The Profanity Problem: Swearing in Movies

by Kali Tuttle

Almost every movie nowadays has at least one swear word in it. It’s not a huge issue, but how often does profanity need to be used and how often is it really just a filler for better dialogue?

Think back to the last movie you watched. Did it swear? If it did, was there a point? Did it make the punchline of a joke better? Did it establish a character trait? Was it historically acceptable? Was it integral to the plot at all? If you answered no to all of these questions, you may be in the same group I’m in: Hollywood really needs to cut back on the swearing.

Art Imitates Life

Maybe we can’t blame this all on Hollywood. A lot of it has to do with how people really talk. Cursing is a normal part of dialogue for many people. It’s common for a group of friends to drop the f-bomb more than once in conversation. Swearing while giving a compliment tends to give that praise more weight. Adding in some profanity to an argument or insult adds more power to your words.

Hollywood is only trying to mirror that aspect of humanity. A good example of this is in the blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Throughout the movie, Iron Man makes fun of Captain America for chiding people for their language. However, near the end of the film, the Captain blurts a curse word in frustration, which gives Iron Man more ammo to tease him.


Image via The Nerd 411

It’s reminiscent of kids on a playground making fun of the kid who won’t swear and then laughing when that kid finally gets so mad he curses out his buddies.

But do we really want Hollywood to show off this less classy aspect of us? Some would say yes, it’s good to portray all parts of society–even the less savory ones. However, others (like me) say there’s a point when even reality becomes too real.

Increasing Frequency

If you look at the Wikipedia list for the movies with the most f-bombs in them, you’ll notice that there isn’t a movie before 1978 on the list, and you have to go 32 movies down the list before you find one made before 1990. Profanity in movies has been on the rise since the 1980s, and it seems to show no signs of slowing down. In fact, the Guinness World Record holder for most uses of “f–k” in a film goes to Canadian comedy Swearnet: The Movie, made in 2014, with 935 uses of the word.

This should be concerning for you, not for moral reasons, but for dialogue reasons. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a successful American movie with 569 f-bombs; this comes out to about 3.16 uses of the word a minute. If a movie dedicates that much time to profanity, how much time is it dedicating to true dialogue? How much time was given to truly moving the plot forward with the words they use? Was the profanity necessary, or just filler because the writers couldn’t think of a better word?


Image via Salesman

Alienating a Large Audience

When movies decide to include profanity in the script, they take the risk of losing a big audience. When Logan (2017) received an R rating (mostly for profanity) rather than PG-13, many young fans of Wolverine could not see the movie, and it did not gross as much as it could have (though it grossed a fair amount).

When Deadpool (2016) opted for the R rating rather than toning it down for PG-13, it lost a large group of young followers. Though this movie included other questionable content and was always destined to be R rated, it still excluded young comic book readers not yet 17 (though, it, too, grossed a fair amount).


Image via Nerdist

When movies choose to use profanity, they take the gamble of excluding sections of an audience that would have otherwise viewed the movie; this is especially true of comedies. Sometimes this pays off, as with the two movies mentioned above. However, sometimes it bombs, such as the case with Baywatch (2017) and Snatched (2017).

Morally Gray Area

A lot of people think swearing is bad. A lot of people don’t think swearing is bad at all. Regardless of your stance, you have to understand that this is a divisive issue.

Studies have been done saying that people who curse are more likely to be honest than those that don’t, as an Independent article claimed earlier this year. However, The Guardian published an article in 2011 claiming that swearing can actually trigger a physical stress response. So, what’s the truth?

It’s hard to know. There’s just so much debate and conflicting scientific evidence surrounding it. In the end, it’s really up to you and how you perceive swearing. Maybe you think swearing said in stress is fine, like when someone swears in the heat of battle. Maybe you think it’s always wrong. Maybe you think swearing isn’t bad at all. No matter what, it’s up to you for what you watch and say.


Image via Ross v Ross

Changing Times

I’m no saint–I swear, too (though I try not to). I don’t usually shy away from movies with profanity, even if I find that profanity reprehensible. I’ve just noticed a trend of increasing foul language in movies today.

However, this does not have to be a bad thing. I’m sure 50 years ago columnists were making some of the same arguments I am and lamenting how Hollywood is going downhill.


Image via Quora

Maybe it’s a good thing that Hollywood is including more profanity. Maybe it’s time they start reflecting how people really talk instead of giving characters flat dialogue devoid of personality.

In the end, it’s all up to the viewer. We choose what we want to see, Hollywood takes note, and they make more of what we like to see. If you don’t want more profanity, avoid movies that contain it. If you do want more profanity, seek it out.

Times are changing, and so is Hollywood.

Thanks for reading!  What are your thoughts on profanity in film?  Comment down below!

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Anonymous April 24, 2023 - 9:06 pm

It’s ridiculous. Lazy writers. Doesn’t carry the plot. Gratuitous. Just, why?

Anonymous July 21, 2021 - 5:49 pm

What I do is use to check if a movie or TV series has any swearing I find offensive before watching it with my family. I specifically don’t like movies that use blasphemy. 3wise even allows you to set a filter preference like no F-bombs or use of Jesus or Christ (it knows the difference between between someone praying or somebody blaspheming) and you can see all the Netflix movies in your favourite genres that match this filter.

Anonymous February 28, 2022 - 11:18 am

I think profanity is lame and immature I love suspenseful movies and most ALL of them have profanity. I’ve never understood why Hollywood has to have this in their movies, they would be just as good without the bad languages. And we wonder why our teenagers grow us with a potty mouth….so sad. Usually if it says rated R I move on.

Jay Webb May 11, 2021 - 8:02 pm

Movie makers don’t get my support when profanity is included in their work. I absolutely 100% avoid it. I know…that means I’ve missed out on many, many great stories told on film. That’s sad and terribly unfortunate, but my philosophy is to not view anything I wouldn’t want my children to hear or see. It IS very discouraging, because even many “family friendly” movies are throwing a word or two in there unnecessarily. We skip those films too. I’m not sure at what point I would be okay with knowing my children are hearing profanity and not doing something to correct or avoid it. As they get to adulthood, it will obviously be their decision to hear it or not, but I think avoiding it and talking about its existence while they are young gives them a choice later on. I DO wish I had some kind of pipeline directly to producers/directors/ screenwriters and others that have the power to omit profanity so that I could reason with them and hopefully change their minds in order to put out some high quality films that simply don’t need foul language to be a great film. I think GREAT films that are devoid of profanity are entirely possible. In my case, preferred.

Anonymous April 16, 2021 - 6:36 pm

Some swearing is fine but I don’t think swearing needs to be done in a normal conversation. Also I totally disagree with whatever study that was done saying that people who swear tend to tell the truth is crap. My ex sweared a lot and come to find out he was a habitual liar and would lie about the stupidest things

SF August 2, 2019 - 7:08 pm

Some of the best movies ever made are the black and white ones. No cussing in them!!!

Sheila Fetters August 2, 2019 - 7:00 pm

My husband and I love movies BUT when we turn a movie on and they use the f word we shut it off!!! Why does society use this word like your saying hello to someone? I’m sick of hearing it. Why can’t we let kids be kids instead of shoving sex, vulgar language, and everything that’s for adult’s down their throats. They’re kids…don’t you remember when you were a kid and innocent? Remember playing outside, making up games, hide and seek, catching lightening bugs and just having fun. We’ve taken innocence away from our children and Hollywood is the biggest reason why!!! Society has an additude of anything goes. When we took God out of everything, that’s when we started going down hill. We’ve forgotten right from wrong, what’s decent and what’s not. God help us all! He’s our Father and will only allow so much and then like any decent father he’ll start punishing us. Wake up America!!!!!

Anonymous January 5, 2021 - 3:11 pm

You’re not the only one who feels that way. I, for one, am fed up with all the bad stuff in this world. If I have my way, I’d eradicate all bad things and only leave good ones.

Ellen July 20, 2019 - 3:46 pm

I don’t mind characters cussing in certain circumstances. If something needs a strong reaction, or two characters get into a bad argument, whatever. But I hate when it’s used nonstop by characters over everything, especially stronger cuss words. They always seem to be louder than the rest of the dialogue too, so you really notice them. It gets old and is annoying to the ear. I don’t know anyone who cusses the way some characters do in movies, and I know people who use cuss words as normal dialogue.

georgia drew April 19, 2019 - 10:23 am

curse words are supposed to be used to curse someone or something. when curse words are used in everyday language it is a sign of the decline of the society. the words don’t have any real impact anymore and just sound sleezy. every movie tries to out-do the one before it, which leads to swear words being used when they don’t even mean anything or add to the conversation taking place. sad, really. where will conversation/movies/tv be in 10 years? what are we teaching our kids?

AK Vids March 29, 2019 - 11:07 pm

I’m so fed up with people thinking swearing automatically makes their content “mature” or “cool” or “realistic.” Realistically, people don’t lace their dialogue with half-baked swear words that make no sense where they are. And it’s just not necessary; it doesn’t add a single thing to the story and it limits your audience.

PC December 23, 2018 - 9:58 pm

My husband and I seldom go to a theatre or watch movies at home anymore because of the profanity. It is so disappointing. I wish Hollywood would realize that offensive language does not have to be included. We did see Creed II recently. I was entertaining and do not recall any profanity. Thank you !

Pikachu March 25, 2019 - 12:54 pm

I disagree with the following piece under the title “Art Imitates Life”;

“Maybe we can’t blame this all on Hollywood. A lot of it has to do with how people really talk. Cursing is a normal part of dialogue for many people. It’s common for a group of friends to drop the f-bomb more than once in conversation. Swearing while giving a compliment tends to give that praise more weight. Adding in some profanity to an argument or insult adds more power to your words.

Hollywood is only trying to mirror that aspect of humanity”

On the contrary, I would actually say that it is the exact other way around; life imitating art; which has been shown to be the case regarding other behaviours depicted on the screen that viewers have then copied.
One example is the effect that the show Sex And The City had on young women, with some of them later admiting how the show made them want to be “just like Samantha”, and consequently started sleeping around with literally hundreds, in some cases thousands, of guys, only to feel like crap later on

I am confident that it is the same with today’s trend of fowl language in film, that it is NOT an attempt on the behalf of the directors to try to imitate reality, but rather an agenda to try to indoctrinate impressionable young viewers with yet another trashy trend, for whatever reason.

Pikachu March 25, 2019 - 12:56 pm

Oops, I didn’t intend my above post to specifically be a reply to the poster above, but rather just a comment to the article, however at least it is now posted.:P

Barry Rivadue October 30, 2018 - 11:13 pm

Foregoing profanity might mean “flat dialogue devoid of personality?” How about the crutch of profanity showing a lack of creativity and imagination? The idea that profanity is the answer is ludicrous. How many classic movies without any profanity at all suffered because of the lack of it?

Michael Cantrell March 26, 2018 - 5:55 pm

Interesting take.

I’m a person of faith — Christian — and I’ve been on both sides of the issue. I have zero problem with words meaning excrement or empty non-abusive swears (like saying son of a b**** out loud after hitting your thumb with a hammer), nor do I have a problem with vulgarity. Vulgar simply means “common,” so your basic “foul language” stuff doesn’t bother me and unless it’s blasphemous, I highly doubt I’d shut it off.

Just my thoughts.

Honestly February 27, 2022 - 4:14 am

I am an avid movie watcher,I don’t know if most people realize how many movies literally almost all of them from the 70s on use the Lords name in vain without fail,Man-made cursewords like the F bomb mean nothing to me using the Lord‘s name in vain in almost every movie made makes me sick to my stomach but unfortunately I still watch them.

Bonnie Anderson March 20, 2018 - 11:21 am

Very interesting and informative. I avoid movies with excessive cursing. It just disturbs me even though I realize that it can be appropriate for whatever the film is portraying – for example war movies would likely have dialog laced with profanity in the heat of battle, but I don’t know if that would be the case for earlier wars as much as Veit Nam and forward. Society as a whole seems to take a light view of cursing. When I was a teenager and young woman, men would apologize for using foul language around me. (Those were the days!) Now, the gentler sex feels the freedom to drop the f-bomb along with the best of men, or should I say the more inconsiderate of men. It is sad to me. To support your statement about dialog lacks being covered by cursing, I agree. When I feel like a machine gun of filthy language (in my opinion) is being unleashed on me, I turn it off. It takes me out of the story. I guess it goes back to my upbringing. My father always said that curse words covered lack of intelligence to find a better word. Of course, I know he was trying to keep his kids from swearing, but he had a point.

Lulu Mendl March 11, 2018 - 4:50 pm

I don’t have a problem with profanity in movies. What I DO have a problem with is the continued use of offensive slurs such as the r-word, f-slur, and the like. Strangely, films that use these words are often up for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. REALLY!?!? Come on.
Can we stop it with slurs, please?!?! And can we stop promoting them at awards ceremonies?!?! Words like that don’t make something “edgy” or “cool” or even more honest. It just makes the writers of the films look like fools, and even distances viewers from the characters. I personally don’t like a character as much when they use a word that’s offensive to an entire group of people. I often want to turn the movie off immediately after hearing it.
Pretty much everyone uses your average swear words like the f- and s-bombs. Those words are important in movies to show emotion in characters, and that’s fine. They don’t really hurt anyone or mean anything derogatory. But when you use a racial slur, it’s so much more than just a word.
(Sorry for the mini-rant. Your articles just get me so fired up sometimes.)

Kali Tuttle March 11, 2018 - 5:16 pm

That’s a good point. I can understand use in historical context, but sometimes they just overuse those words and they shouldn’t if Hollywood is as pro-equality and such as they claim to be

Lulu Mendl March 11, 2018 - 7:11 pm

I totally agree! It’s okay if the words are used to show that they’re bad and people shouldn’t use them, but they’re often thrown in for the edge factor, like it makes the characters cooler if they use blatantly offensive slurs.

Patricia Henderson March 5, 2018 - 2:02 am

Honestly, the totally overdone profanity (and sexuality) in “Summer of Sam” is what keeps it from being a great film. It had the potential, but it takes me right out of the story. Some is needed in a film like that, but not every. other. word.

100wordreviews March 1, 2018 - 5:05 pm

Interesting points. My opinion is that I don’t have a problem with profanity in a film if it is consistent with the charcater who is uttering the profanity.

I remember when “Scarface” came out and there was such hand-wringing over the number of f-bombs (which were a lot at the time, but nothing compared to today). When you go back and watch this film 30 years on, you see how the words fit an amoral character who was controlled by Communists but is now reveling in an orgy of self-expression, both criminal and verbal. (It’s a similar take to the earlier commenter re “Wolf of Wall Street”)

Keep in mind also that sometimes filmmakers will add or subtract profanity in order to achieve a desired film rating. If a movie is PG-13 or R, it’s because the producers wanted it that way, otherwise they would have done something about it.

Anonymous February 25, 2018 - 10:09 am

This was a really interesting read, thanks.

As an aspiring author, profanity is something I have to consider from every angle. On the one hand, I prefer to utilise a broad vocabulary, on the other hand it can appear prudish or judgemental to avoid cursing completely and using unfamiliar language can actually alienate people. One benefit to writing fantasy fiction is that you can get around it by making up your own profanity: using words and phrases that fit the world or genre without actually employing typically recognised offensive language.

I’ve noticed that a lot of TV shows lately are dropping the C bomb with alarming frequency and this, more so than the F word, seems to get my back up. Having said that, profanity is also a social construction that conveys offence because people agree that it does. Definitely a tough call to make as a writer, especially when trying to appeal to diverse demographics.

The Arcane Nibbler February 23, 2018 - 11:31 pm

Interesting article, particularly the statistics you gave. I was surprised that Wolf of Wall Street had that many F-bombs. I thought that particular script was brilliant and the F-bombs wholly appropriate considering the kind of people the film was portraying. But I agree much of it is unnecessary and gratuitous. I wonder if the greater issue is that people in general swear more often. I personally cuss like a drunk sailor, but even the construction workers I work with think I’m over the top. I’ve noticed, however, that a lot of millennials I know and read on Twitter, swear like I do. Not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg. But you’re right that many screenwriters use it out of laziness. Nice work.

Kingpin Pictures February 23, 2018 - 5:44 pm

I totally agree with your point! I’ve be discussing this with my mates and I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks swearing has gotten out of hand. The Vault is a great example for unnecessary swearing, and this made the film unpleasant. More should be discuss on this topic in my opinion.

aravenclawlibrary February 23, 2018 - 3:08 am

Personally, I don’t mind swearing in movies. I cuss like a sailor so seeing it in the movies doesn’t bother me as long as the rating reflects that. I would expect movies like Deadpool to swear because that is who Deadpool is. I also saw the Wolf on Wallstreet (one of my favorite movies!) and I didn’t mind the swearing.
Like you mentioned, I think it is all about personal choice. My mom doesn’t like swearing so therefore she didn’t like Deadpool. I don’t mind swearing and I loved Deadpool.

missdolkapots February 23, 2018 - 12:36 am

I think there are situations where profanity is part of the environment depicted and I have no problem with that, but throwing the F. bomb every 5 seconds in instances that do not require it can get really annoying if you are someone who appreciate interesting dialogues in movies. Tarantino gets away with cuss words because he is a great writer and I expect his characters to be foul mouths, and I didn’t even mind Dennis Hopper cussing the night away in Blue Velvet because that was part of who he was, it defined his character. If there are no justifications for profanity then it’s just lazy script writing and I can’t get pass that, it dumbs down the movie.

Brooke Reed February 22, 2018 - 10:12 pm

I agree with you. It often seems lazy like “I don’t know any meaningful words so lets throw in an F-bomb. People will be shocked by that and not notice the lack of meaningful interactions in this film!” Only, it’s beginning to become so common place that the shock isn’t as strong anymore.

There’s also the usual excuse of “well it wouldn’t seem real if they didn’t swear.” that’s not true. Maybe a lot of people in that situation would swear in real life but not all and that doesn’t mean the characters have to as well. If they filmmakers did their job well you will be engrossed enough to believe the situation (with or without cursing). People accept a lot of outlandish things in film as “real” in that moment because it fits the characters that have been developed and the world in which they are established. That’s called the suspension of disbelief!

To continue the thought of it being “more realistic,” art reflects life and vice versa. So while it is more accepted in cinema because it is more common in society, having it in films spreads it’s use. People (especially children/teens) idolize stars and want to be like their heroes on the silver screen. We mimic what we see and if that’s what my “hero” does, that’s what I’ll want to do. If it is good enough for someone who is supposedly better then it is good enough for me too…

Kali Tuttle February 22, 2018 - 10:17 pm

Excellent point! Life indeed does imitate art. I wonder how many kids went around swearing after watching The Avengers? Lol

Brooke Reed February 22, 2018 - 10:21 pm

Im not sure but I got the nickname “Captain Americana” for a little while at college when that movie came out because I don’t swear. It didn’t bother me (because The Captain stands for a lot of values I respect so the comparison felt like more of a complement than an insult) but I can imagine that sort of thing could be hurtful to younger children.

Kali Tuttle February 22, 2018 - 10:23 pm

Pretty awesome nickname ??

Brooke Reed February 22, 2018 - 10:24 pm

Lol thanks ?

Patricia Henderson March 5, 2018 - 2:03 am

^ Nailed it. It is lazy writing. Totally.

The Animation Commendation February 21, 2018 - 9:48 am

Very interesting article! I personally don’t swear nor like it and a lot of swearing can (and has) turned me away from watching certain films. In a perfect world, I’d love to have my dialogue squeaky clean, but I know that ain’t ever gonna happen, lol!

Dayne Watkins February 21, 2018 - 1:03 am

Great post! Something to think about. Check out some of my reviews at Poppin Kernels!

fxbg February 20, 2018 - 11:32 pm

There were actually studies done (in universities) that said people who swear are honest and generally happier people. In the case for movies I think it can be used quite well and sometimes I think it’s not used enough.

Jeff Fluffy February 20, 2018 - 8:21 pm

I don’t believe swearing is ever necessary. But I can see the trend. I have watched the Marvel movies and the swearing is becoming a lot more frequent!
But Captain America is the best, mainly because he has strong morals and doesn’t swear (it is not really from his time I guess).
Great article!

floatinggold February 20, 2018 - 6:12 pm

Swear words in movies might add to the size of the joke when done properly. It can also just mirror real life situation. But sometimes writers seems to be trying too hard. Like “The Wolf of Wallstreet” I did not enjoy that.

edburt99 February 20, 2018 - 3:03 pm

Of course we can all answer “no” to all of the questions you ask most of the time. But trying to find instances where the answer to all of them could be “yes,” I could come up with only two examples. Tom Cruise’s character in “Rain Man” doesn’t go a sentence in the movie without swearing for over half the movie; the closer he gets to his brother, the more he learns to understand and empathize a person who can’t communicate with him in any traditional sense, his vocabulary increases. It shows the same kind of connection between excessive cussing and immaturity that you point out. The second one is actually one that you mention here, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Being a film about one of the most narcissistic people that has ever lived, all of his actions are that of perceived entitlement; this is perhaps the greatest degree of immaturity there is, so the excessive language that he and the people who enable all his horrendous behavior in such an amoral way would not be believable on film if they spoke with a greater vocabulary that made them sound more mature than they are.

The Arcane Nibbler February 23, 2018 - 11:45 pm

Insightful comments about Wolf of Wall Street. Well said.

ExAnimo7 February 20, 2018 - 2:17 pm

Profanity for the sake of profanity is ridiculous — IMO, it serves no purpose and is there just for shock value. To me, excessive, unnecessary profanity indicates lazy writing.

I’ve also been worried by the rise of crude humor in (live-action and animated) kids movies. To me, it’s just not necessary. Some of it is funny, but a lot of it just goes over their heads and is meant more for the adults accompanying the kids.

Having said all this, I am like the author — I am by no means a prude. But listening to all that swearing definitely makes me uncomfortable, and it has driven me away from seeing a lot of R-rated movies.

Kali Tuttle February 20, 2018 - 2:19 pm

Definitely agree with what you said. Shock value is the perfect way of putting that

Patricia Henderson March 5, 2018 - 2:05 am

Yup, I think half the time, they just want to be “edgy.”

Indy Dahling February 20, 2018 - 1:27 pm

I strongly object to the idea that Logan and Deadpool made a mere “fair amount.” These movies made mad money and it was directly related to their explicit takes on a generally sanitized genre. A PG-13 version of Deadpool would not have been what it’s target audience wanted nor would it have been an adaptive choice that would have made any sense for the source material.

Kali Tuttle February 20, 2018 - 1:30 pm

Interesting take! I still wonder what kind of money it could have made if it were PG-13 though. My opinion though. I know the movie has a ton of fans already

Rick Pinkston February 20, 2018 - 1:16 pm

Except for those with some moral hang up, this is a difficult topic. Dialogue a story needs to be a mirror of its audience. A group of upper middle age sophisticates will perceive profanity different than a group of truck drivers of the same age.
Profanity for the sake of profanity is nonsense, but writing for your audience is good business. The difficult part is finding the line between the two. Good article.

Nick Kush February 20, 2018 - 12:48 pm

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