Bowdlerism: The Hilarious Hypocrisy of American Television


"Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice."-Henry Louis Gates

I’ve developed a bit of a fascination with the practice of bowdlerism after stumbling upon an edited movie quote compilation on Youtube. Bowdlerism (according to is defined as “to expurgate by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar”.

We have all had a run in with this practice and as a film dork, I remember outright refusing to watch the edited “Made for TV” versions because they compromise the artist’s vision. If everything on screen is there for a reason (or at least that's what every film school preaches), then by altering or flat out omitting lines and scenes from the finished product, you are trouncing an artist’s work; And that ain’t cool man.

To me though, Bowdlerism is much more hilarious because of the implications it has. In the United States, we will immediately edit out certain swear words, but consistently depict or imply extreme violence. Now as someone who often finds subtext to be more entertaining and full of humor itself, I think this is a comedy goldmine. Everyone has been annoyed by this practice because more often than not, it’s sloppy, lazy, and just downright gratuitous. Which is quite ironic considering that bowdlerism itself is about excision, not excess.

While people often point to “I’ve had with these monkey fighting snakes, on this Monday to Friday plane!” as the holy grail of neutered cinematic dialogue, my favorite comes by way of Bryan Singer’s crime movie masterpiece, The Usual Suspects. Let's take a look at the iconic lineup scene in all of it's unedited, unadulterated glory.

Epic right? Well let's take a look at that same scene, but this time, after a little... Tender loving care.

Right away, you'll notice an immediate drop in the quality of the recording itself, and while we can't really blame the uploader (I mean why the "freak" would they have a DVD quality, edited for TV scene at their disposal?), this is the perfect representation of the new, post-bowdlerized product. The scene goes from characters portraying a bit of braggadocio by laughing at the futility of the lineup itself, to appearing as if the characters are amusing by the sheer ridiculousness of the "Fairy Godmother" line.

i've noticed in the vast majority of edited cinema, the films themselves often come off as parody or satire, because we have a line up full of men that we're supposed to believe are degenerate scumbags, spouting off dialogue like "gimme the frickin' keys you fairy godmother brotha bugga!".

Many of the films that are edited, shouldn't even be on TV in the first place. Take Scarface for instance, A bonafide classic about the meteoric raise of psychopathic drug lord, Tony Montana. Now apparently, the implications themselves are fine. The violence and drug use (or the implications of drug use) are acceptable but not the swear words that individuals of ill-repute often use to enhance their already colorful, slang infused lexicon. Now to be fair, the TV edit of Scarface is actually pretty tame on both fronts, but this is pretty gross in and of itself because it allows the film to shy away from the harsh realities of the illegal drug trade.

Then there are shows on Primetime television like The Walking Dead that are uncompromising in it's depiction of hyper-violence. This scene, happens all the way in Season Five so if you're still catching up, skip ahead. Let's just say i'd rather have my mouth washed out with soap a billion times as an alternative to what this person was on the receiving end of.

My point being, that scene happened... But Bruce Willis is immediately roped in during Die Hard 2 when he delivers his iconic line, "Yippie Kay-Yay Motherfucker!"

All i'm saying is that I want a little consistency. Where are our heads as a nation if we believe it's apropos to butcher dialogue because of a few swear words, but allow the individual delivering said dialogue to be covered in blood?

In Showgirls, a now universally panned work about the comeuppance of a stage-worker, they inserted digital bras (I would link it, but the clip was taken down from Youtube) during the nude dancing scenes. It just says a lot about our country when breasts and foul language are swiftly kiboshed, but dismemberment and other forms of violence are sometimes completely unaltered.

"Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself." -Potter Stewart.