From E.T. to Stranger Things, an Oral History of Kids Cursing On Screen

Jeff Cohen as Chunk in The Goonies
Jeff Cohen as Chunk in The Goonies
Warner Bros.

As the morning rush hour comes to an end on Riverside Drive in Burbank, I sit down with André Gower, an actor who, 30 years ago, played the leader of a pack of preteens battling malevolent forces — Dracula, the Wolf Man and other iconic movie monsters — in The Monster Squad. (Incidentally, the 1987 film, a cult classic among older millennials, was filmed on the backlots of nearby Warner Bros. and Universal Studios.) Gower tells me about a question once posed by an audience member after a screening at Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. 

“'How do you feel now watching this movie and how horrible the kids are to each other, and how terribly they speak? It’s so derogatory, and down-putting, and awful,’” Gower paraphrases. While neither the assembled cast members nor director Fred Dekker could see the woman in the audience due to the blinding stage lights, Gower assumed that she was probably of a younger generation and may have just seen The Monster Squad for the first time.

“Hell, [one of the characters is] called Fat Kid. Couldn’t do that now,” Gower tells me, matter-of-factly.

But that’s among the more tame name-calling and swearing that takes place in The Monster Squad. Jason Hervey, the king of 1980s bullies, who also played Kevin Arnold’s irritating brother, Wayne, on The Wonder Years, calls Fat Kid a faggot. A 5-year-old girl tells the older boys of the squad not to be chicken-shit. Gower’s character, Sean, says that his school principal is “homo-ing out” because he was patting his friend on the shoulder.

Stephen King rules: André Gower, left, and Robby Kiger in The Monster Squad
Stephen King rules: André Gower, left, and Robby Kiger in The Monster Squad
Tri-Star/Lionsgate

“Fred had the best answer,” says Gower, recalling that night in Austin. In an attempt to see the person who posed the question, Dekker put his hand to his brow to shade the light. “'I can’t really see you, but I can hear your voice,’” Gower says, recounting Dekker’s answer. “'I’m going to guess – I don’t know, but I’m going to guess – that you’ve never been a 13-year-old boy.’”

Back in 1984, Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign touted that more Americans were starting families and buying homes under his presidency than during the administration of his predecessor. Reagan’s “Morning in America” promoted a brighter, optimistic future for the 1980s, as opposed to the war-torn disillusionment of the 1970s. With that, the menacing, urban edge of films like Taxi Driver and The French Connection, and the psychological torment of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, faded away, paving a path for films about pre-adolescent kids in the suburbs and small-town America.

Still, the baby boomers directing and penning the coming-of-age films of the '80s had a tendency to subvert the wholesome representations of a suburban upbringing that were prevalent throughout their own youths. Rather than Beaver Cleaver and Opie Taylor uttering "Gee, golly" and "Aw, shucks," kids spoke the way kids actually spoke. They were the audience, after all — what would be the point in shielding them from the language they actually used? 

Director Joe Dante, whose 1984 film Gremlins cemented into our minds the three rules of Mogwai ownership, says that moviemakers of his generation were naturally drawn to setting films in the suburbs. “Many of us spent our childhoods in the suburbs and gravitated to small-town settings as backdrops for our stories,” says Dante. “And there was an enthusiastic audience of modern kids who enjoyed seeing themselves and their concerns onscreen.”

“Somewhere along the line, executives, moviemakers, storytellers, realized that there was this audience there of kids who were not being spoken to, who were not being presented with the things that entertained them,” adds Adventures in Babysitting screenwriter David Simkins. “If you’re going to write for kids, to kids, about kids, I think you have to, obviously, write the way they speak or risk not being truthful.”

"It was nothing like that, penis-breath!" Henry Thomas as Elliott, left, Robert MacNaughton as Michael and Dee Wallace as Mary in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
"It was nothing like that, penis-breath!" Henry Thomas as Elliott, left, Robert MacNaughton as Michael and Dee Wallace as Mary in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Pictures

With the exception, perhaps, of The Bad New Bears in 1976, never before had kids spoken the way they spoke in '80s movies. 

“Ever since the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] rating system kicked in, the barriers to language and violence had been weakening,” Dante says. “The novelty of children swearing onscreen was quickly wearing off, so it became commonplace to write kids’ dialogue the way it occurred in real life."

In the ‘80s, every variation of “shit” became customary for movie kids to say, whether it was “oh shit,” “holy shit,” “no shit,” “shithead,” “chicken-shit,” “shit-heap,” “piece of shit,” “dog shit,” “eat shit” or “you gotta be shittin’ me.”

“It’s sort of, like, the gateway curse word,” The Monster Squad's Gower says with a laugh.

Jeff Cohen, who played The Goonies’ lovable loudmouth Chunk, says most of the cursing in the beloved 1985 film was the result of improvisation at the behest of director Richard Donner. “He really wanted us to just kind of behave like kids,” says Cohen, who's now an entertainment lawyer with his own Beverly Hills firm, Cohen Gardner LLP. “I hate to be the old man saying, ‘Back in the day ...,’ but I think kids were less supervised in the ‘80s versus 2016. If there’s a question of ‘if kids are unsupervised how are they going to behave?’ the answer to that [is],” Cohen says, breaking into laughter, “they’re going to fight, they’re going to curse and they’re going to be kids.”

1982 was the year that saw E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial's Elliott call his older brother Michael "penis-breath" at the kitchen table. You'll also catch a couple "shits" and "douchebags" and a "son of a bitch." The Spielberg film set off a spate of movies that similarly centered on groups of young people but had themes that would just as easily appeal to the adults in the audience: parents on the verge of divorce in The Monster Squad, home foreclosures in The Goonies, a single mom starting over in The Lost Boys. It was a new era of not talking down to kids.

Jeff Cohen, left, Corey Feldman, Jonathan Ke Quan and Sean Astin in The Goonies
Jeff Cohen, left, Corey Feldman, Jonathan Ke Quan and Sean Astin in The Goonies
Warner Bros.

Jane Goldenring, who in 1987 worked as a Disney production executive on Adventures in Babysitting, adds, “Kids were going to much more sophisticated movies that were meant for adult eyes more than kid eyes for the most part.”

Gower points out that from the opening moments of The Monster Squad we quickly learn that the horror-comedy isn't a typical kids film. “I mean, the movie opens up with [a vampire], who used to be a really attractive woman, eating a possum! And then we kill her.” We also learn from a brief shot of a forearm tattoo that Scary German Guy, the Nosferatu-looking neighbor who helps the kids fight the forces of evil, is a Holocaust survivor. Gower says, “No kids that saw the movie got it. They don’t understand it yet, but later on you’re like, ‘Oh, wait.’”

Terry Rossio, the co-screenwriter of 1989’s Little Monsters as well as Aladdin, Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean films, says, “You don’t pull back just because it’s a feature with kids.”

This was the case with Stand by Me, Rob Reiner’s highly regarded 1986 adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body. The language, much of it lifted straight from the pages of King’s book, helped paint a realistic portrait of four pre-adolescent boys coming to terms with their own mortality after stumbling upon the corpse of a missing child.

“We thought it was incredibly important to keep Stephen King’s original dialogue intact,” says Stand by Me co-screenwriter and co-producer Bruce Evans. With Reiner shooting The Princess Bride in England, Evans says it fell to him and his writing partner/co-producer Raynold Gideon to fight the fight with Columbia over keeping the “fucks” in the film.

“There were seven of them in the movie,” Gideon adds. “Columbia wanted a PG-13 film.”

With the exception of Stand by Me, “fuck” was generally reserved for ‘80s teen fodder, films like The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Heathers, all of which were rated R. That being said, 13-year-old Billy Kopeke (Jared Rushton) delivered one of the all-time great F-bombs when he demanded to know from Tom Hanks’ Josh Baskin, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” in PG-rated Big. In Lucas,  Corey Haim, who played the film’s scrawny but highly intelligent 14-year-old title character, brazenly stood up to the high school football coach, calling him a “dumb fucking jock.”

Wil Wheaton as Gordie Lachance, left, Corey Feldman as Teddy Duchamp, River Phoenix as Chris Chambers and Jerry O'Connell as Vern Tessio in Stand By Me
Wil Wheaton as Gordie Lachance, left, Corey Feldman as Teddy Duchamp, River Phoenix as Chris Chambers and Jerry O'Connell as Vern Tessio in Stand By Me
Columbia Pictures

Gideon and Evans say the studio behind Stand by Me felt that no kid would go see an R-rated movie, even if it was about kids their own age.

“We said, ‘Are you crazy? They will flock to go see an R-rated movie about themselves,’” Evans says. “We turned out to be right.”

More important, the language in Stand by Me was character-motivated, as each of the film’s four boys experienced troubling conflicts at home. “All of the kids are walking around with a tremendous amount of anger and searching for a way to express that, and language is one of the ways to do it,” says Evans.

Sometimes, though, these behind-the-scenes battles with the studios didn’t end in victory for the filmmakers.

“Even in the ‘80s you had a line. It’s not ‘anything goes,’” Cohen says, as he refers to some improvised material that didn’t make it into The Goonies.

“Supposedly, the original draft [of The Monster Squad] that Shane Black wrote was an R-rated script,” says Gower. “There were a couple more F-bombs used strategically, but the producers were like, ‘Yeah, this can’t happen.’” The Monster Squad was given a PG-13, the rating that was ushered in during the mid-’80s when parents threw a fit after a man’s beating heart was ripped out of his chest Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Thirty years after fighting Dracula in The Monster Squad, André Gower is still acting and develops projects through his own production company.
Thirty years after fighting Dracula in The Monster Squad, André Gower is still acting and develops projects through his own production company.
Courtesy of André Gower

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Similarly, the language in Adventures in Babysitting was slightly rougher in early drafts of the script, says Simkins, as it was originally told from the point of view of one of the kids instead of the babysitter. “The central relationship was between Brad and his friend and if I remember correctly … they did a lot of down-and-dirty talking about love and relationships and sex,” says the screenwriter. “It was more of a boy-centric film at that time.” The coarse language of Babysitting was later toned down when it became Chris’ (Elisabeth Shue's) story, which was more nuanced than Brad’s. Chris, a high school senior, gets to throw down, though, when she tells a gang member on the Chicago El train, “Don’t fuck with the babysitter!”

“Chris uses the word as a weapon,” says Simkins. “It wasn’t used gratuitously.”

“They called it in those days – I’m sure they still say this – a ‘non-sexual fuck,’” adds Goldenring, laughing.

In an effort to quickly put Brad at odds with his younger sister, Sara, he uses a pejorative that easily makes today’s audiences cringe. Brad tells Sara that her hero, the Mighty Thor, is a homo.

“That one hurts me. I cannot tell you how much it hurts,” says Simkins, looking back.

Babysitting isn’t alone in casting aspersions like this. My Bodyguard, Sixteen Candles, The Gate, Weird Science and Stand by Me, among others, use some form of “homo” or “faggot.”

Simkins adds that in 1986, when the screenplay was being developed, those words were not, unfortunately, as frowned upon as they are today. The film’s creative team discussed the idea that kids, who tend to be careless with language, weren’t fully aware of the meanings behind the words they were using.

Keith Coogan as Brad in Adventures in Babysitting
Keith Coogan as Brad in Adventures in Babysitting
Disney/Touchstone Pictures

“I don’t think you realize the actual impact or meaning [as a kid],” says Gower. “It’s a very interesting look back to go, ‘Things are not the same.’”

Simkins’ first draft of Babysitting aligned with the sentiment that director Fred Dekker shared with the audience member at the Alamo Drafthouse screening of The Monster Squad. With the exception of a few John Hughes films — Uncle Buck, Some Kind of Wonderful and Vacation, which featured smart-aleck preteen girls — these movies, for the most part, were about boys and the language that boys use.

From The Goonies to The Lost Boys, female characters tend to not curse as much as the boys, if they curse at all. 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills’ is one of the few ’80s films to feature a cast dominated by pre-adolescent female characters, but not a single one swears. However, a Université Lumière Lyon 2 study of profanity and gender found that men and women ages 18 and older curse about the same amount. (The study did find that men use the word “fuck” more often than women.) What does this say about kids, though?

Cohen, who was 10 when he made The Goonies, says, “Growing up, my family was my mother, my sister and me, and they could out-curse me any day.”

A scene in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, the filmmaker’s love letter to the Amblin films of the ’80s, suggests that boys swearing in front of girls is just plain ungentlemanly. Charles, an aspiring young director making a zombie film, calls someone a pussy in front of his friends, Joe and Jen. Joe, mortified, gives Charles a stern look and rolls his eyes in the direction of Jen. Charles immediately gets the hint and apologizes.

What’s undeniable is the slant that’s present today was present back in the ’80s and addresses why girl characters weren’t depicted cursing like the boys: Female characters, especially in action-adventure films, usually were relegated to supporting roles. “We’re only beginning to address that imbalance,” says Dante, “but as you can see from the hysterical reactions to the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, it’s not going all that well.”

Rossio adds, “Until recently there were no raunchy teen comedies with girls in them. Even in American Pie, it was the boys who were out to lose their virginity, and the girls were secondary characters.”

Evans says he and Gideon tried desperately to get a studio to bite on an adaptation of Judy Blume's coming-of-age novel Summer Sisters, in which preteen girls use a fair amount of colorful language. At the end of the day, though, no studio was interested.

Throughout the early to mid-’90s, films with strong preteen female characters, like My Girl and Now and Then, managed to keep alive the warm summer nights of pre-adolescent independence depicted in the ’80s, with language, insults and all.

’ However, as young audiences of the ’80s grew up, so too did the characters. The curse words that had been used so eloquently by kids were passed along to the older brothers and sisters of the decade in films like Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, American Pie and Can’t Hardly Wait. Son of Rambow (2007), Dante’s own The Hole (2009), The Kings of Summer (2013) and Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) are among the few recent films successful at capturing some of that ’80s edge.

Christina Ricci, left, Gaby Hoffmann, Ashleigh Aston Moore and Thora Birch in Now and Then
Christina Ricci, left, Gaby Hoffmann, Ashleigh Aston Moore and Thora Birch in Now and Then
New Line Cinema

“Kids in movies now are Harry Potter–type kids. You couldn’t get Stand by Me on now,” says Gideon.

Ultimately, the landscape of films featuring pre-teen characters has changed dramatically, but not in a way that necessarily reflects the harsh culture in which we live.

“Did we go forward and evolve or did we regress or is it both at the same time?” asks Gower. “It seems like it’s topsy-turvy [considering] what we’re exposed to today.” South Park, he says, is one exception, but content creators appear to be more restricted when it comes to portraying kids onscreen. Gower imagines, “That writer is sitting at a keyboard, like, ‘I can’t type this line. I would love to because this is exactly what this kid would say to this kid in this situation.’”

The Goonies actor-turned-lawyer Jeff Cohen at his law offices of Cohen Gardner LLP
The Goonies actor-turned-lawyer Jeff Cohen at his law offices of Cohen Gardner LLP
Courtesy of Jeff Cohen

Evans likens this absence of cinema’s cursing kids to the fact that there’s an even greater corporate influence on studios today. “If language is going to turn off a certain segment of the audience, [the studios] won’t do that. So you find yourself making sanitized versions of things.”

Thirty years ago, cable programming for kids was limited to the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and — let’s face it — both channels were much cooler then. (I distinctly remember my grandmother getting irked over a You Can’t Do That on Television sketch that explored divorce.) Even HBO had programming that appealed to a broad audience. Remember Encyclopedia?

’ “It wasn’t expected [in the ’80s] that kids and parents were going to be getting their content 100 percent from different platforms,” says Cohen. “The benefit that comes out of that is you have family movies that kids are supposed to see that are kind of less dumbed down than maybe some current fare.

"You know, we all survived,” Cohen says, laughing. “We had cursing in our movies and we were OK. As long as you stick together and save the day, if you say ‘shit’ a couple of times, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world, you know?”

Caleb McLaughlin, left, Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things
Caleb McLaughlin, left, Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown in Stranger Things
Netflix

Netflix recently doubled down on this void in film and television, not to mention audiences hungry for '80s nostalgia. Stranger Things seemed to come out of nowhere, dosing us with just enough sentimentality for ’80s Spielberg while also remaining completely original. Even better? The kids of Stranger Things mouth off with natural abandon. (In fact, I haven’t heard kids speak this gloriously since Mouth told Rosalita about Mr. Walsh’s sexual torture devices in the attic and the cocaine and heroin stashed in the Walshes’ dresser draws in The Goonies.)

Stranger Things makes a case that there’s validity to kids cursing in film and television, because kids use bad language to intimately connect with one another. Rossio says, “If you’re in the group, you get to swear a little bit and people accept you.”

A second season of Stranger Things has just been announced. Also exciting is an update of Stephen King’s IT that sees the heroes, the Losers’ Club, take on Pennywise the Clown in the 1980s instead of the late ’50s as depicted in the novel. As in King’s The Body, IT portrays kids with authentic voices, including that of the group’s lone girl member. Could all this mean the start of a cinematic renaissance of cursing kids?

Shit, who knows?

Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1

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