FX's Feud just used a word that is rarely heard on television, let alone ad-supported basic cable.
Feud: Bette and Joan, from prolific producer Ryan Murphy, explores the famed behind-the-scenes clash between Hollywood stars Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). During Sunday's series debut, Stanley Tucci's studio chief Jack Warner — in a heated discussion with Alfred Molina's Robert Aldrich — angrily called Davis a "cunt." It came in a scene during which Aldrich was attempting to convince Warner and his studio to distribute What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? starring Davis, the woman who famously sued Warner Bros. to get out of her deal.
"We felt that it wasn't gratuitous," Feud showrunner Tim Minear tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It was gratuitous coming from the mouth of the character but it wasn't gratuitous in terms of the story that we're telling. One well-placed epithet like that is like a bracing, toss of cold water in the audience's face and it says something. Not if you're dropping it every five seconds. So that's why it's there; it's there because that's the ugly soul that we're exposing a little bit."
The c-word is rarely heard on television (though it is more common on premium television and streaming, where viewers pay to receive services like HBO and Netflix). Basic cable network FX does not face the same scrutiny from the FCC, which governs language on broadcast television networks and has a strict rules about obscene speech. Broadcast networks are prohibited from using language considered profane — words that are "so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a nuisance."
Of course, Feud's 10 p.m. time slot was likely a factor in getting the "c-word" through on FX. (FX declined to comment for this story.) Even though FX operates outside of the FCC's standards, the broadcast bar is more relaxed for programming airing after 10 p.m.
Minear noted that producers "went back and forth" about whether or not to use the word and once they settled on moving forward with it, there was a negotiation with the network, with Murphy handling that directly. "They trust him," Minear said, adding that producers "try not to exploit the freedoms that we have."
For its part, FX has been more willing to push the envelope where the story dictates it. Last season, another Murphy anthology — Emmy darling People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story — featured Sarah Paulson's Marcia Clark calling Courtney B. Vance's Johnnie Cochran a "motherf—er." Sunday's Feud debut also debuted with a TV MA-L rating, signaling viewers that the hour contained strong/coarse language.
As for the liberties Feud took with the scene in question, Minear told THR that producers "imagined" that is how the exchange between Aldrich and Warner went. "That's how we imagined it would have gone. But it probably went something like that because Warner was definitely not very enthusiastic about picking up this particular project, especially with these women in it."
It's also worth noting that Feud was not the first show to feature the "c-word." Other shows to have muttered it include HBO's Sex and the City and The Larry Sanders Show, while NBC's 30 Rock featured an episode in season one titled "The C Word," though it was never directly mentioned onscreen.
Meanwhile, representatives from conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council — informed of the word's use before the episode's broadcast — were unsurprisingly not happy with FX.
"That FX would use such severe dialogue demonstrates that the network has no standards.... If one FX employee used the 'c-word' term to describe a female co-worker, that employee would be summarily fired," PTC president Tim Winter tells THR. "It is indeed ironic that one division of News Corp. would employ such vile dialogue about a woman as 'entertainment' while another division of News Corp. [Fox News] is mired in disgraceful controversy because of allegations of wanton sexual harassment. It could increase potential liability for News Corp. should female employees allege a hostile work environment."
Amber Dowling contributed to this report.