I was watching an old episode of "Siskel and Ebert" while at work today (yes, I'm that big of a movie nerd...you're honestly surprised?), and they had a half hour segment titled: "Is Hollywood Selling War to Kids?" They went on and on about how R-rated movies like "Rambo III" and "Commando," both violent R-rated action pictures, were being merchandised with toys aimed at kids. While the production of toys from R-rated action movies isn't exactly relevant these days, it did get me thinking. Have we taken an honest look at the images in today's movies aimed at kids?
Sure, an R-rated action movie that kids might possibly want to see is rare, and has been for the past 15 years. But while the PG-13 rating is king, that doesn't mean that movies are any less violent. PG-13 movies have images such as characters getting ripped in half ("Clash of the Titans" remake), impaled ("Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice") or just plain explode (any superhero movie). Sure, it's "cartoonish" because there's no (or very little) blood. But do we really want our kids to be seeing this stuff? Ten years ago, a movie like "Batman vs. Superman" would have gotten a hard R-rating, let alone a PG-13. And yet parents let their kids see this stuff because it's considered "clean:" limited profanity and no sex or nudity."
The biggest reason for this is that violence sells on a global scale. A coming of age story like "A Little Princess" might sell to American kids, but Chinese kids would be totally lost. Everyone responds to superhero movies in the same way, and the way to make the big money is to up the ante. And to make it accessible, you have to make it broad, so humor and strong writing are passed over in favor of special effects. And they make big money: massive superhero extravaganzas rake in billions at the box office, and Hollywood's risk averse nature and obsessive pursuit for every last penny means it's going to keep happening.
So why are movies getting so violent?
One thing is the U.S. culture's unilateral approach to anything controversial. Violence is OK, blood is iffy after a certain level, but there is a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to profanity and sex. The latter I can understand after a certain level (a PG-13 movie shouldn't have the sexual content of, say, "Neighbors 2"...putting it that way, "Neighbors 2" shouldn't have had any content at all, but that's another argument). This unilateral approach prevents movies aimed at kids or teenagers from dealing with this material in even in an honest thoughtful way. It even limits how the characters can talk. No one will go see a movie if they can't relate to any character on the screen. Kids use profanity (like it or not), but having characters avoid it all together in the movies, so they can't relate to them. They don't talk or act like they do.
This also allows movies that are considered "clean" to contain material that kids shouldn't be seeing at all. Take the "Twilight" franchise. It had violence and special effects, but because it had no gore, sex or profanity, it was considered okay for tweens. At the same time, pre-teen girls are presented with a lead character who is defined by her relationships with men. Bella Swan exists only to love Edward and Jacob and need to be protected by them. She doesn't have a single thought about anything else and certainly couldn't make an independent decision. That movie made billions for Summit Entertainment. The Nicholas Sparks movies are the same way. Girls are blithering idiots defined by their men, but because of a lack of the no-no material, they're somehow A-OK.
A little movie called "Raising Victor Vargas" was essentially an attack on that mentality. The lead character was a self-styled stud who thought he needed to "protect" a hot girl named Judy and be the dominant one in the relationship. He actually thought that's what she wanted. But Judy had her own thoughts and feelings, and was an independent woman. She helped him understand that in order get anywhere with her, he first had to respect her. What did the MPAA give that movie? An R rating for "Strong Language."
A movie can't even deal with material kids will relate to. "Only Yesterday," a movie about a girl growing up, was almost not released in the US because it dealt with fifth grade girls menstruating. Yet it was clean enough for the notoriously prudish MPAA to grant it a deserved kid friendly rating. What's with that?
The raunchy comedies are even worse. "This is the End" used rape as a euphemism for sex. It was a minute long joke on whether a bunch of celebrities were going to rape Emma Watson, who had holed up in their house during the apocalypse. Or "Neighbors 2," where girls were invited to try out a stripper pole and there was a sign that said "No Means Yes." Yes, they're R-rated, but don't tell me that no kid wants to see it. And it's all too easy for them to do so, be it online or sneaking in at the multiplex.
Conservatives have long since claimed that we as a society are losing our values. I couldn't agree more, but probably not for the reasons they would cite. Those "squeaky clean" religious movies are repulsive to anyone who isn't a Bible thumper and laughably cheesy. No, our views of sex, violence and profanity are totally screwed up. And it's the parents that are part of the problem. They're allowing their kids to see this and pressing these twisted values upon them. They buy their kids tickets to these ultraviolent movies, buy them toys and video games that are associated with them (many of them actually enjoy these things too, so Hollywood has gotten into marketing PG-13 movies as "family entertainment"), but refuse to allow them to see movies that actually deal with any controversial issue. At the same time, parents in many places around the country will buy their kid a gun before they allow them to attend sex ed.
Don't look to the MPAA for help. They're absolutely worthless and corrupt from top to bottom. They're paid by the studios to keep the status quo so they can make money at the expense of little independent films that are more relevant, and to appease the far-right politicians who can pass legislation in their favor. One of the reasons why I so frequently criticize them is that they're not doing their job: they're not giving parents the correct information about what is appropriate for their children. Would you want your six-year old to see Superman get impaled? Or a supporting character get ripped in half?
Of course, when you deal with a controversial issue honestly, it can make some people uncomfortable. That's where the MPAA has a defense. That's often the point, however. Take one of the best and most underappreciated thrillers of recent years, "Confession." It was inexplicably rated R for "Some Violence." Yes, it was scary and hard to watch. But that's because a character we liked did terrible things and had to pay the consequences. In most superhero movies, we're meant to cheer when they kill people. "Batman vs. Superman" did deal with the consequences, but only in so much as it led to more violence and brutality. Now tell me which movie has "better values."