Dropping the F Bomb at The New Yorker: Or, What Is Our Culture Coming to?
Lena Dunham is supposed to be the voice of my generation, so when I saw that she had an essay in the latest edition of The New Yorker, I thought I'd better read it to see what my generation was thinking about these days. As I navigated through the magazine's website, not only did I discover that Dunham is also now a spokeswoman of sorts for The New Yorker, but that this new omnipresent voice, which apparently represents me and (separately) the cultural elite, was given free reign to drop a certain four-letter word in the magazine. I started reading her essay (subscription required), "First Love: Memories of an Elusive Boyfriend," but came to a screeching halt when I saw the F word on the page:
On August, 2010, I got an email from Facebook notifying me that I had received a message. It was from my ex-boyfriend's mother. Its subject heading was "Goodbye from Nancy and Bill." Nancy and Bill are my ex-boyfriend's parents, though I've changed their names...I opened the message with great curiosity and little terror...The message said: "Hi, Lena--Bill and I remember you with such pleasure and fondness! But it's time to sever the Facebook connection so I'm going to block you. We wish you all the BEST!"
I was dumbfounded . . . I wanted to write back "Why?" I wanted to write back "What the [expletive]?" I wanted to write back "Like I'd even notice if you just unfriended me, or even if you died, you crazy [expletive]ing hag."
In a way, I'm not surprised by Dunham's outburst. Dunham's critically-acclaimed HBO television series Girls is so crass and vulgar that it is, at times, hard to watch. But it's one thing for Dunham to be profane in Girls--it's HBO after all, the same network that gives Bill Maher a platform for his sleazy grunts--but it's another thing for Dunham to drop the F bomb in what's considered the most important and influential cultural magazine on the scene, which has a history of being rather prudish in its content and language standards. I suppose The New Yorker has come a long way since the days of the Algonquin Round Table (ca. 1919-1929) and, later, the editorship of the legendary William Shawn (editor from 1952 until 1987):
Harold Brodkey used to tell the tale of how legendary New Yorker magazine editor William Shawn handled his use of a four-letter word: It's up to you, Shawn said, but would you rather be remembered for your story or the first use of that word in this magazine? Brodkey spiked the offending expletive.
Dunham's article brings to mind another piece that appeared on The New Yorker's website earlier this summer, "Dropping the F-Bomb" by Mary Norris, one of the copy editors there. In this piece, we see just how far The New Yorker has come since in the last two decades (I've deleted the foul language, but you'll still get the point):
Pauline Kael never tired of trying to get the word “sh-t” past Mr. Shawn in the old days, and never succeeded. She was on leave in the late summer of 1979, when “Apocalypse Now” came out, and Mr. Shawn permitted Veronica Geng, who was filling in for her, to quote the opening lines: “Saigon. Sh-t.”
It no longer occurs to me to query the use of four-letter words, even when they are used gratuitously, as in “I missed the f--king bus.” I used to be a prude, but now I am a ruined woman. We had a discussion in the copy department a few weeks ago about how to style the euphemism: Shall it be “f”-word, f word, f-word, “F” word, F word, or F-word? I don’t like any of them. [expletive]ing euphemisms. Get on the goddam [expletive]ing bus.
This week, a reader who sent in a portfolio of mistakes she had found in the magazine (two out of six were blatant errors, for which we are truly sorry) cited the use of the term “star [expletive]er” in a piece by John Colapinto about the philanthropist Trevor Neilson. She had no objection to the term itself, but wrote in the margin, “Need ‘activating’ hyphen!"
What a mechanical approach to language. Is this the new normal--to write and say anything you want, as long as you use the "activating hypen" when the occasion calls for it? To Norris, "it is refreshing to see that readers have evolved along with the magazine." To me, it is depressing, and for reasons Norris herself brings up when she documents the experience of editing a profanity-heavy essay:
I was so disoriented that I stetted a big...mistake at the end. What was the point of making a fuss over a “than” for a “then” in a piece so full of profanity?
Exactly. When your standards of language deteriorate, what's the limit--what's the point--of trying to be proper at all, whether it is in matters of grammar or matters of taste and decorum? Lena Dunham belongs on HBO and on Twitter, where these matters are more lax. But in the pages of The New Yorker? I don't think so. But then again, maybe I'm just a language prude. Maybe it's time for me to "Get on the goddam [expletive]ing bus."
Not that I'm promoting this, but for pure historical interest, here is a "compendium of New Yorker firsts in vulgarity."