Pop Culture

What the F— Will It Take to Get TV to Stop Censoring Titles?

FBoy Island, Kevin Can F**k Himself, P-Valley—everyone knows which words are being bleeped. So why do we bother bleeping in the first place?

On a new HBO Max dating show, ripped and oily men who look like cast-offs from a Playgirl magazine cattle call compete for the hearts of three equally gorgeous women—and maybe a cash prize as well. The men have jobs like “child care/influencer,” “TikToker,” and “Bitcoin investor.” Half of them proudly boast of their success at sexual conquests. Comedian Nikki Glaser hosts, and we’re barely into the first episode before she’s making jokes about ejaculation on faces.

What’s the series, which premieres on July 29, called? FBoy Island.

Well, it is a show about people who can’t commit.

“I can tell you that I initially went out [to pitches] with the show called Fuckboy Island, not FBoy Island,” says series concept creator Elan Gale. “I think dating shows and reality shows that feature young people should try their best to be reflective of the actual dating culture.”

The former Bachelor producer, who developed the series with Sam Dean of Netflix’s Love Is Blind serving as showrunner, says he wanted his program to reflect current trends like “ghosting” (or abruptly stopping communication with a paramour) and “people feeling like they have…this endless buffet of people to swipe through.” The if you know, you know–style title references a pejorative term for a selfish man who sleeps around and leads dates on. As noted in a 2020 Men’s Health investigation into the etymology of the word, it’s not a noun with which most people would want to be synonymous.

Gale says everyone who heard the show’s original title immediately understood it, and wanted to hear more about the show. At the same time “there’s still a barrier when it comes to marketing the show and promoting the show and making sure that people all over the country have access to it” if it’s got a swear word in the title.

Player Island and Jerk Island just don’t have the same punch, nor do they sound as relevant to the modern dating vernacular. But using a curse word in a title still drastically limits the options for who will buy a pitch and how it can be promoted.

“Having the word fuck in your title…you’re not going to get that billboard you want,” Gale says.

The barricades against cursing on television have been around for decades, with whatever the Federal Communication Commission doesn’t censor being open to regulations by networks’ own Standards and Practices departments. And slowly those barriers have been coming down—to a point. Short-lived network comedies like CBS’s $h*! My Dad Says and ABC’s Dont Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 helped to lead the charge in the title department, though both compromised by ultimately bleeping the offending words. NBC’s recently canceled Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist always ended its first-act break with a cut-off curse word, an envelope-pushing move that still didn’t fully cross the line. Pop’s Schitt’s Creek dominated last year’s Emmy ceremony—but according to host Jimmy Kimmel, ABC mandated that the eventual outstanding-comedy-series winner could only be mentioned while accompanied by its logo.

The use of the F-word in titles is something of a final frontier—one that’s also more commonly being reached, if only in censored form. The coastal United States’ favorite curse word is not associated simply with the act of fornication—it can also be a shorthand for an exclamation of support (Vice TV’s F*ck, Thats Delicious), a threat (Netflix’s Don’t F**k With Cats), a double entendre (both the British and American versions of notoriously foul-mouthed and hot-tempered chef Gordon Ramsay’s cooking series are called The F Word), or a verb telling someone to kiss off (AMC’s Kevin Can F**k Himself, which premiered this summer). As evidenced by all of these titles, it is still bleeped for television when it’s used in a show’s name, even though any person with a working knowledge of the English language should be able to crack that code.

Valerie Armstrong, who created Kevin, came up with her show’s title several years ago, when she was still an assistant—and, she says, no one was paying attention to what she wrote. She says she used it simply because “I needed titles that made me laugh,” and that AMC’s development team wanted to keep it even though she was ready with alternatives (none of which she can share, unfortunately).

“The thing that I liked so much about the title now, and a reason that I was prepared to fight to keep it, is that [the show] does look like it’s about Kevin at first,” Armstrong says of her series—a dark comedy about a fed-up wife, Annie Murphy’s Allison, who decides to kill her husband after he squanders their life savings.

“I think it captures that rage that so many of us have and bury, and that is certainly Allison’s thing,” Armstrong says, adding that “when I do say the title, I really hit fuck.”

She says there were lots of “boring discussions about how to write it out.” Ultimately the show went with the double asterisks to ensure that everyone could glean its actual name, even if it was coded for marketing or TV-listing purposes.

“It’s not Kevin Can F Himself,” Armstrong stresses. “That is absolutely not the title.”

It’s easy for cynics to argue that adding curse words to your show’s title is a marketing gimmick in and of itself—a way to get press coverage and eyeballs on one tiny needle of content in a haystack of viewing options. But it also shouldn’t go unnoticed that Kevin is just one of several female-centric titles employing (censored) curse words. Are these bleeped titles another example of patriarchal oppression of those who are trying to reclaim traditionally hurtful words?

“Sometimes working on this show feels like walking on a tightrope in the middle of a hurricane,” says Katori Hall, the creator of P-Valley—the Starz dramedy about strip club workers in the Mississippi Delta, based on Hall’s play Pussy Valley.

On one hand there’s the matter of protecting Hall’s show from the pearl-clutchers at the Parents Television Council and similar groups. On the other, she says, she and her writers make a concentrated effort not to be gratuitous: “walking around with T ’n’ A out there just for no reason. Everything is for a reason.”

Hall fought to keep the full name of her play as the title of the adaptation, but was overruled: “There’s fear of the pussy,” she says. Officially, it’s abbreviated. But the proper name can still briefly be seen in the opening credits, thanks to a dimming neon sign.

“I definitely think the patriarchy has to get used to the fact that there are some women in this world who embrace their femininity in a more unapologetic way,” says Hall.

These talks about whether to avoid swear words in titles—and, if so, how to do it—can wind up being a lot of work for minimal gain. As Timothy Jay, a professor emeritus of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and an expert on psycholinguistics and the history of swear words, points out, all they’re doing is emphasizing the obvious: “The mechanism that makes [these abbreviations] work is that the consumers either hearing this or reading it all know what’s being discussed.

“The corruption is already in the viewer,” he laughs, adding, “Everybody knows how to swear. Every literate person knows all of these words. You have to [in order] to be part of a culture. And to put ‘f-star-star-k’ on something is just an acknowledgment that everybody who’s watching this knows what it is. But we have to have that facade of gentility.”

Or maybe airing enough shows with these titles will just mainstream the words to the point where no one is bothered by them anymore. After all, there once was a time when TV audiences couldn’t handle hearing a child tell an elder, “You suck”—and the best way to stop something from being a taboo is to just keep fucking doing it.

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