"Movies have too much sex and violence." Everybody likes to say it. Not many seem interested in doing much about it.
A few observations help set the stage for a discussion about violence, morality and movie ratings.The LDS culture, and perhaps that of Christians generally, is more concerned about sexual purity than bad language or violence.
In the lingering shadow of the '60s where "make love not war" advocated free sex and stopping the war in Vietnam, the secular world is more concerned about violence than sex. That sociopolitical mindset denounces violence in any form but embraces sexual immorality at almost every level.
The regressive social reformation of established Judeo-Christian values and traditional American mores is reflected by those who rate the movies. Compare "Air Force One" with "In & Out" (PG-13); or "Braveheart" with "Tommy Boy" (PG 13).
Is there any real significance between ratings given for sexually derived images and ideas and those imposed for violence? I have my own hypothesis based on making movies for 25 years and more movie-going examples than I dare to confess. They are measured by my own reactions and my persistent observations of others.
Simply put, we are not inherently violent, but we are genetically engineered for sex. We have little natural propensity to wallop someone with a baseball bat, but we have a powerful urge to reproduce. A little exposure to sexual ideas, words and images has a greater impact on our feelings, desire and carnal instincts - call it lust if you like - than a lot of exposure to violence.
I simply believe that teenagers, exposed to PG-13 movies that feature sexual ideas, images, innuendos, suggestive dialogue, sexually derived language and sympathetic characters having extramarital sex without consequences are more likely to experiment with sexuality than the same teenagers, exposed to R-rated violence, are likely to become serial killers.
I do not sanction violence nor casually approve of R-rated films. While many are rated R for no more apparent reason than violent action or a few harsh words, "Rated-R" is also a warning that sexually explicit images may lie in deadly ambush.
R ratings give us pause enough. My greater concern is the need to realize that there may be equally destructive images and ideas hiding behind the seemingly benign PG-13 rating.
As social morality declines, the standards of the Motion Picture Association of America follows. The R-rated film of yesteryear is the PG-13 of today and perhaps indeed, the PG of tomorrow.
"Midnight Cowboy," the sordid tale of a dimwitted cowboy who comes to New York and makes his way by offering his services as a stud for rich women, was rated X when first released in 1969.
It won the Academy Award for Best Picture and the rating was subsequently changed to R. If produced, rated and released today, it would probably receive nothing more cautious than a PG-13 rating.
In September 1990, the MPAA changed the X rating to NC-17. The official statement from MPAA explained: "The X rating over the years appeared to have taken on a surly meaning in the minds of many people, a meaning that was never intended when we created the system."
Ted Baehr, publisher of "Movieguide" and author of the soon-to-be-released book, "The Media-Wise Family" says: "The MPAA has diluted and stretched the envelope of each of its ratings over the last few years, renaming the dreaded X rating NC-17 so a few Hollywood filmmakers can indulge their passion for prurient and violent movies without being stigmatized by the offensive X, which was the kiss of death at the box office. The NC-17 face lift has given movies that would have been X-rated access to multiplex theaters crowded with children and teenagers and to mainstream newspapers and other media that would not touch X-rated fare."
The familiar rating categories, G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 are, by some estimates, a honest effort to warn parents - as MPAA president and ratings-system creator Jack Valenti says - of "alligators in the swamps of Hollywood."
I asked Jack why he did not expand the rating system to include defining information: "V" for violence, "L" for language and "S" for sexual content as in Canada or Great Britain. "The reason this rating system will be 29 years old this year," he said, "is because it is simple. What does "V" tell you? What does "S" tell you? We feel these are vague and have no connection with reality."
Jack's question was profound and left me wondering, what does R tell you? What does PG-13 tell any of us? MPAA movie ratings are driven by the winds of social change.
It is time to realize how estranged the values that govern movie ratings are from LDS values and the values of many other churches. It is time to realize how much films, ratings and social morality have changed in the 13 years since the PG-13 rating was created and since LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson said "don't go to R-rated movies" in 1986. We need to change our precepts about individual responsibility, discernment and find new ways to make informed and intelligent decisions when it comes to movies. It is not a new idea.