetime (it spells out its thinking on dick and other raw broadcast vocabulary in two opinions — here and here as PDF files).

The case, as reported by the Washington Post, is delightful for two reasons. First, it sheds more light on the kind of protests the Parents Television Council — the main engine for broadcast decency complaints to the FCC — is filing. For instance, among the 36 instances of smutty utterings the council pointed to are gems like this:

“ ‘Everwood,’ September 16, 2002, 9 p.m. EST: a character remarks to another: ‘I got this black eye because of you, dick.’

” ‘Fastlane,’ September 18, 2002, 9 p.m. EST: one character threatens another by stating: “…in my next life I’m coming back as a pair of pliers and pull off your nutsack.’ ”

What’s equally amusing, and ironic, is the length to which the Post goes to avoid printing the words that were in the FCC documents. Here’s how the Post gets around saying “dick.”

“It’s generally okay to use a common nickname for “Richard” as an insult on network television, the Federal Communications Commission ruled yesterday, in a denial of several indecency complaints brought to the agency. …

“… A number of the denials focused on the nickname — also a slang term for the male sexual organ — which increasingly is working its way into television scripts.

“For instance, the agency ruled that it was not indecent when, during an Oct. 30, 2002, episode of the WB’s ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ one character says to another: ‘Listen, I know that you’re [upset] at your dad for flaking on you. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad dad, and it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.’ Prompting another character to say, ‘No, it just means he’s a [nickname/slang term for male sexual organ].’ ”

(Just for the record, the FCC’s opinion shows that the “Dawson’s Creek” character above said “I know that you’re pissed,” not “I know that you’re upset.”)

I’ve been on the other side of this question, editing copy for a daily newspaper audience, enforcing and agreeing with a policy that pretty much kept all vulgar expression out of our copy. But in this instance you have to ask what’s the point?

In this story, the whole point is how a government commission that has been turned into a tribunal on cuss words and risque imagery is arriving at and justifying its decisions to the public and a pressure group. The words involved here — the actual words that prompted complaints, not cutesy/clumsy euphemisms — are of the essence. So why in the world would you keep them out of the story? How can a reader judge whether the parents group is being plain silly or the commission is turning the country over to the porn lords without using the words at issue?

4 Replies to “Dick Day”

  1. In Japan, pretty much anything goes on TV (only the lower private parts are forbidden). Of course when it comes to language there is a bigger variety of cuss words available to use in English. The most commonly used words in Japanese are basically equivalent to “That bastard” (literally “that guy from the field”), shit and “damn you” (literally “beast”). Its more the emotion you put into the word that counts. Although you could make that argument for English too, despite the number of vulgar ways we use to express ourselves.

  2. It’s also silly to avoid using the very word the FCC has just ruled *not* to be indecent. Evidently, to the Post, it is indecent.

  3. Yeah. Weird. I just did something I should have done before and checked how other publications treated this. None talked about the specifics of the “dick” complaints, and only Reuters mentioned that the word was an issue, and they did that by quoting the head of the Parents Television Council. But even with her saying the word, they bowdlerized it (“d**k”). What gets me is how squeamish editors get around this kind of language. I think the net effect is that many younger people, who are in many ways the audience the mainstream news outlets should be worried about addressing, ditch newspapers and TV news for “The Daily Show,” because they sense (pretty accurately) that that’s where they’re going to hear stuff told like it is.

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