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I Swear

Ken Tucker considers the cases of Chris Rock, Missy Elliott, and Austin Powers

Has profanity in entertainment gone too far?

On the HBO special ''Bigger & Blacker'' (premiering July 10 on HBO), comedian Chris Rock phrases Freud's famous complaint profanely -- ''What the f--- do women want?'' -- and proceeds to answer it with typically outrageous bluntness I won't (and can't) quote here. Did the F-word need to enter his question? I believe it did: It carries all the anger and frustration Rock feels toward the riddle of womanhood, expressed with comic concision and suggesting the degree of anger he sometimes feels about the subject.

In other words, profanity definitely has legitimate uses, especially in comedy, where, if used in combination with solid ideas and punchlines, it's more than just shock-value punctuation.

Now, how about in music? Missy ''Misdemeanor'' Elliott's new, probably-headed-for-No. 1 CD ''Da Real World'' is, among other things, a lengthy meditation on the word ''bitch'': How a woman using it to describe another is different from a man using it; how the word can be picked up from the gutter of insult and used by Missy to describe herself, proudly -- to suggest that she is one tough artist/businessperson/woman. (Elliott conveniently provides an example of who should NOT be using the word: White rapper Eminem tosses off the derogatory term in a Missy duet, ''Busa Rhyme,'' and he comes off as merely obnoxious.) In Elliott's ''real world,'' the landscape is full of such sisters in the struggle for self-definement, and if her constant reiteration of the B-word grows wearisome at times, well, the world is a rough place to be a woman seeking to control her own destiny.

So far, two for two, in favor of strong language in specific examples of popular culture. Now, how about naughty words as children's entertainment? Last week's pop-culture brouhaha was over the talking Austin Powers doll who asks, ''Do I make you horny, baby?'' As a parent, I have to wonder who this doll's market is: Any sensible overseer of children who play with dolls shouldn't be dragging the tyke to ''The Spy Who Shagged Me,'' if only because all the jokes and pop references will sail over small heads.

But the market for adult-doll collectors is too small to make their manufacture worthwhile. Thus, the makers of the Austin doll must have known they were disseminating inappropriate messages to kids who'd relate to the Austin doll as a sort of Ken-doll with an overbite. This, I think, is worthy of protest.

Of course, it still gives me the creeps when I hear my 9-year-old say the word ''shag'' after she sees an ''Austin Powers'' commercial, asks if she can see that movie and, by the way, what does ''shag'' MEAN? No, we say to the first question, and as for the second -- well, liberal, entertainment-promoting weasels that we are, we mumble something about it having something to do with... carpeting.

Originally posted Jun 29, 1999
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