The Federal Trade Commission reported recently that Hollywood deliberately markets violent R-rated movies to children, and a resulting Senate hearing has legislators contemplating the ban of such tactics. Yet few Christian movie critics are enthralled with the idea, despite their equal distaste for Hollywood's glamorized violence.
A Chicken Run in every pot?
For starters, Christian critics doubt laws will do any good. "Cigarette companies no longer advertise to youth, and yet smoking among youth is up," notes David Bruce of Hollywood Jesus. "And remember the Reagan commission on pornography? It removed Playboy magazine from all 7-11 stores. Two years later it was back! … No matter what good and useful laws are passed, it will not fully eliminate the problem." World magazine elaborates: "It is not just that the advertising is directed to young people. The products are directed to young people." Michael Elliott of Crosswalk.com says that's the drawback of a free market. "There will always be men and women who will, for self-serving reasons, act in a manner destructive to a moral or decent society. All governmental regulations would do is to change the manner in which such individuals would practice. But their practice will continue as long as the market exists, regulations or no regulations." (Even Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate hearing, concedes in Newsweek that "the free market [does not trump] our children's well-being.")Even if government guidelines were to change Hollywood's output, most critics still wouldn't support them. "Personally, I am not sanguine about any form of government intrusion into the family and its affairs," says Thomas A. Carder, president of Childcare Action Project, "other than necessary services needed and demanded by the families. And neither am I in favor of censorship in the form of government regulation of the entertainment industry." Peter T. Chattaway, a Canadian freelance critic who writes for several Christian publications, also recommends keeping politics out of the movie theater. "In general, I do not trust governments to make wise or effective decisions with regard to the arts. … I've grown up in a culture where the government already regulates what theatres are allowed to show, and to whom, and I have few complaints, but that is partly because the provincial ratings board here has not been as restrictive in its ratings as the MPAA is in theirs. … I suspect any government interference in the United States would just make things more complicated and controversial than they already are."Most fear that, in this case, politicians are acting out of their own interests, not the public's. "To believe that our elected officials are acting out of a genuine concern for the moral well-being of our children," says Elliott, "is to believe that they have managed to live in ignorance of this issue for as many years as they have been in political office." Bruce agrees. "This is an election year. It's politics," he says. Indeed, World reports, "both presidential candidates are scoring points on the issue … [although] focusing on marketing techniques gives [only] the appearance of addressing the problem." Chattaway also questions the politicians' motives, saying he's "suspicious of anyone who would use children to further their own moral or aesthetic agendas."
Reboot: system failure
However, many Christian critics are hopeful that government pressure on the entertainment industry will lead to some self-imposed changes. They joined Roger Ebert and the Directors Guild of America in calling for a new ratings system that's more informative and more nuanced than the current one. "We cannot fix the way R-rated movies are marketed to children without first fixing the R rating," says Matthew Prins of The Film Forum, who argues that the rating tells audiences little about content. "It contains movies that vault from Everyone Says I Love You and Waiting for Guffman to Scary Movie and Eyes Wide Shut. … The R rating is meaningless." Chattaway agrees, citing "a number of PG-13 films, like the last Austin Powers movie, [which] are considerably worse than some of the R-rated films out there. … What is needed is a more nuanced form of rating that can distinguish between films that are basically okay for everybody, films that teenagers should only see with their parents, and films that adults can see without the stigma that is currently attached to the NC-17 rating." This is similar to the plan posed by Ebert, who laments that Jack Valenti's MPAA "can only count beans, or nipples, or four-letter words," leaving values out of the picture. "How do you make an R into a PG-13?" Ebert asks. "Keep the same story and values, but eliminate the nudity and language. Violent action is OK. You can kill people as long as you keep your clothes on and watch the f-word." To solve this, Holly McClure of Crosswalk.com suggests having the Parents Advisory Board or a team of family film critics "give their final thumbs up or down after Valenti's group rates a film."Whether or not a new system is developed, ratings need to be accompanied by better information, Christian critics say. "A lot of the concerns about what kids are watching could be addressed by knowing what it is they're watching in the first place," says Roberto Rivera, a freelance contributor to Web sites like Beliefnet and Boundless and a fellow at Charles Colson's Wilberforce Forum. Parents need "the information necessary to make informed decisions. [For example], networks should be required to really educate viewers about what symbols such as TVPG and TV14 shown before the start of programs mean." Carder concurs: "The only 'regulation' I would agree to is forcing the entertainment industry moguls to accurately inform parents and grandparents of entertainment content and let the parents and grandparents decide for themselves whether a movie is or is not fit for their family or themselves."Several critics suggest stricter enforcement of the ratings, to aid parents. If the government does get involved, McClure suggests fines for "theaters selling tickets to kids under 17," and fines "for kids under 17 caught in an R-rated movie without parents. This would make teens responsible and their parents!" Theaters could also help parents be responsible by offering "affordable nursery/child care, [which] would reduce parents taking kids to see movies they shouldn't, because they would have a built-in sitter." Jeffrey Overstreet of Promontory Artists' Looking Closer proposes other ways the movie industry could aid parents. To prevent teens from buying a PG ticket and sneaking into an R film, he says, "perhaps we need a special kind of theatre for anything rated higher than PG-13."
Meet the Parents
Still, while better ratings or stricter enforcement might help parents, Christian critics contend that the long-term solution starts with better parenting. Elliott says that if parents "would regulate more closely the films, music, and games their children experience, the market would change and the industry would then, out of necessity, regulate itself accordingly." Rivera adds, "Our kids aren't defenseless against this stuff. We don't need to wait for office holders to 'save them.' All we need to do is get off the couch and get a clue. … How many parents can name the movies their kids see?"Others' ideas of good parenting involves more participation than regulation. "What children need," says Overstreet, "above all, are parents that spend time with them, parents that are role models, parents that watch television and movies with them, and talk with them about what is going on there on the screen—teach them to analyze, to know when a movie is falsely representing the world and the way things work." American media saturation has changed parents' responsibilities, Bruce says. "It used to be that you could tell your child to stay away from the polluted dam. But, the dam broke and the polluted flood waters are all around us! We need to teach our children how to deal with it." This doesn't necessarily have to be a dreaded task, either, says Doug Cummings of Movies and Ministry. "I think teenagers should be exposed to questionable content in dialogue with their parents. Do we really want to unleash young adults into the world who have never dealt with the prevalent culture? … Violence is a part of life (and the Bible) and the important question is how it's being presented, not if it's being presented. … Christians need to talk about the culture they consume and discuss meaning on a practical level that transcends the ratings system."The debate between regulation and participation popped up in mainstream sources as well. At Ain't It Cool News, site creator Harry Knowles posted a letter from reader "Dr. Kilgore," who was upset to see 5-year-olds in the theater when he attended the rereleased version of The Exorcist, a notoriously disturbing, R-rated horror film. "What is most upsetting was watching it with the psychotic freaks who dragged their helpless kids to it," says Kilgore. "I swear, a little kid … sounded like he was about to cry, and his mother said to him, 'Shut up and watch.'" Knowles responded in support of parental free will: "You raise your child, and let the family with the well behaved non-crying child that sat next to you raise their child," and explained how his parents let him watch horror as a child, and it didn't harm him. The talkback section was stuffed with argument, mostly in support of Kilgore. "Bottom line, children don't need to be watching this," says "Screamer134." "Find a babysitter or whatever, but there is no valid reason for children to be watching this genre.""Nordling" adds, "Why would you want to torture your kid that way? … This isn't about censorship. It's about not hurting your child." But respondents disagreed over whether to just call it a case of bad parenting, or whether steps should be taken to prevent such parenting. Writers from Australia and Britain found it hard to believe parents had the choice to bring their kids to The Exorcist. "Here in the U.K. there is no way a child would be allowed in to see this film, even if the parent consented," writes "Gooner." "If a film is rated an 18, then the cinema has a responsibility NOT to allow anyone younger in to see the movie and faces severe fines of criminal action if they do." Writers from the United States were more content to just complain, noting that they were anti-censorship, and suggest better ways of parenting. One post pointed out how parents' freedom to raise children as they see fit puts a lot of hope in the individual: "The only way you can argue against people like [vocal media critic Sen. Joseph] Lieberman is to hope that there are some parents with the responsibility to control what their kids watch so the government doesn't try to do it for them," writes "rphilip377." He seems not to share this hope, but for Christian movie critics, this is a belief worth clinging to. "Do not trust political solutions. … The battle can only be won one person at a time," says Bruce.
Steve Lansingh is editor of TheFilmForum.com, an Internet magazine devoted to Christian conversation about the movies.
The Federal Trade Commission's report, "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Review of Self-Regulation and Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording, and Electronic Game Industries," is available online.The Senate has provided the opening statements of those called to testify in the media violence hearings.For updates on Washington's attack on Hollywood, see Yahoo's full coverage area on the subject.
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