Talking about CleanFlicks and R-rated movies became a regular ritual of perspective exchange in my introduction to media studies classes. It was a way for all of us—professor and students—to examine our assumptions about our relations to media. Inevitably, a familiar argument would play out.
“The prophet tells us not to watch R-rated movies.”
“Actually,” I would say, “my understanding is that the prophet suggests you generally avoid them, but also that you exercise your own judgment. I agree, because most movies suck.”
Someone would always bring up Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List as movies to consider watching. Mormons love the moral clarity of World War II! Many, maybe most, hold firm.
“It’s better just to be safe and not watch any of them.”
I try and try, and fail and fail, to take their perspective. “So, what are you afraid is going to happen if you watch an R-rated movie?”
“Those images go in and you can’t get them out. It affects the way you think. It will desensitize you to the real thing.”
“The real thing?”
“Do you all read romance novels and watch romantic movies?”
Oh, yes, they do!
“Does that desensitize you to romance?”
“It’s not the same thing!”
And that is failure number one. stop trying to win an argument for a while and try to take their perspective again. I acknowledge the philosophical tradition of their reasoning. It goes back to Plato. He didn’t like poetry and stories. He thought audiences were like children, their minds mesmerized by the images of poetry and their rationality captured and subdued by the emotions of drama. He thought such frivolities, which focused the mind on things other than the exercise of pure reason, were damaging to the psyche.
His student, Aristotle, rebelled and argued that people’s minds were not in fact “captured” by stories and imagery, that people know the difference between “mimesis” and reality, and that challenging, complex narratives offer opportunities to exercise other aspects of the mind, like perspective-taking, moral judgment in novel situations, and the ability to proximately confront fear or terror. But, even the relatively liberal Aristotle did not have an “anything goes” approach to cultural criticism. He recognized a special significance of art for the mind, and thought that moral care should be practiced in its execution.
Media & Viscerality
Films that make the heart race have long been feared to have special effects on the mind. I tell my own story. I was 11 years old when the book and then the movie Jaws came out. It was the first “adult” novel I ever read. It scared the crap out of me. Then the movie came out, and my friends and I went to see it two or three times together. It thrilled and terrified me. It gave me nightmares.
My family took a vacation to Florida soon after. I could hardly wait to swim in the ocean. As soon as I could, I jumped in the water and started swimming. Then I started thinking of shark attacks and getting eaten, and got scared, really scared, panicked, and swam to the shore. Then I stood on the shore, with my heart pounding, telling myself that there were no sharks. I got my courage up and ventured into the surf again. Then I became frightened of sharks and swam to shore again. Again and again.
I remember feeling afraid of sharks in the hotel’s pool, swimming in the pool at night, panicking, and swimming like hell to the edge, thinking a shark was bearing down on me, scrambling out of the pool, and quickly looking behind me, certain I would see a dark dorsal fin gliding through my wake. I had nightmares of being torn apart by sharks on that vacation and would wake up screaming. One night, I heard my father say he wished I had never seen that movie, and I thought, “But I love that movie!” And I did.
Eventually, I overcame those irrational shark fears. I would call it part of my cognitive and emotional maturation, learning how to mentally manage film and other media. I grant my students the need to protect children. “But we’re adults,” I remind them. And when they press me on it, I tell them, no, I don’t think we should edit Jaws for kids to watch. I figure most kids should just wait until they are around 11 or 12 to watch it, have some nightmares and deal with them.
With examples like that, I get past my original sense that the whole CleanFlicks endeavor is beyond all reason. I acknowledge that the media have influences and effects. Of course! But not in a simple, “cause/effect” sort of way. People don’t watch certain movies, listen to certain music, or play certain video games, and then get “caused” to do particular things like shooting up their local high school, Columbine-style.
My students are genuinely worried about their mental health and the well-being of their communities. I advocate that culture should be challenging, and I remember that these students are challenged by culture. It’s a challenge I don’t like, just like R-rated movies and sexual references in PG-13 movies are challenges they don’t like. So, I sort of go there, for a while, really trying to be sympathetic. But my sympathy doesn’t stick. Before long, I’m back trying to change them, instead of understanding them.
“If you don’t want to see the movie, don’t see it! But, taking something out? It’s crazy. You’ll miss something important. The narrative will have a hole in it. How about if I remove a few parts from your car’s engine? You don’t want that Chinese fan belt infecting the rest of the motor with its totalitarian socialism, do you?”
One of my students once interjected, “What difference does it make to you if we watch edited movies?”
Now, that was a good question. It should not make any difference to me what they watch—no more than it makes a difference to me, a vegetarian, what someone else eats. I am not against some else’s right to eat meat just because I choose not to. And I know that my soy-based porkless “bacon” isn’t authentic bacon. It is not the same, and, for other people, they cannot see why I bother. Why not just eat a piece of bacon if I want something that tastes like bacon? But, that’s the thing—I want something that tastes like bacon that isn’t bacon. Someone else wants something that is like Pulp Fiction, but that isn’t Pulp Fiction. It should not bother me, and yet, it drives me bonkers. It’s not just that I refuse to watch edited movies. It’s that I don’t want others to watch them, either.
“The problem is, editing ‘goddamn’ out of a good movie blasphemes my religion,” I answered. “I worship art and culture! Films are sacred. A movie, as it was produced, distributed, and collectively experienced at a certain time in history, is authentic as it is. Any edit is a shameful destruction of something worth preserving.”
“Films are edited for airplanes and television,” the students counter.
“I don’t like that, either! Never watch a movie on an airplane or broadcast television!”