In the first ten minutes of the first episode of the show, Dustin proclaims that he and his buddies are in “deep shit” during their Dungeons & Dragons campaign. This casual cuss word doesn’t feel like a forced punchline or a lazy way to try and shock the audience. When he says it, you believe that’s what he would say. It sounds real. There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things. The nonstop action. The plentiful eighties references. Steve’s bitchin’ hair. But perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of the show is the gloriously natural way that each of the kids swear.
It’s not just Dustin. All of these mischievous preteens are masters of cursing, throwing out “shit”, “son of a bitch”, or even “nasty-ass rash” in a way that feels authentic. Some might find the cursing needlessly crass, but the reality is this is how junior highers talk to one other when their parents or teachers aren’t around. And to be honest, it’s pretty funny to hear kids say a bunch of ultimately harmless words that they aren’t supposed to say. But Stranger Things is hardly the first time a kid has shown off their potty mouth onscreen; it’s merely continuing the storied tradition.
While swearing in movies has existed for as long as there have been movies, kids were mostly seen as too innocent to utter an expletive. Television shows or movies would occasionally touch on the topic of a child swearing (that episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Richie starts writing bad words on the chalkboard at school; when Ralphie drops “fuuuuuudge” in A Christmas Story) but it was largely portrayed as a habit that would get you scolded or sent straight to hell.
So when did that change? It’s difficult to point to one specific moment but the shits (and craps and fucks) really started to hit the fan with 1976’s Bad News Bears, in which the rambunctious little league teammates let loose a tapestry of nearly every swear imaginable.
The success of Bears blazed the trail of pre-teen profanity that marked the eighties. As families tried to leave behind the chaos of the sixties and seventies in favor of the warm, wholesome embrace of Reagan’s America, film placed its focus firmly on exploring and often subverting the myth of the suburbs, where kids were safe, sound, and perpetually bored. What better way to show the angst that existed underneath the shallow facade of suburban bliss than a kid near a typical white picket saying “shit” or “fuck”?
But it worked. And it was entertaining. Suddenly, there was an endless supply of kids tossing their inhibitions into the wind and saying whatever “shit” “ass” or “fuck” they pleased. The late eighties were the golden era of foul-mouthed movie kids. The Goonies (1985) got it started with Chunk’s sweet naïveté being undercut by his undying love for the word “shit”. Then came Stand By Me (1986), which offered a realistic depiction of swearing as a normal part of the preteen vernacular rather than simply a way to get a response from audiences.
By the time Monster Squad (1987) — a movie known as much for its foul language as the titular fearsome creatures — arrived, kids swearing was no longer seen as out of the ordinary for movies. In fact, for movies not just aimed at younger kids, it was almost expected. Big (1988) might be remembered as a light, family-friendly movie but it also features one of the greatest movie f-bombs of all time. Lucas, Adventures in Babysitting, and countless other coming-of-age stories weren’t using swears simply as tactics. And even on TV, known hooligan Bart Simpson wasn’t afraid to toss out an occasional swear, so long as it was accepted by the TV censorship bureau.
But all good things must come to an end and when the nineties hit, kids swearing onscreen once again became a rarity. Cursing was used for emphasis instead of as a part of a naturalistic dialogue. The Sandlot featured a whole scene of crass trash talking but not once did Ham or his preppy rival drop a well-timed “motherfucker” or “son of a bitch.” Instead, the movie’s two uses of “shit” were saved for bigger moments, like when Benny realizes the Beast is out to get him.
Still, even in the dark ages of kid swearing, there were always some exceptions to the rule. From the minute it debuted in 1997, South Park became notorious for the pure volume of filth that spewed out of these animated fourth graders from Colorado. Hardball (2001) managed to use one kid’s exceptional ability to swear as a tool to endear him to the audience. Ricky Bobby’s sons had no issue threatening to go “apeshit” on their grandpa in Talladega Nights. In Role Models (2008), prepubescent Ronnie spends most of his screentime creatively cursing at Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott. Hit Girl from Kickass (2010) nonchalantly dropped the c-word while beating the shit out of a bunch of henchmen.
Modern movies have not yet matched the profane peaks of the eighties but we may be in the midst of a nice little cursing renaissance. Interestingly, the modern movies and shows most likely to have kids using bad words are those in the eighties, including Stranger Things and the IT remake. Swearing still exists on screen, but a lot of screenplay writers and actors don’t have a casual grasp of it unless they’re creating an homage to filthier-mouthed times.
Whatever the reason, we’re happy to see a show as popular as Stranger Things so prominently featuring kids swearing. Because, done well, a group of kids cursing makes the audience feel like they are seeing kids act the way kids act. And in the age of the internet, it’s only become more clear just how much swearing has become a foundational aspect of coming of age in America. If we are entering a new era of kid cursing, let’s welcome it with hope, happiness, and a whole lot of f-bombs.