This seems perilously close to Stating the Obvious, or else it’s 60 Minutes Andy Rooney-style crotchety old dude rambling. But I’ve seen the same claim made over and over again for years — I think I’ve even made it myself in the past — and I always accepted it without a second thought.
It typically goes down like this: there’s a discussion about the MPAA or the FCC or some other ratings organization, and it inevitably leads to a comment about the gross hypocrisy of their censorship policy. Viewers — our children — are exposed to countless violent images every day, but show them one image of a woman’s breast, and all hell breaks loose! You can show twenty decapitations before you can show one naked body! A film that shows a man murdering a woman can get a PG rating, but a man making love to a woman would automatically get an NC-17!
The conclusion is that America’s filled with bloodthirsty prudes who are also most likely misogynists. We’re numb to the most horrible violence, but terrified of sex. And Europeans (for instance) are reared with a much healthier attitude towards sex, because they’re not taught that the human body is something to be ashamed of.
For years, I thought, “Well yes, naturally that’s true. I have seen clips of European television to confirm this.” Now I’m skeptical.
What got me thinking was my reaction to In Bruges. Specifically: this was a movie about murderers, gangsters, and thieves being casually violent and murderous, doing (and stealing) various illegal drugs, being casually abusive to each other and to innocents, and shooting each other and the locals. So how come the thing that offended me the most was its casual homophobia and making fun of fat people?
At first, I started to form a theory based on the movie’s weird Hayes Code-style moral code: every character expresses remorse for what they’ve done and gets punished. What the movie decides to punish and leave unpunished is interesting.
But then I realized that it’s much, much simpler: I’m (hopefully) never going to meet a murderer in my lifetime, but I’ve met thousands of people who are casually abusive to the overweight. You can presume Martin McDonagh (writer and director of In Bruges) has encountered plenty of racists, because the movie gives a casual mention to the murder of a priest but two scenes lecturing a little person for making racist comments.
This isn’t advanced sociological insight or anything; every discussion about sex or violence in media invariably mentions imitable acts and the ability to separate fantasy from reality. But then, variations on the exact same complaint keep getting made in all kinds of different contexts. And you’re either sending out toxic, dangerous messages — won’t someone think of the children?! — or you’re curtailing free speech and grossly underestimating the audience’s intelligence and common sense. All based on what’s more convenient for whoever’s doing the complaining.
I’ve never seen a study that conclusively shows a causal relationship between violent imagery and violent acts. I know for a fact that there is a causal relationship between sexual imagery and sexual acts. (There’s an entire industry built around this, as a matter of fact). It’s perfectly reasonable — in some areas, even expected — that a person can go his or her entire life without ever firing a gun. It’s considered weird and unnatural if a person goes his or her entire life without ever having sex. If I see a guy curb-stomping somebody, I’m not going to want to go out and do it myself. If I see a guy making out with somebody, I’m actually very likely to want to do exactly that.
So it seems perfectly understandable that we’d be more concerned about sexual imagery than violent imagery. We’re pretty comfortable that we’re not raising a nation of violent sociopaths, but we are raising a nation susceptible to STDs and unwanted pregnancies.
I’m not saying that anything goes in terms of violence; I know I have less than no interest in seeing any of the Saw series or Hostel, for instance. And I’m not saying there aren’t prudes in the US; people like John Ashcroft have contributed a lot to our reputation as a nation of violent, sexually dysfunctional Norman Bateses.
What I am saying is that this is the one argument that seems to come from all corners — I’ve seen variations coming from the right and the left. Sometimes even both versions coming from the same source, all used to determine what is and what’s not acceptable to say. It’d be nice if we assumed more intelligence on the part of the audience, and showed a little more intelligence ourselves before jumping back to the tired, easy argument.