The 'trickle up' theory of culture

For the under-17 crowd this summer, one of the hottest - and thus coolest - status symbols could be a ticket stub bearing the title "South Park." It serves as proof that the holder gained admission to the crudest, most profane studio movie to find its way into mainstream theaters. Any day now, in fact, clever entrepreneurs may well capitalize on the film's appeal to young viewers by marketing T-shirts emblazoned with the boast, "I've seen 'South Park.'"

A new pledge by theater owners to check IDs makes the R-rated "South Park" the first test of theaters' ability to enforce the code. It poses equal challenges to parents whose children want to see this animated musical starring third-graders who swear like sailors after watching an R-rated movie. They delight in obsessing over bodily functions and shocking adults with their newfound vocabulary.

Late on a steamy afternoon last Saturday, a handful of children, accompanied by parents, were among the crowd filling an Illinois theater showing the film. Toward the back, a little girl in pink shorts, probably no more than seven years old, sat with her mother. Nearby, two elementary-school-age brothers in matching blue-striped shirts were also accompanied by their mother. Off to the right, a baby girl, probably not quite a year old, cried periodically, signaling to patrons that even the tiniest moviegoers are apparently not too young to attend.

A parent in the audience can only wonder: What are these parents thinking of, exposing young children to a film that barely escaped an NC-17 rating?

"South Park" is seductive, winning over critics and audiences with its humor, creativity, musical numbers, and satirical edge. Like cartoon parents in the movie whose "potty-mouthed" children ridicule them for trying to create "a smut-free environment," real-life parents who object to such entertainment are sometimes viewed as hopeless fuddy-duddies and humorless prudes. "Aw, Mom (or Dad)," the prevailing attitude goes, "lighten up."

When the lights came on in the Illinois theater, a father and son hurried out. Asked if his son, who is eight, enjoyed the movie, the father, clearly embarrassed, said, "It was a mistake." With a helpless, what-am-I-supposed-to-do? shrug he explained, "He wanted to see it." Then, as if to rationalize the experience, he added, "He and I have an understanding that we don't talk like this."

Yet "talking like this" has become increasingly routine. Like gratuitous violence in mass entertainment, gratuitous profanity continues to creep into movies and TV.

Until a decade or so ago, mainstream newspapers and magazines refused to print the "f" word. Gradually the prohibitions fell, at least in magazines. Even the august New Yorker, under then-editor Tina Brown, joined the pack, giving profanity a new respectability and treating it as just one more chic word. Ho-hum, no big deal.

An Associated Press poll released last week on a related subject offers a warning of sorts. It reports that Americans are becoming more tolerant of film violence than they once were. Today, 40 percent of adults say they would be less likely to see a film if they knew it was violent. A decade ago, 60 percent gave that answer.

Can a similar desensitization toward obscenity be far behind?

In recent decades, Americans have witnessed an inversion of behavioral standards. Once, what could be called a trickle-down theory of culture prevailed. The highest ideals and standards, so the reasoning went, would elevate and influence the less-educated, less-sophisticated masses.

Now a trickle-up approach prevails, blurring class distinctions. The lowest standards of sexual behavior, dress, and language work their way up the social ladder. As one example, listen to suburban boys on skateboards, who sometimes sound like longshoremen, or to businessmen in expensive cars delivering unprintable tirades to drivers who happen to get in their way.

In questioning where responsibility for a breakdown of standards lies, one "South Park" song asks, "Should we blame government or society or TV?" As if in reply, one mother in the movie absolves herself of responsibility for her obscenity-spouting offspring. "Don't blame me for my son," she says, pointing to the R-rated Canadian movie the children of South Park, Colo., watched over and over.

The creators of "South Park," Trey Parker and Matt Stone, emphasize that a double standard exists in Hollywood. Ratings boards, they say, allow incessant violence but flip out over smutty language.

Perhaps their own movie can have the unintended consequence of provoking a national debate, or at least family discussions, about the destructive effects of profanity and its subtle role in weakening moral fiber. Children too young to see the movie are never too young to hear - again and again - about the power of words.

Who knows? The movie, as it numbs the mind and assaults the ears, could even have another unexpected effect, empowering parents. The old parental warning, "If you say that again, I'll wash your mouth out with soap," seems less quaint than it has for several decades.

Like gratuitous violence, gratuitous profanity is creeping into movies.

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