Larry David and Jane Fonda have blurted it out. Ian McEwan’s written it (in his novel Atonement). Henry Miller’s been banned for it. And now Hit Girl, the scene-stealing star of the new anti-superhero/superhero film Kick-Ass, is hurling it.
“It,” of course, is the c-word.
In an age of unshockability—thanks to David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino, and The Sopranos— it’s hard to believe there’s a word left in the English language that can still evince a recoiling sense of genuine disgust, not to mention overtones of lurid misogyny. And yet “cunt” manages to do just that. Still.
“I was told that the difference between England and America is the sense that if I said to you, ‘I want to fuck you tonight’ in a sexual manner, you’d get an R in America,” said British director Matthew Vaughn. “But if I said, ‘I want to fuck you up and blow your head off,’ you’d get a PG-13.”
In the carnivalesque and carnage-filled Kick-Ass—if ever there were an homage to Tarantino, it’s this film about regular kids who decide they want to be superheroes—director Matthew Vaughn has chosen to scandalously up the ante. Not only is cunt said—very clearly and distinctly—but it’s expressed by an 11-year-old girl, the actress Chloë Moretz, who plays Hit Girl, a pint-size vigilante and trained assassin who twirls butterfly knives as though they were cheerleading batons, and bounces off walls clad in black leather biker gear, a bright purple wig, and a Mask of Zorro face piece.
• Read The Daily Beast’s Bryan Curtis take on the buzz behind Kick-Ass. Even more outré, Hit Girl directs her coup de grace preamble (“OK, you cunts, let’s see what you can do”) to a roomful of male gangsters, thus “violating the expected gender norms,” according to Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F-Word.
“It’s unusual in America for anyone to call a man a cunt,” Sheidlower continued. “So her use of it is that much more astonishing.”
In Britain—Vaughn’s native land—cunt is a more endearing, jolly term, at least when it’s used between mates, used in phrases like, “Monty, you terrible cunt,” or “You crafty old cunt,” as one Limey explained.
Indeed, Vaughn is rather floored by the fact that people are reacting more dramatically to the film’s foul language than to its excessive violence.
“It’s more astonishing that people talk about that than about a young girl who kills people,” Vaughn said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“I was told that the difference between England and America is the sense that if I said to you, ‘I want to fuck you tonight’ in a sexual manner, you’d get an R,” he continued. “But if I said, ‘I want to fuck you up and blow your head off,’ you’d get a PG-13. In England, it’s the other way around… I associate with the European attitude. I think sex is far less disturbing than violence.”
But even across the pond, when cunt is used to address a woman in an unfunny, derogatory fashion, it’s no laughing matter. According to a report published by the BBC in 2000, cunt ranked as the No. 1 most “severe” swear word, a title it also held in 1998, when the report was first conducted. Coming in at No. 2 was “motherfucker,” and at 3, “fuck.” (Wanker, n***r, bastard, and prick, were next in line.)
The c-word was not initially in the Kick-Ass script, although Vaughn and his co-writer, Jane Goldman, always had it in mind as a possibility, wanting to be true to Mark Millar’s graphic novel, upon which the film is based.
“It was the only part of the script I was hemming and hawing over whether to use the language from the comic book,” Vaughn said. “We were doing the scene without it, and it wasn’t working, and we all looked at each other and said, ‘Why is this not working?’ And then we all jointly said, ‘Why not try it’ [using cunt]?”
Vaughn said he asked Moretz’s mother, Teri, to ask Chloë if she would be comfortable saying the word, though he said he stressed that there was “no pressure at all.”
Chloë has told reporters that she’d be “grounded for the rest of my life” if she ever uttered the word in real life, but she told the director that she was fine with it because it felt organic to Hit Girl’s character. “At the end of the day, she’s not a normal, young girl,” Vaughn said. “She’s an 11-year-old who’s been training since she was 5 to be a world-class assassin.”
For those appalled by the idea of a mother allowing her pre-teen daughter to be so lewd on camera, Goldman said, “Chloë and her mother are very intelligent people, and they’re able to differentiate between a character and real life. Obviously, Chloë does not use that language in real life, just as, equally, she does not cut someone’s leg off in real life… Words are honestly a bunch of letters in different order. They’re not going to harm anyone in real life.”
Perhaps not, but cunt still manages to elicit a kind of visceral response that has been lost on most other obscenities that have become more ingrained in the vernacular.
“The fact that it’s such a forceful epithet for female genitalia has something to do with it,” said Ben Zimmer, who writes the On Language column for The New York Times Magazine. “I think the male equivalents, like dick and cock get used much more frequently, through macho talk, so the c-word still has a certain kind of force to it, because it hasn’t been overused. If it starts showing up in movies like Kick-Ass, that could be a contributing factor of diluting the force of the word. But for now, it still packs a kind of punch that other swear words have lost over time.”
In the U.K., where Kick-Ass was released last month with a 15 certificate (in the U.S., where it opens on Friday, it’s rated R), the use of cunt caused film critic David Cox to write in The Guardian, “A sorry milestone has been passed. The c-word has become acceptable parlance for children in mainstream movies. We’ll be the poorer for it.”
“I was not complaining because I was outraged because an 11-year-old used that word,” Cox said in a telephone interview. “But I was saying, ironically, that it’s kind of sad that now anybody can say it.”
Not totally. Or at least, not yet. Cox’s story received 245 comments, many of which said that “this word should not be used in a respectable newspaper,” Cox said.
Even Cox’s superiors were nervous. “The paper was very scared and made me water it down a lot,” he said. “The editors said, ‘Oh, you can put the word in the column, but it must only ever appear as a quote from the film.’ So I put it in all over the place, and then it had to be religiously turned into the c-word or ‘the word.’”
David Edelstein, the film critic for New York magazine, called cunt “one of the unmentionables,” and said that when he worked at Slate, “I was given the license to swear like a sailor” but that “it was very clear I was not allowed to use that word.”
In Kick-Ass, however, Edelstein was less disturbed by what was coming out of Hit Girl’s mouth than the beatings she sustains in the film’s action scenes.
“The level of violence, the garishness of the violence, was even more shocking than what Chloë said,” said Edelstein, who’s the father of a 12-year-old girl. About one particularly brutal moment, Edelstein said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
As far as the movie’s language, “I was weaned on Mamet,” he said. “And I hear kids, when I walk around the neighborhood, I hear little kids use some of those words. I think the genie’s out of the bottle.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.