Can Canadian kids handle more foul language than American kids?

US & Canada diverge on Bully rating - but is the cursing that takes place in Bully that much more offensive than the context around which the cursing takes place?

Jack Rodolico By Jack Rodolico

If you take your kids to see the movie Bully this weekend, be forewarned: Your child’s sensitive ears will by accosted by the most dreaded of cusses – fuck. But Canadian kids will hear the F-word twice as many times as American youth – and Canadian adults seem just fine with that.

Why else would Canadian provincial authorities stamp a documentary with six F-bombs with PG and even G ratings? In the U.S., more than one F-word instigates an automatic R rating by the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA). The movie’s director, Lee Hirsch, questioned the MPAA’s logic, but was reluctant to push back until he heard about the Canadian ratings.

As the Ottawa Citizen reports, bullying has been called an “epidemic” in the U.S. and Canada. (Click here to explore Latitude News’ Bullying Topic Hub.) And this was a particularly high-profile week for bullying: April 11 was the International Day of Pink – a Nova Scotia-born bullying awareness day – and Bully opens across both countries this weekend.

Award-winning words

Bully is a character-driven documentary that follows five American youth through the torments of bullying. The film, which has won a slew of national and international awards, does more than document the facts – it calls upon kids to speak up for bullied students. Director Lee Hirsch’s goal is that one million kids will see the movie.

Hence Hirsch’s fight with the MPAA. An R rating might discourage parents from allowing their children to see the film. After recent screenings in New York and Los Angeles where the movie was “unrated,” Hirsch removed three F-words while keeping a key bullying scene where the word is used repeatedly. The MPAA has branded the new version PG-13.

That more kids will have a chance to see the film is undoubtedly a positive thing. But the rating battle in the U.S. – and non-battle in Canada – belies a more important question: Do we really think kids are not mature enough to handle a little foul language?

I posed that question to some kids, a dance troupe, in fact. When I went by the Deborah Mason Dance School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, students were working hard on their spring production, “Bridges Not Walls.” The show is a bullying tale that encourages youth to bridge their differences. Here’s what they had to say.

These young ladies may not represent American youth at large, but one has to ask: Is the cursing that takes place in Bully that much more offensive than the context around which the cursing takes place?

As evidenced in the audio clip above, youth understand context. Twelve-year olds can handle cursing in the context of this film, just like five-year olds can handle Bambi becoming an orphan.

The MPAA should not be blamed too hard for their initial rating. After all, it is their job to give guidance to parents, and certainly they must apply a rubric to the 700 to 800 movies they rate each year. The ratings are merely a guide – parents and their children are free to make up their own minds.

But of course, youth – whether American, Canadian, or other – are still capable of poor judgment that leads to awful things. In a previous career, I was a teacher, and colleagues had a favorite story. It was lunchtime in the dining hall, 100 or so 12-year-olds frenetically chowing on salad and grilled cheese. A boy walks out of the bathroom with a smirk on his face, looks my colleague square in the eye, and says, “You know, you can almost flush an entire orange down the toilet.”

Children, youth, kids, teenagers, tweens – whatever you want to call young people – do indeed need supervision, guidance and rules to prevent them from, say, flushing fruit down the toilet – or treating classmates like punching bags. But they are also capable of understanding the rationale for these rules, if adults take the time to explain it to them. It seems the Canadian powers-that-be understand this better than their American counterparts.

The voices you heard above, in order of appearance, were Reina Bass (14), Charlotte Rosenblum (12), Anna Workman (15), Julia Leonardos (16), Perri Wilson (13), and Maria Kaestner (18).