Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Quick Post About Our Conflicted Society

In my previous post, "Selling a Sexy Halloween to Little Girls," I said the following:

"We're a conflicted society when it comes to sex and violence. We don't seem to mind depictions of violence, thus the many gory Halloween costumes for little boys, including terrifying characters from films that they are too young to see without an adult present. (I've never figured out how simply having an adult present somehow immunizes a child against the disturbing emotional effects of grotesque and gratuitous carnage, but that's the accepted cultural standard.) Yet children are almost fanatically protected against seeing any depiction of sexuality in film.

"Personally, I'm not enthusiastic about exposing young kids to either sex or violence on screen, but, of the two, allowing children to see graphic movie violence is far more disturbing to me."

So, naturally I couldn't resist sharing the Yahoo News item, "Zack and Miri Banned in Utah," about a new film called Zack and Miri Make a Porno:

"Utah Jazz and Megaplex Theaters owner Larry Miller has refused to book the film. The chain's spokesman Cal Gunderson expressed concerns about the film with The New York Post, citing the film's 'graphic nudity and graphic sex' and that it was 'too close to an NC-17.'

"The company's standards seem a little odd considering that the chain had no problems screening ultra-violent fare like 'Saw V,' which features beheadings and explicit self-mutilation. When asked why Megaplex Theaters did not object to the gory horror sequel, Gunderson had no comment.

"Furthermore, the company's decision might make sense if 'Zack and Miri Make a Porno' were in fact pornographic. Instead, Kevin Smith's surprisingly tame and sentimental movie has a few flashes of nudity, a handful of love scenes played mostly for laughs, and a whole lot of foul language."

I haven't seen Zack and Miri Make a Porno, nor have I seen Saw V or any of its predecessors; I won't be seeing them in the future, either. Life is short and vulgar comedies and gory screamers hold no appeal for me. I'm responding strictly based on the fascinating principle behind Mr. Miller's decision that viewing sex (and hearing foul language) is more disturbing than viewing graphic violence.

The Motion Picture Association of America explains an "R" rating as follows:

"An R-rated motion picture, in the view of the Rating Board, contains some adult material. An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously. Children under 17 are not allowed to attend R-rated motion pictures unaccompanied by a parent or adult guardian. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children. Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures."

Both Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Saw V received "R" ratings. At least they aren't considered "PG-13."

Okay, I'm willing to acknowledge that I'm past the age group that makes up the target market for these films. And, yes, I'd be happier if films in general were far tamer than they ever will be again. Still, I'm just mystified by the "logic." Are you?

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob


Alyssa said...

I've always wondered why we have separate standards for children than for adults. While I understand that there are themes that may be for more mature audiences, graphic violence and sex should be inappropriate for anyone to watch.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

I believe that the original intention of the MPAA ratings system was good; as you said, some themes are clearly inappropriate for children, so protecting them from exposure to certain films is important.

I happen to agree with you that watching graphic violence and sex holds no appeal, but the challenging social issue is where to draw the line between "acceptable" and "too much" for adults. There was a time when married couples on TV shows had to sleep in twin beds and not a drop of blood was visible at a crime scene or during a fight. The pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction -- too far for my comfort level, but obviously it's not a problem for a lot of other people.

It's interesting that we have a pejorative term for graphic sex -- pornography -- but no comparable term for graphic violence.

All we can do is make our personal choices and do our best to influence the kids in our lives to do the same.

Anonymous said...

I remember when I was growing up, my mom always complained about the same thing: how even healthy sexuality was completely verboten, but grotesquely horrific violence was A-OK. What kind of message does that double-standard send?

Though I don't think the "adult present" thing is due to a belief that it someone inoculates. Rather, I think that it's just to ensure that an ADULT is making the decision about whether the kid can see the movie or not. The government isn't comfortable telling you what you are and are not allowed to let your own kids see- but they are willing to say what your kids can and can't see without your permission.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Actually, this situation is one in which the government is off the hook. The ratings system is a voluntary one, established by the Motion Picture Association of America back in the sixties in order to appease a nervous public and avoid government interference or local legal action.

You can read about the history here.

You are right that the underlying idea from MPAA was to allow parents to make the decision about which films their kids can see, but the National Association of Theater Owners wanted to make sure that some films were completely off-limits to kids:

"The original plan had been to use only three rating categories. [Former MPAA President, Jack] Valenti felt that parents ought to be able to accompany their children to any movie the parents choose, without the movie industry, government or self-appointed groups interfering with their rights. But NATO urged the creation of an adult-only category, fearful of possible legal redress under state or local law. Hence, the [original] four-category system, including the X rating, was installed."

Of course, this still doesn't address the question that we have: why is on-screen violence okay but sex isn't?

Thanks for your comment.