Sex vs. violence

My husband and I love movies, and we watch the odd television show. We’ve found for the last while, when we watch a movie, one of the peripheral issues we consider is: could we let our son, who is eight, watch this movie?

My movie-watching and book-reading wasn’t much censored by my own parents, as I recall. Well, I read more books than I watched movies (lack of transport creates is own limitations) but still, I was left to my own devices with books. My dad suggested books from time to time — Willa Cather’s My Antonia one summer, Frank Herbert’s Dune when I asked about science fiction — but I don’t recall ever being told “You can’t read that.” So I’ve read Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye and  bunch of other stuff, serious and fluffy.

Movies were a different story. I couldn’t go myself for the most part, as I had no way to get there. Back then, movies weren’t the sort of hobby they are for me now. And these were the days before cable was so prevalent, before all the networks we have today, before things like TCM.

I’ve come to the conclusion that to some extent, movies are easier to censor than books. I can block shows with certain ratings using the V-chip (and I do); I can simply say “no” when my son asks to watch something. He has no TV in his room — he can’t hide under the covers with a flashlight as he could with a book. And somehow, I think reading about things, where you make the movie in your own head, is different from watching and seeing the ideas and dialogue interpreted for you.

So we watch these movies — our collection ranges from Amelie to Metropolis to Zombieland — and as I said, one of our first thoughts is, can our boy watch these? And then we find ourselves wracking our brains for the content of the movie. Often, the deciding factor is sex.

I know many people out there — and I include myself among them — say they’d rather have their kids see two people in love being intimate than two people beating the bejeesus out of each other. But when would you like that? I don’t particularly want to explain to my 8yo what sex is, and I don’t think at this point he wants to know.

Sometimes it’s easy — he will not be seeing Zombieland or The Terminator or Inception or Austin Powers or Sunset Boulevard or Batman Begins. I feel those films and others are either too violent, contain too much profanity, or will bore him. Trying to explain what’s going on will frustrate me and bore him. I really don’t think he’ll care, or understand, Norma Desmond and her desire to reclaim her stardom. (But by God I’ll make him watch that one day! And Casablanca!)

However, I could explain the violence in many movies in relatively simple terms. In The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, I can tell him that the bad guys want money and will do bad things to get it and the good guys will do what they have to do to stop the bad guys. That divide would probably apply to most movies. Autobots are trying to stop the Decepticons from destroying the earth; Batman is trying to stop [insert villain]; etc. Sex is different; it doesn’t lend itself to that kind of relatively easy explanation.

For example, we were debating whether we could show our son any episodes of Firefly, the late, lamented sf series by Joss Whedon. I said, well, not the episode where Mal (the captain) and Wash (the pilot) are captured and tortured by a mobster. Then I said, well, no, because one character, Inara, is a “companion” — a legal prostitute. In the few episodes of the show that were made, it’s not so much that Inara sleeps with anyone that concerns me, it’s more the repeated times Mal calls her a “whore.”

Actually, that word caught me off guard in another movie we recently watched, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In a scene involving the god Vulcan (Oliver Reed) and the goddess Venus (Uma Thurman), Vulcan calls her a trollop, a floozy, and then — several times — a whore. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when our boy didn’t ask me what that meant. The Iron Man debate ended quickly when we recalled Tony Stark’s roll in the hay with the reporter.

Don’t get me wrong. I might be holding these movies back, but I’m not sitting him in front of Tarantino movies, or even things like The Dirty Dozen. Old movie does not equal safe movie. I’m just making my calls as best I can and it dawned on me that in this process, sex tends to be the deal-breaker. Violence is not “better than” sex. But it struck me, as I said, that it’s easier to explain the violence. And perhaps it’s easier to ignore, in some ways? One of the scenes my son has watched many times is the end of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin Skywalker loses his extremities (and mind, one could argue) in a light-saber duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi. But I can tell him that Anakin became a bad guy and Obi-Wan was left with no alternative to stop him. I can explain that good guy/bad guy thing.

The columnist Gregg Easterbrook has noted many times in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column the descriptions of “violence” in MPAA ratings. Something like Spider-Man will say “Rated PG-13 for comic book violence.” I have also seen “action violence,” “science-fiction violence,” etc. Easterbrook asks — why isn’t it just “violence”? Marketing, probably, and I’m sure he knows that.

In fact, I could argue that watching a guy shooting webbing out of his arms at a guy made of sand is, in fact, different from the violence you’d encounter in a movie like Heat. Spider-Man is not realistic and is not meant to be.

Sex is different, probably because it involves emotions and fluid judgment, and those are a whole lot harder to explain to a kid. I don’t really think my kid is ready for those explanations yet, although when he asks I’ll be as honest and direct as I can be for his age. If he asks more, I’ll answer more. It’ll just be a little harder to explain.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by andy on July 18, 2012 at 10:03 am

    I totally understand where you are coming from. My wife and I have 4 boys with the oldest being 8 and we are constantly watching every show and movie to see if it is age appropriate for all the boys which makes the oldest upset. There is a fine line at any age to try and determine what is appropriate and what isn’t and with the advertisements geared to kids younger and younger it is becoming harder and harder to explain why they can’t watch this show or that movie. And I have noticed sometimes certain shows start with good general audience material and get you wrapped into the characters and eventually start twisting into a teen show with teen/adult themes and relationships. Luckily for us our boys haven’t asked about sex or sexual situations, but we are dreading the day they do. I hope this helps to let you know you are not alone on this issue.


    • Thanks, Andy. 🙂 I know there are lots of parents in this boat. What makes this more difficult, I think, is that each child is different. My 8yo can perhaps handle better what yours can’t. For example, the other night, we watched “Signs,” by M. Night Shyamalan. (Memo to self: do not go off on rant about logical flaws “Signs.”) I was concerned about this a little, because although there is very little profanity and no sex, it is a suspenseful movie, and it touches on some heavy themes, such as loss of a parent and spouse. For good or ill, my son seemed to enjoy the movie and be relatively unaffected by things I thought might upset him.

      Another example is “Bridge to Terabithia.” My husband felt our son could see it and while I was iffy, I didn’t say no. But what did concern me was the death of the girl — our son hasn’t known a kid his age to die. So I wondered, would he be concerned about his own death, or that of a friend, or that of one of us? And the answer, so far, is no. But you’re never sure where that will come from or when.


  2. Posted by Lady Falcon on July 19, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    I agree with you that books and creating the movie in your head doesn’t seem as bad as the same scene put into movie format for you. My 10 yr old daughter is an avid reader as am I and we’ve read books together when I think there are going to be some areas that need explanation like the “Chronicles of Narnia” books by C. S. Lewis. We watched the movies and I was telling her about how old I was when I read the books and that I hadn’t realized till years later that there was a lot of Christian teachings in the books. She wanted to read the books immediately but according to the AR ratings they were slightly above her level. So, we read them together. I read a section and then she read a section and it worked really well for us.

    She loves the paranormal just like I do and was dying to see the Twilight movies. I pre-watched each one and saved them on DVR and then fast forwarded all the bits I didn’t want her to see. That seemed to work for us for the first 2 movies. I haven’t let her watch the others yet because I am not ready for her to see Bella and Edward or anyone have sex yet. In the second movie I had to fast forward quite a bit because I wasn’t ready to explain why Bella jumped off the cliff.

    The whole suicide issue was not something I am ready to talk about. Although, we have touched on it because last year she came home from 4th grade and said one of her classmates was talking about killing herself. That was a hard conversation and my husband and I talked our daughter and to her teacher. The teacher said she would keep an eye on the little girl and talk to the school counselor as well as the child’s parents. In the end I think the kid was just talking and not understanding what she was saying. But, it still threw me for a loop.

    One of the things that upsets me is the rating system for the movies. There have been some PG movies that should have at least been a PG-13. There have also been many PG-13 movies that should have been R.


    • Yes, all these movies get into different gray areas. Sex is by no means the only one, and death is a close second.

      We recently watched “X-Men: First Class,” kind of vetting it for our son. Answer: a profound no, definitely not, especially after the opening scenes. Spoiler ahead: As in “X-Men,” “XMFC” opens with Eric Lensherr (later Magneto) and his family being taken to a concentration camp in WWII. He is separated from his mother and his anguish results in him twisting the gates of the camp. In XMFC, the scene continues: Eric is summoned to the office of one Sebastian Shaw (a fantastic Kevin Bacon), who wants to see Eric’s ability in action. To provide incentive, he brings in Eric’s mother and threatens to kill her if Eric can’t perform. Eric, who doesn’t understand his power, fails and Shaw shoots his mother.

      How could I possibly explain WWII, concentration camps, the death of Jews and other “unworthies,” etc.? I couldn’t and this points up the fact that just because a movie is adapted from a comic book/series, does not mean it’s proper for children.

      For suicide — this knocked “Buckaroo Banzai,” one of my absolute favorite movies, out of contention for my son for now. It’s a PG movie, I believe — I think it was made before the PG-13 rating was created — and again, not much in the way of profanity or sex or blood, although there are a couple of “fade to black” romantic scenes, I think. Anyway, in an early scene, Buckaroo (Peter Weller) is in a night club with his band and interrupts the show to talk to Penny Pretty (Ellen Barkin), who tries to shoot herself.

      I’m not sure what an “AR” rating is, but I would think 10 years old is fine to read Narnia — but then you have to judge your child for yourself. Those are books that can be, and are probably meant to be, read on more than one level.

      The ratings system is imperfect, at best. Sometimes I think it insults our intelligence, but at least it’s a place to start.


      • Posted by Lady Falcon on July 20, 2012 at 7:11 pm

        AR is Accelerated Reader. A lot of schools rate the books in their library with color codes according to the AR level. Then they test the children at the beginning of each school year before the rotations to the library start and only allow them to check out books in their own personal reading comprehension level. They are allowed to check out books in the level below theirs but not above without a note from the parent. After the child returns the book they then take a quiz to test their comprehension. Questions about main characters, who is the protagonist, what is the plot, etc. the test is multiple choice. Schools not the AR people keep track and give awards each quarter for the class in each grade level who read the most…usually a pizza party. At the end of each quarter they also give out top reader awards for each grade level when money permits. My daughter’s school has given gift cards to B&N; 1st place gets a $15.00, 2nd a $10.00, and third a $5.00 gift card.

        I love Buckaroo Banzai! 🙂

  3. Posted by juliabarrett on July 24, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    When my kids were younger I did not allow them to view violent movies or at least movies with gratuitous violence. They were allowed to see movies with some sex provided sex wasn’t the primary theme.
    They knew I had rules – no slasher films… period. However I did attend movies like the Batman series with them. They understood the difference between real and make-believe. But every child is different and you have to decide for yourself how to handle this issue.


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