The Shag Gag
To anyone worried about a right-wing moral crusade buttoning up America's entertainment industry, the most notable thing about Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was not its boffo box office (the biggest opening weekend for a comedy ever, etc., etc.). What's more remarkable is that AP2 built an invisible wall between the all-in-good-fun interpretation of the word shag in the U.S., where we're not given to all-in-good-fun interpretations of dirty words, and its meaning in less prudish England, where many people consider shag even coarser than fuck.
While every red-blooded American now knows what shag stands for, it stands for it at an odd distance, the act cushioned into some kind of nonpenetrating, cuddly sex between stuffed animals. But in England, whence the word hails and where the movie opens next week, its meaning is blatant and specific. "Shag has the disgust factor of cunt," as one Brit in New York says. "It's about having sex without any feelings, a sort of subrape," says another.
Shag's meaning hides in plain sight, gleefully writ large on billboards, the sides of buses, and everywhere else. Yet only in Singapore did censors actually try to change the title to a sort of mock-Yiddish The Spy Who Shoiked Me (they soon backed down). But who are we to laugh at them, when Hollywood would never release a movie of this mainstream magnitude called, say, The Spy Who Fugged Me. Hell I mean, heck we wouldn't be allowed to buy talking dolls from a movie here called The Spy Who Screwed Me, Banged Me, Goosed Me, or even Pulled My Skirt Up. (It's true, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut does a mean John Bobbitt, but double entendres rarely ring alarms like a single four-letter word.)
It's curious. First, the Brits send us the play Shopping and Fucking, which The New York Times would advertise only as Shopping and . . . and The Wall Street Journal reviewed as Shopping and [Unprintable]ing. Then, the blokes cleverly smuggle a gay Teletubby across our borders.
The sense among Brits here is that Canadian-born Mike Myers "really pulled one over on the Americans," as Sheenah Hankin, an English psychotherapist in New York, says. "Shag is cruder than fuck." "How can you be cruder than fuck?" I ask. "In England you can," she says. "I say, fuck this shagging business."
"The joke's on you Americans because you don't know what it means," says British writer Peter Godwin. "It slipped in under the radar."
Shagged, he agrees with Hankin, is strong stuff. "In the spectrum of words that describe sex, you have making love on the one side and to shag on the other. It's used mostly by men in pubs who'll say, 'I'm going for a shag,' like they'd say, 'I'm going for a piss.' The woman in question is just a receptacle for the shag.
"But shag also has comic connotations," he adds. "Its purpose is not to excite so much as to amuse. It's crude and offensive, but most women would think twice about making a fuss about it because that wouldn't show any sense of humor."
Joanna Coles, the New York columnist for the Times of London and Godwin's partner, says, however, "Well, I wouldn't go to the streets to protest it. But it's frightfully rude. It's used by lads when they've had too much lager and want very much to do it, but can't because of the lager. I was shocked to see it on posters here. I was quite embarrassed, in fact."
While shag was more or less on par with fuck in the late '60s and early '70s (the word, by the way, is "an archaic relative of 'shake,' which was used in a sexual sense from at least the 16th century," according to The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang by Tony Thorne), it became dated later on and therefore could be said, sometimes, with a dash of irony. The shag gag got a boost with the Britcom Men Behaving Badly, which debuted in 1992 (the lame American imitation died quickly), and then again with the advent of "laddy" magazines like Loaded (which eventually sired the American publication Maxim as well as fratty TV jerk-offs like The Man Show, which recently began airing on Comedy Central).
For all its reputed humor across the pond, though, shag still retains the dignity of the definitely dirty, especially now with the marketing buildup for the July 30 English release of the movie. "I heard these two DJs saying, 'The Spy Who Hmm-Hmmed Me,' " says Sunday Times movie critic Cosmo Landesman in London. "There's a lot of self-censorship here. The word is used in print, but you can't say it out loud on TV or radio. It's like saying fuck, and everyone knows it. I think its comic potential comes out more in print, while if you actually say it, it echoes the fuck more."
Here, however, shag simply echoes "entertainment." Most people over five know it somehow stands for sex, but they don't exactly grasp what level of sex. When I first heard the word in AP1, I had visions of fumbling around on a badly pilled carpet. The many innocuous, American meanings of the word neuter its sexual hit: It's a rug, a hairdo, a dance (when a 1988 movie called Shag came out, British press releases were distributed to convince the populace it wasn't related to that shag). Shag also means "to steal" in a recent rerun of The Sopranos, two car thieves "shag" a license plate. Caddies shag (pick up) golf balls, baseball players shag (catch and throw back) fly balls. It's such a doggone shaggy word that it evokes for some the '50s Disney movie The Shaggy Dog.
"I didn't even know it was a real term," says a colleague. "I thought it was invented for the Austin Powers movies."
All of which makes it a perfect pop word, a light, hollow entity, not a word so much as a balloon, signaling fun, party, and certainly more about flirting than fucking.
Shag, though, did not exactly float over the head of Tamatha Brannon, the Georgia woman who filed a criminal complaint against Toys "R" Us for selling an Austin Powers action figure that said, "Do I make you horny, baby? Do I?" The toy chain says it was a mistake: it was supposed to receive a version of the doll that says merely, "Would you fancy a shag?" But Brannon says she would have protested that as well: "A vulgarism is a vulgarism. It doesn't matter if our kids don't understand the word. If British kids come over here, they'd be subjected to it, too. " (The controversy, of course, resulted in soaring sales.)
It's nice, I guess, to give it to the religious right, to sneak this in under their watch. Wall-to-wall shag is part of the great loosening-up of America, Bob Dole on Viagra at the head of the parade, marching arm in arm with Mike Myers.
But why doesn't it feel like much of an accomplishment? Maybe because what ultimately makes the word's meaning disappear is that corporations have legitimized everything shag with massive marketing tie-ins.
The word's pungent flavor is now spread thin across apple juices and airplane wings. The company that makes Mott's applesauce has launched cocktail mixers called "Shagadelic Shakers"; Virgin Atlantic has a newly named "Shaglantic" airplane; other ad tie-ins and/or movie product placements include Philips HDTV, MasterCard, Starbucks, and, of course, Heineken. Corporations are in effect saying, "Shag is a perfectly upright word because we're upright companies."
And yet the word's raunchy residue gives advertisers just that little jolt of "subversiveness" they need in order to appear cool. It's a daily phenomenon: A powerful marketing assault can simultaneously make something risqué undergo Disneyfication and can make something too wholesome seem rakish. In the process, it becomes as easy for us to ignore the meaning of a word as it is to ignore the constant merchandising of every movie moment.
The press, as it always does, has conspired in this corporate grooviness, splashing every headline and upbeat TV segment about Austin Powers with a cutesy "Oh, behave," "Yeah, baby," or "Shagadelic." It's as if sneaking shag in under the radar is a huge joke being played on the mainstream by the mainstream.
This commercial mojo has such awesome powers that not even Tom DeLay bothered to link shagadelia, along with day care and the teaching of evolution, to the Littleton murders and the downfall of civilization. I called last week to ask the congressman whether he might want to weigh in on this morally offensive word that's getting more play than all 10 Commandments combined. But apparently the magic of the market has rendered shagging invisible even to the Hammer. "He's got so much legislation on his plate," says a press gal, "that I don't think he's paying attention to new movies."
Research assistance: Michelle Miller
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter