There's a tale told about grandparents who refused to take the grandkids to see a classical orchestra perform. Asked why, they explained that it was a bad influence. Too much sax and violins.
I was reminded of that joke by fantasy author George R. R. Martin's reply to those concerned about the graphic sex in his books (and the TV show based on them) (via BoingBoing):
“I can describe an axe entering a human skull in great explicit detail and no one will blink twice at it. I provide a similar description, just as detailed, of a penis entering a vagina, and I get letters about it and people swearing off,” he said.
“To my mind this is kind of frustrating, it’s madness. Ultimately, in the history of [the] world, penises entering vaginas have given a lot of people a lot of pleasure; axes entering skulls, well, not so much.”
I agree entirely with Martin, which puts me at odds with various groups, not least the MPAA, which assigns movie ratings. You can stab, shoot, maim, beat, spindle, and spool movie characters without getting an R rating, but show them having sex or using language that real people use to nonviolently release anger, and you've got a restricted audience. Ditto for TV: astounding numbers of people on TV are shot, stabbed, and maimed, but heaven forfend we should see Janet Jackson's breast for a moment, or that someone should drop an f-bomb.
This was brought home to me last weekend, when I presented at and attended the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation. ASA is a group of scientists who are also evangelical Christians. They are mostly squared away on evolution, though there was a sizable presence from the ID creationist Discovery Institute.
I'll have more to say about the conference another day, but there was a moment during a keynote which seemed emblematic of the experience. The conference's theme was "Science, Faith & the Media: Communicating Beyond Books," so they invited a Hollywood producer in to address the crowd. The speaker, an evangelical Christian, has produced blockbusters including 4 Star Trek movies and X-Men movies, but also produced the Left Behind movies (a Rapture fantasy based on the world's worst books) and the climate change denying Cool It! He praised Gladiator as his favorite movie, and mentioned Mel Gibson's bloody Passion of the Christ favorably. He also spoke highly of Big Bang Theory as an example of Hollywood getting science right.
The first question from the audience asked why the characters on Big Bang Theory were so sex-obsessed, a critique he granted freely. Later, he was asked how his Christianity informed his producing decisions; he explained how he'd replied to evangelical critics of witchcraft when he produced Hocus Pocus, and how he'd gotten unspecified swear words out of the Wolverine script.
Did he do anything to tone down the bloody violence of Wolverine? It never occurred to him to say anything on the topic, despite the murderous rampage which took place less than 24 hours earlier at a screening of the latest Batman movie. He felt no compunction about citing Gladiator as his favorite film, despite the gore that movie spreads across the screen. Nor did anyone from the audience have anything to say on the subject of violence in movies, even though sex, language, and witchcraft had their moments in the sun.
To be clear, I think we can afford to take American society's concern about sex, violence, and language in movies down several notches. My concern here is the imbalance, the taboos banning sex and strong language, while treating violence as routine and acceptable. As I think about how I want to introduce TV and movies to my baby as he grows older, I'm far less concerned about letting him see loving, consensual sex or realistic language than I am about him seeing violence offered as a solution.
I did a little searching for a comment that I remembered hearing a very long time ago.
No lesser an authority than Smilin' Jack Nicholson has commented on this ridiculous state of affairs.
"If you suck on a tit, the movie gets an X rating," he once told an interviewer.
"If you hack the tit off with an axe it will be PG."