Big Bird

What are the rules for flipping someone off on network television?

Director Darren Aronofsky flipped off the star of his new movie on Sunday evening during the NBC-televised Golden Globe Awards. The network broadcast Aronofsky’s gesture without blurring out or otherwise obscuring his raised middle finger. Is a Federal Communications Commission fine in the works?

Maybe. The FCC prohibits the broadcast of “indecent or profane” speech from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. (when kids are likely to tune in) and specifies that the “F-Word” and “variants thereof” aren’t kosher. In Central Time, Aronofsky extended the naughtiest digit before the 10 p.m. cutoff, but it’s not absolutely clear whether flipping the bird is considered a variant. The FCC doesn’t explicitly prohibit the gesture, and broadcasters generally allow references or allusions to it. (In the 1994 Seinfeld episode “The Pledge Drive,” for example, George complains that a waitress subtly flipped him off while pointing to a check.) To play it safe, however, broadcasters usually self-censor.

If the middle finger does count as profanity, the FCC might yet overlook Aronofsky’s quick faux pas. Until a few years ago, the commission didn’t bother to levy fines for expletives uttered in passing, so long as the context wasn’t otherwise evocative of the bedroom (sexual) or the lavatory (excretory). As recently as the 1990s, for example, when a newscaster from KDDB in Paso Robles, Calif., blurted, “Oops, fucked that one up,” the FCC let the comment slide. But after U2 singer Bono exclaimed, “This is really, really, fucking brilliant” at the 2003 Golden Globes, the commission cracked down on so-called “fleeting expletives.” It announced in 2004 that “given the core meaning of the F-word, any use of that word or a variation, in any context, inherently has a sexual connotation” and is thus not allowed. The case FCC v. Fox Television, concerning whether the FCC had properly instituted this policy, came before the Supreme Court in November and has yet to be decided—which means that one-off potty words are in limbo.

Before the FCC considers whether to take action against NBC, the organization must receive a formal complaint from a consumer or advocacy group. The Parents Television Council, which led the charge against the Bono blunder in 2003, issued a press release stating that “the middle finger given by Darren Aronofsky to Mickey Rourke during the broadcast is yet another example of arrogant and selfish behavior by some who seem intoxicated by being controversial, rather than eager to celebrate with the viewing audience some of the best artistic performances of the year.” At this time, however, the PTC isn’t encouraging its members to take action.

Bonus Explainer: What’s the origin of the single-digit salute? There are a few contending theories, but the evidence suggests that pissed-off people have been flipping the bird ever since ancient Greece. In the Aristophanes play The Clouds, for example, the character Strepsiades extends “his middle finger in an obscene gesture” at Socrates, then raises his phallus. The Romans, wannabe Greeks in all things culture, adopted the signal from their conquered neighbors and called the middle finger the digitus impudicus.

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Explainer thanks Dan Isett of the Parents Television Council and Ira P. Robbins of the Washington College of Law.