What does it mean to drop a C-bomb? It depends on the context. In the United States, you’re possibly being vulgar, or punch-you-in-the-face offensive, or perhaps mounting a feminist reclamation of a gendered insult. In Australia, you might be trying to offend, but more likely you’re calling out to a close mate, expressing admiration, or offering a positive appraisal of someone.
If you’re a 17-year-old girl at an all-girls Catholic school in Sacramento, California, it means you’re trying to be transgressive, to impress the popular girls by calling the nun the worst word you can think of. But ironically, if you’re a filmmaker trying to release your Oscar-nominated coming-of-age movie in the land down under, it might mean getting slapped with a stronger C word—classification—than you can afford.
The Media Censorship in Australia Facebook page last week revealed that Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird has been de-cuntified for its Australian release. The classroom scene in which Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird lobs the epithet at Sister Sarah Joan has been dubbed over; one instance has been replaced with the word “cooze” (a North American word many Australians are unfamiliar with) while the other has been removed entirely. It’s understood that Universal Pictures International cut the word—and a glimpse of Playgirl, purchased by a newly legal Lady Bird—after receiving a MA15+ rating by the Australian Classification Board, which would have meant those under the age of 15 were unable to see the film without a guardian. Universal Pictures quickly submitted a modified version of the film, which received a far less restrictive M.
(Here in the U.S., the unmodified film was rated R for language and sexual content, meaning those under 17 were unable to see it without a guardian.)
The irony of Lady Bird’s down-under de-cuntification has not been lost on Australians. Even among people known for their propensity for swearing, cunt is an especially important part of the Aussie vernacular. While for Americans, the word has become something akin to Voldemort (remember guys, fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself), we Australians are considerably more comfortable with the term, saying it with far less gravity and far more fun. It’s ironic that the American-made Lady Bird has been censored for Australian audiences considering Australians often feel the need to censor their own use of the word when they come to the U.S.
Cunt is simply a much less shocking term in Australia—as well as in many other English-speaking nations—than it is here in prudish America. Australians use the word in a light-hearted, mischievous way: In 2016, a guerrilla group from the Northern Territory ran a campaign riffing on C U Next Tuesday called CU in the NT, while in 2012, political satirists the Juice Media created a new critical national anthem, “Australia, Yeah Cunt”—this one riffing on Team America’s “America, Fuck Yeah.”
But what may surprise you is the way in which cunt, like many other swear words, has come to be used as a term of endearment, especially by young men. Though many Aussies still do use cunt in the negative sense (with “cunty” and “cuntish” behavior still holding connotations of nastiness), referring to a person as “cunt,” as opposed to a cunt, is seen among younger generations as a sign of mateship. (“Mate,” meanwhile, is becoming a sign of disapproval—“Mate.”—or distance—“your mate” aka “not mine.” In fact, as the name of one Facebook page with more than 40,000 fans puts it, “The word ‘cunt’ is slowly replacing the word ‘mate’ in Australian society.”) The term is also used in a similar manner to shit in the U.S., as a neutral word onto which to add a positive qualifier: good cunt (see: good shit), funny cunt, Aussie cunt, or, the highest commendation of all, mad cunt.
As a recent episode of the podcast Very Bad Words explains, the word has undergone “pejoration” since its inception, or a shift from neutral to negative. But in Australia, things have come full circle. Of course, it’s still a swear word, and not something to be employed at work or among grandparents or at your all-girls Catholic school (or at 7:30pm live on national television, as TV personality Eddie Maguire accidentally did when he affectionately called a 31-year-old footy player an “old cunt”). But somewhere along the line, the word cunt became about as harmless as the word fuck. This was judicially confirmed last year, when a judge ruled that a sign calling former Prime Minister Tony Abbott a “cunt” (it was intended as a slight in this case) was not actually offensive, because it was unlikely to cause “anger, disgust, resentment, or outrage.”
While the word is not essential to Greta Gerwig’s film, it is somewhat essential to its scene, and to showcasing Lady Bird’s transition to try-hard bad girl—not to mention Saoirse Ronan’s humorous delivery skills. The word doesn’t offend, or cause “anger, disgust, resentment, or outrage” in Australia. So why exactly has ’Straya’s favorite word been cut? For that we Aussies can blame the silly cunts at the Australian Classification Board. As if it’s not bad enough that Australia gets films like Lady Bird four months late, they arrive in an altered form, packaged to please the surprisingly conservative ACB. While the ACB doesn’t directly redub or alter material, it exerts a great deal of media control in Australia with it certification powers (in a few cases, it has censored material by refusing it classification at all). Of course, Universal Pictures could have left the film as is and accepted the MA15+ rating. But this would have have prevented many young teens from seeing an important coming-of-age movie—and an inspiring example to young feminist filmmakers to boot—based on a harmless C-bomb and a dirty magazine. The ACB is out of touch with Australia’s delightfully chill verbal and moral sensibilities, to which I say: Stop messing with our movies, ya cooze.