Cinematic Violence and Sex

If you live in America, which I’m assuming just about every reader of this does, you run the risk of subscribing to the cinematic culture woven by media companies, the MPAA, and big-budget Hollywood, a key message of theirs being that violence is not too terrible, but sex is wildly immoral. Just about all other countries will give a violent film a harsher rating than a film with a lot of sexual content. Many Americans think this is backwards because they’ve been raised by a Puritanical culture that is afraid of sexuality; however, Europeans think we’re backwards because violence kills and sex does not, yet we glorify the former and vilify the latter. They watch our media and then see how violent our nation is in terms of foreign affairs, and no one is surprised.

But if I have kids one day, I want to be the media savvy dad who sits down and watches movies with them in an active way so as to work against the damaging cinematic portrayal of violence and sex and keep my kids’ perspectives from being skewed. Films that show women being degraded and treated as sexual objects will receive an R-rating usually; however, a film that showcases a woman having an orgasm in a safe, consensual sexual relationship will likely receive an NC-17 rating.

I’m confused.

But teenagers aren’t stupid or unobservant. They’re well aware a movie with violence will have a lighter rating (Transformers), while a movie with sex has a harsher rating (American Beauty). Though nobody vocally says this to them (except, perhaps, in religious circles or at home), the underlying thinking is reinforced that, “Sex is worse than violence. Violence is less inappropriate”—read here more acceptable—“than sex.”

I grew up in the conservative culture that saw violence in film as being okay and sex as needing to be avoided at all costs. For example, I saw Braveheart when I was fifteen. We watched the war scenes and saw every man, horse, and castle annihilated without a thumb on the remote control, but we fast-forwarded through the brief scene after William Wallace’s wedding where his new bride’s breasts are briefly exposed. I remember the rationale from my youth: “That violence is fake. That isn’t real blood, real guts, real bullets, or real death. But those are real nipples.” Never mind that those actors aren’t actually having sex because the counter to that was, “Yes, but it’s heavily implied.” Okay, true. But so is the violence in Braveheart. In fact, I think we can pretty safely say it goes beyond implied.

I can now safely say I was completely desensitized to realistic violence for a good while. Its gory nature had really no effect on me when I saw it onscreen. In the last five years, though, the regularity of my movie viewing has declined significantly because of the matching downturn in my readily available cash. In that time my easily-made-queasy stomach has returned, and it’s a welcome reunion. But even as overloaded as carnage is in American cinema, that Braveheart-esque violence is better than the abstract violence in, say, James Bond films.

Director Darren Aronofsky puts an interesting view forward. He says movies like James Bond should be rated R since it has abstract violence (Pierce Brosnan shoots twelve men and none of them bleed), and adults are more capable of reasoning and understanding that this violence is cartoonish, possesses no shred of reality, and thus, downplays violence’s consequences. Most teenagers, however, don’t have the same maturity of viewership and will come away unaware of the visceral actuality that is the carnage of violence and murder. Aronofsky says we should, instead, rate Saving Private Ryan PG-13 so younger kids can see the reality of violence and war and be turned off to it. They should be allowed to see that young soldier lying on the beach screaming while trying to hold in his spewing intestines and how he’s not having a good time, is hurting, and wants to die. Maybe, then, the younger ones would not come away thinking violence is cool.

While Aronofsky’s idea is a good one, I do fear, though, it’s too late for it to work. Our cultural glorification of violence has already done enough damage. I remember hearing stories when Saving Private Ryan was released about how teenagers walked out of the theatres going, “Did you see that one guy blow up when he put the sticky bomb on the tank?!? That was awesome!!!” while war veterans from the same audience were leaving the movie visibly shaken by the realistic footage they’d just seen. While I don’t doubt the movie affected and moved some teenagers, I can’t help but think there weren’t many. If a film has something really cool in the special effects department, often they’ll latch onto that and revel in it—even if it was gratuitous. Because, after all, it was fake anyway.

And so parents are more likely to let their kid see Rambo, but not American Beauty. We’re okay with violence entering our home via the tube, but not copulation. But we all know this is the inverse deep down. If you disagree, let me give you an example. If my son comes home one night and is going to tell me either, “Dad, I shot and killed a man,” or, “Dad, I got a girl pregnant,” I will ardently hope my boy’s a baby daddy. I’d rather neither happen while he’s under my roof, but one is obviously less tumultuous than the other.

This same kind of separation, though, does not occur on the screen, and, given some proclamations I heard growing up, I think it’s affected some of the moralistic home culture’s psyche. When I was little, people sometimes would point to open sexuality as the axis of the degradation ripping apart our society, and I nodded along as a youngster like a good disciple, but now I wonder. I would have thought the culprit of cultural debasement to be decades of crimes against humanity that culminate in bloodbaths, but I suppose I could be wrong.

Now, I mentioned being a media savvy dad one day. I’m not saying I’m going to sit down and watch porn with my kids instead of Gladiator, but the reminder should stay at the forefront of how the conservative culture often twists terms and is quick to label things as “pornographic” when they are anything but.

We should stop for a moment and keep in mind that pornography is not so much a noun as it is a verb. Each person makes a decision whether or not to turn a serious movie into something pornographic. Ergo, “nudity” and “pornography” are not immediately the same thing. If I watch American Beauty, I have two options: I can watch the scene with the exposed breasts as the director intended it to be watched—in a serious, mature, key-to-the-story manner—or I can pick up the remote, press pause, and foam at the mouth over the girl’s bare chest. I alone make that decision. We as human beings have the potential to turn anything that isn’t intended to be titillating into something pornographic. Some will argue the film industry makes it easier to do this, that they’re not helping anything, that they are “giving the devil a foothold,” but that’s an argument for another time, one to which my counterargument is, “No one’s making you watch that movie.”

Nor would I make my children watch American Beauty, even though I do love that film. But if, for some reason, my kids heard about it and asked if they could see it, I would only let them view it if I felt like they were ready. And not “ready” in a “I think you’re old enough to see real boobs” sense, but rather, by gauging whether or not my kids can approach that kind of movie with the maturity and responsibility it requires.

And it takes knowing your children and being invested in their lives to make that kind of call. (This is why I’m not mad about the decisions made around Braveheart. My parents knew me better than myself at that age, and so they made the call they saw fit to make. I would do the same for my children.) If I feel like my son at age fifteen is mature enough to watch American Beauty to where he’ll want to discuss it with me afterwards, then I’m all for sitting down and watching it with him. If I feel like he’s responsible enough to watch it and won’t shy away from my questions like, “Why do you think Thora Birch’s character exposed her breasts to the boy next door? Do you think she did that as a response to how distanced her parents had become?” then I have no problem with him watching it. But if I feel like he can’t watch that scene without turning it into something titillating, then of course I’ll be holding the movie back.

But with many of these films, the challenge in determining appropriateness isn’t so much done morally as it is thematically. A lot of these movies with sexual content aren’t made for the sake of visual sexual gratification (though some are, but you can easily perceive the stark difference between American Pie and American Beauty); they’re created to generate discussion and conversation, to challenge us, to test our preconceived notions about humanity. That demands our attention, but only if we’re ready to meet these films with the maturity they require. And to know if my kid could handle it responsibly means I have to actually have a relationship with my child.

I think that’s what I come back to. To work against the odd cultural view our nation has of violence versus sex, there’s very little I can do. But I can affect those around me—like my own kids, should I have any one day. And I think that’s sufficient.

Much love.

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2 comments
  1. Kevin C. said:

    Really enjoyed this post, Nelson. (And of course my love for American Beauty helped….)

    -Kevin

    • You introduced me to Sam Mendes’ masterpiece. I’m forever grateful.

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