Sunday, July 29, 2012

Movies, Violence And A Parent's Responsibility

The Dark Knight Rises. Is it just too dark?
Last week, just before I found out about the tragic massacre in Aurora, Colorado, a friend shared an article with me about the increase in violence in today's movies and the fact that people tend to protest vehemently (and violently) when ratings boards give a movie a rating intended to keep children away. This article came out four years ago. Has anything gotten better? No.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that it's actually gotten worse. But Hollywood isn't completely to blame. Yes, of course they keep churning out these action films that seem to need to top the last one in terms of its action scenes, and degree of nauseating violence. But they obviously wouldn't make them if people didn't spend millions and millions of dollars seeing them.

As I have written before, the ratings system here is a joke. According to Jenny McCartney's 2008 article in The Telegraph, the British system is equally as bad:
"In 2002, the BBFC took a stand on Spider-Man, a hugely hyped Hollywood release: it decided that it contained unsuitable levels of violence for under-12s, and therefore awarded it a "12" certificate, meaning that under-12s should not be allowed into cinemas to see it. 
A public storm erupted; children and many parents were furious; and a number of councils announced their intention to defy the ban. At first the BBFC stoutly defended itself, saying that "Hollywood has carried out an aggressive worldwide marketing campaign aimed at young children when the film is not suitable for them." And then, fed up with being everyone's most hated Aunt Sally, it invented the 12A certificate, which translates as a fed-up, institutional shrug of the shoulders."
Well, it SAID it was rated PG. It's not MY fault!
A shrug of the shoulders. That's what these parents and the ratings board and the makers of these films are doing. Each one puts the blame on the other, each one shrugs off the responsibilities we all have to create the kind of world we want our children to have. 

Since the attack on theater goers in Colorado, authorities are just beginning to piece together connections between that horrendous event and the specific movie the victims were seeing ("Batman: The Dark Knight Rises"). 

I don't have any idea why this man did what he did, other than that he is obviously mentally ill. But what always comes to my mind when horrible things like this happen, is where on earth someone would get an idea like booby trapping their apartment, heading out dressed in full body armor, throwing tear gas into a crowded theater and opening fire with multiple weapons killing 12 and injuring 58 others? 
"Little boys have always played with swords and guns. But they did not always play at beating a prisoner's genitals with a rope, or stitching a live bomb inside a man's stomach. For that innovation we must thank Hollywood, the industrious factory of dreams, now frequently devoted to churning out nightmares." ~ Jenny McCartney
Two years ago I wrote in a post called The Superhero and Princess Epidemic, about how our children's preschool had told parents that characters were no longer allowed at school. No Spiderman T-shirts, no Cinderella lunch boxes, no Incredible Hulk toys. The level of violence and agression among the boys dropped almost instantly. The clique-ish behavior and obsession with physical appearance amongst the girls dissipated as well.  

My children can't make it through most Disney films.
We're definitely not seeing PG-13 rated films any time soon!
Our family might be exceptionally cautious about what our children are allowed to see, and I'm fine with that. My children would never, in a million years, be allowed to see Batman no matter how many times they see the movie poster and ask about it. I know my children can't handle seeing something so frightening, gory and beyond their developmental ability to comprehend. 

And yet...there are parents who think it's fine that their young children see this and many other films I would never consider. I generally am of the mind that you each know your children better than any "expert". But I think I might have to draw the line here. Yes, different children can handle different things. But really, what is the harm in waiting to show your children movies that might have elements they won't be able to understand? Is it so hard to sit with your children when showing them a film so you're there to discuss things that might confuse or scare them? 

No, my idea of fun is NOT watching "Toy Story 3" ten times in a row. But we have to remember that things that seem lighthearted and funny to us, can be absolutely terrifying for children. Do you have any idea how many times my son asked me why Lotso only pretended to be friends with Woody and Buzz? That's not a concept a 5 year old should be aware of yet, but I certainly want to be there to explain it to him if he is going to be made aware of it!

Yes, movies about superheroes blur the boundaries between "adult" and "child" entertainment, and movie makers do it often on purpose to draw in bigger crowds. But, it's not just that type of movie I'm talking about. If you think about it, how many of you have been in a movie obviously intended for adults and seen small children sitting nearby? 

I remember going to see the Mel Gibson movie, "Ransom", years ago. It's a highly suspenseful movie about a man whose son is kidnapped and held hostage for ransom. I very clearly remember a couple who brought their young son to this movie and he (shockingly) cried through most of it. Seriously? Are you trying to give him nightmares? 

That movie came out in 1996 with an R rating. Again, Jenny McCartney's article points out that the last "Batman" movie which came out in 2008 was rated 12A in Britain (basically the equivalent of the United States' PG-13 rating): 
"But the greatest surprise of all – even for me, after eight years spent working as a film critic – has been the sustained level of intensely sadistic brutality throughout the film. 
I will attempt to confine my plot spoilers to the opening: the film begins with a heist carried out by men in sinister clown masks. As each clown completes a task, another shoots him point-blank in the head. The scene ends with a clown – The Joker – stuffing a bomb into a wounded bank employee's mouth. 
After the murderous clown heist, things slip downhill. A man's face is filleted by a knife, and another's is burned half off. A man's eye is slammed into a pencil. A bomb can be seen crudely stitched inside another man's stomach, which subsequently explodes. A trussed-up man is bound to a chair and set alight atop a pile of banknotes. 
A plainly terrorised child is threatened at gunpoint by a man with a melted face. It is all intensely realistic. Oh but don't worry, folks: there isn't any nudity." 
Uh...PG-13? Really? Would you want your under 13 child to see that, even with you beside him? I am all but certain a lot of children saw that film.

Today's superheros are a far cry from the campy
superheros of my childhood. 
Yes, Hollywood needs to take more responsibility for the images they put out into the world. These images affect adult behaviors (particularly the behaviors of mentally unstable people). The way adults behave affects their children. And all these behaviors affect our world as a whole. But we parents have to do more as well. We have to consider how our parenting decisions will affect not only our own children, but also the other children they come into contact with.

I can keep my children from seeing movies I feel they are not ready for, but I can't stop their 5-year old friend from seeing "The Avengers" and wanting to re-enact battle scenes until my son cries. I can't stop another friend of theirs from seeing "Star Wars" at age 4 and becoming, as a result, so freaked out by it that he expressed it by becoming overly aggressive at school. 

Children's brains aren't equipped with the ability to process these images and separate fact from fiction. They don't understand the subtleties. In order for them to process the images they take in, they often need to act them out...over and over. 

As a way to process something like seeing a villan get pummeled by a superhero, children (most of them boys) may play bad guys, be rough with each other or renact scenes many times with other children who may not fully understand what they are doing. And while our society frowns upon boys behaving in this aggressive manner, many parents do not seem to see the correlation of this "acting out" with exposing their children to movies that have themes and scenes that are beyond a young child's ability to comprehend.  

As Dr. Jenn Berman writes in her book, SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years:
"Dr. Joanne Cantor, an internationally recognized expert on children and television and author of Mommy, I'm Scared!, refers to movies and television as 'the number one preventable cause of nightmares and anxieties in children.' In fact, most children have been frightened, sometimes very seriously, by something they have seen on TV. A random sampling of parents in Madison, Wisconsin, whose children were in kindergarten through the sixth grade, found that 43 percent of those parents reported that their children had been frightened by something on television and that the fear had outlasted the program. 
These fears can raise a child's level of anxiety and increase nightmares. In a survey of 150 college students, 90 percent reported experiencing a fear reaction from media during childhood. These students reported trouble sleeping and eating after watching shows, and over a quarter of the respondents said the effects lasted for more than a year. The younger the respondents were when they viewed a scary movie and TV program, the longer-lasting the effects."
Movie violence...has it gone too far? 
I was 13 the year "American Gigolo" came out. I remember my parents writing me a note so I could go see it with my best friend. Yes, in those days a note was all you needed. That same year I saw the original "Friday The 13th" at another friend's birthday party (of all things). Guess which one gave me such bad nightmares that I had to have my dad in the room before I could fall asleep? Guess which one has disturbing images that I can still vividly recall? 

I'll give you a wasn't the one with Richard Gere.

So where does blame lie? Is it in the ratings system that seems to believe that more trauma is caused by seeing a flash of a bare breast than a decapitated head? Is it in the Hollywood machine that seems to have no moral concerns about what it greenlights just as long as it's a money maker? Is it parents who let children see movies they're not ready for? Is it a little of everything?

As with anything else, we can only control ourselves and hope that our actions will affect those around us. I know I feel physically ill and depressed if I watch even a few minutes of violence, brutality and gore. Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I don't think I need to see more darkness. I want to experience things that inspire me, lift me up, enlighten me and enhance my life. And I want the same for my children. 
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