My friend Adam, the Tenor Dad, recently wrote a post Violence is Easy, Sex is Hard which describes the evolution of his thoughts around the violent and sexual content of movies that he chooses let his children view. It’s a thought-provoking post, and I find myself disagreeing wholeheartedly with him on several points, so I thought I’d respond with a post of my own.
I recall seeing a young boy at a PG-13 film being terrified by the trailer for The Mummy Returns, which features some very graphic, scary monsters, and stabbings and shootings aplenty. I was surprised that parents would bring their young child (five-ish, if memory serves) to a PG-13 film and expose him to such frightening imagery. I also think it’s ridiculous that bare breasts can bump a movie up to an R rating, but decapitations and disembowelings only warrant a PG-13.
I haven’t made great choices all the time, though. I let my son watch the Lord of the Rings movies too early. He did a really good job of letting me know when a scene was too scary, and we’d skip it. What I found interesting was that he wasn’t afraid of goblins or orcs, Sauron or the Balrog. He was frightened by Frodo getting stabbed on Weathertop, and by the hill man swearing a blood oath to Saruman (cutting his palm). Even when you think you know what will be frightening or intense for your child, you may surprised.
Violence is easy?
It’s easy because you’ve taken a very simple stance; it’s always bad. But an answer like “violence is always wrong” feels oversimplified and hard to reconcile with real-world experience.
Would you defend yourself or your family with violence? Would you intervene physically in defense of someone who is being attacked? Police officers and military forces injure and kill in the defense of our communities and our nation, but that isn’t without its own problems. How does your family’s faith or philosophical tradition inform your choices about violence?
Now, I wouldn’t stop the film to have a deep conversation about this when Peter Parker beats the snot out of Flash Thompson, nor when Iron Man is liberating the town of Golmira. But you definitely could talk about lots of things. Only in the movies does the bullied science geek get bitten by the radioactive or GMO spider. What options do bullied kids have in real life?
The first Iron Man movie had strong connections to the war in Afghanistan, and there’s lots to talk about there, too.
Sex is hard?
America’s prevailing attitudes towards sex are at the same time puritanical and prurient. Sex — the glamorous, airbrushed, tidy kind — is used to sell everything. Everything. The clothing styles that are marketed to school-aged girls often imitates the sexually provocative styles of adults.
But we can’t show naked bodies; naked means sex.
But really, it doesn’t. News flash: seeing naked bodies doesn’t harm kids. Kids have bodies, and know that other people have bodies that are more or less similar. Kids can handle appropriate information about what they see. In fact, they might have an easier time with body image related self esteem if they saw more normal bodies to balance out the fake, unrealistic ones the media bombard us with every day.
When my son was old enough to use the computer by himself, we had several conversations about things you might see by accident on the Internet. It went something like “if you see a picture of a naked person, let me know. Sometime grown-ups share pictures like that, but they aren’t meant for children.” We tried to be pretty matter-of-fact about it. We also kept the computer in the family room so we weren’t far away.
In the same way that I don’t think a discussion of the geopolitics of the middle east is necessary context for watching Iron Man, I don’t think you need to talk about monogamy with your seven-year-old just because Tony Stark and Christine Everhart have a consensual one-night encounter, or about slut shaming when Pepper Potts says that she does everything for Mr. Stark, including “taking out the trash.” I doubt any questions would even come up, but if they did, you could answer in an appropriate way. Maybe something like:
Sometimes, you might play with the kid you’ve just met at the beach for a wonderful afternoon, and then never see her again. Or maybe you see her at school sometimes, but don’t really want to play or hangout again, and that’s OK. When grownups play, sometimes they do the same thing.
Pepper was a little rude to Christine, but I think she was feeling hurt. She really likes Tony and wishes she had gotten to snuggle with him. I think Christine was rude first, but you know how two wrongs don’t make a right.
So give enough information at an appropriate level to answer questions or to share important values. No need to psychoanalyze Tony.
For me, the harder part of Iron Man might be the torture scenes during Tony’s captivity. That’s much more intense and important to the story than the bedroom scene. Or the Ten Rings terrorizing the citizens of Golmira, or Stane’s clean-up crew murdering the Ten Rings mercenaries (off camera).
I’m also thinking about the British TV shows that I enjoy, many of them mysteries and police procedurals. Many of them show a breast here, a buttock there, uncovered naked people in the morgue. (I even saw a penis, once! ) It seems much more natural and reasonable to me.
It’s been a while since I watched it, but I can only think of a handful of sexually suggestive scenes in Ghostbusters.
- The ghost that undoes Ray’s belt and fly, and (off camera) goes down on him. (was he dreaming?)
- Peter visits the possessed Dana Barrett, and she tells him that she wants him inside her.
- Luis and Dana appear disheveled (Luis’ fly is down), presumably after having had sex to summon Gozer the Gozerian.
Maybe there’s something more salacious that I’ve forgotten, but I’m betting most of that would go over the head of a seven-year-old. And if she asks what’s going on you can say:
- Ray’s dreaming about grown-up sexy touching with a ghost.
- She possessed, and either she wants to have sex with him, or she wants to eat him.
- The demons that possessed them — oh look, now they’re dogs — had to do some magic to open the gate and summon… Gozer the Gozerian
I don’t think sex always has to be as complicated as you suggest, Adam. I think the violence we are steeped in as a culture makes it seem easy to deal with, even when we argue against it. Often the violence in stories and movies makes a clearer distinction between the virtuous and the villainous than we have in real life.
On the other hand, we have a culture that denies the inherent sexuality of children and young people, while at the same time fetishizing and sexualizing youth. People accuse loving parents who share photos of their own children without clothes of making kiddie porn. People (mostly women) have laser removal of pubic hair and surgeries to make genitals more youthful. It’s contradictory and confusing, and yes, complicated.
But you don’t have to explain all of it. Just enough honest information to answer the question or address the concern that emerges at the time.
I hope this makes some kind of sense.
You’re right. Most of it would go over a younger person’s head. “Why is Peter lying to that woman about guessing those symbols?”
But on the other hand, the more I watch Ghostbusters over the years, the more taken aback I am by how much of a creep Venkman is at times: hitting on a student, hitting on a prospective client, kissing a client while she’s sedated.
Wow, thanks for the response! You make a lot of good points, and I suppose what I really meant by my post is that violence is easy and sex is hard…for me! As a fairly severe pacifist, to me violence is always wrong. Sometimes it is necessary, but even for police, military, and self-defense, it is still wrong, and one should strive to use the very smallest amount possible in any given situation. Again, that is just me. It is easy for me to explain that. My own views on sex, shaped largely by our messed up culture, are harder for me to put together, which I suppose is why I am dreading having to explain them to my children. But yes, absolutely, I would rather have my children see naked bodies than tortured bodies. I just find one harder to form coherent thoughts on.
Venkman’s not a real scientist; he’s just in it for the chicks. 🙂
Adam, are you aware of Robie Harris’ books on sexual health for kids? NPR had a recent story on the one that gets banned a lot, It’s Perfectly Normal.
It’s for older kids, but she has other books that are aimed at younger kids too. Check out http://robieharris.com/