I mentioned on Twitter a few hours ago that I can’t rely on movie ratings anymore, because I don’t really mind violence in movies, but I want to avoid sexual content. The response was, “that doesn’t seem backwards to you?”
There were two parts to the question; I answered the first half by linking to the post I wrote in January about how I think movie ratings aren’t granular enough. However, I didn’t answer the second half of his question: doesn’t it seem backward that I mind sex but not violence? After all, as he pointed out elsewhere in that twitter conversation:
Most of my sexual memories are fond ones. None of my violent memories are. That should be the ideal.
I almost replied with “well it’s because of my religion”, but the more I thought about it the less I liked that answer. I don’t know if it’s because I felt like it dismissed the question, or because I felt like it wasn’t a real reason (or not enough of a reason). I ended up writing the following post as a way to explore my own thoughts on the subject, and figure how to articulate why I feel the way I do.
I want to mention up front that I don’t think anyone else is wrong for feeling different than me; I’m just exploring my own mind here.
For the remainder of this post when I refer to sexual content I am going to be talking about the kinds of sexual scenes that show up in PG-13 and R movies; I will be ignoring pornographic content altogether. Once I’m through explaining why I avoid PG-13/R sexual content, it will be obvious why I avoid pornographic content as well.
Alright, so, why do I avoid sexual content?
My religion is certainly at the root of it, but it’s not a “sex is bad” kind of thing. It is true that I believe sexual sin is particularly bad relative to other sins, but that’s essentially referring to extramarital sex. A brief glimpse of the bare chest of the three-breasted woman in Total Recall hardly qualifies as sexual sin. What about a scene where a two characters have sex? Sexual intimacy between two characters is often an important part of a story. Indeed, many of my favorite books include those kinds of scenes (in Warbreaker, for example, it’s a central part of the plot).
Well, let’s go back to what Ben said in his tweet:
Most of my sexual memories are fond ones.
Mine too. The question is, are they memories I want to share with the world? I can’t answer for Ben or for anyone else, but for me, those experiences are special, even sacred. I feel like a detailed recounting of those memories would lessen the importance of that part of our relationship. (This is where my religious beliefs actually come in to it. I believe sex is a sacred thing that should be shared only between husband and wife, and I try to live accordingly.)
So, why am I ok with sex in books but not movies? Well, I’m not ok with explicit sex in books, particularly when it’s gratuitous. I’ve returned half-read books for that reason. I regret reading A Game of Thrones for that reason. On the other hand, I’m ok with scenes that gloss over specific details, or better, scenes of before and after but not of the actual sex. Leaving things implied is often better than spelling them out.
Similarly, I’m fine with movies that do the same thing. The problem is, PG-13 movies these days don’t stop at the door to the bedroom. They show a lot of details that books leave out. And many movies include gratuitous sex or nudity for no reason other than they (correctly) thought they could get away with it. Total Recall would have been an equally good movie without the fleeting glimpse of a three-breasted woman’s chest. (Arguably a better movie, since I wouldn’t have spent the next several seconds doing a mental double-take. Wait, did I just see what I think I saw?)
I guess what it comes down to is that when there’s a scene where a couple is going to have sex, I want the scene to cut out and let my brain pull up how I feel about my wife, and I can fill in the details from my own memory without consciously thinking about the sex. I don’t want the movie to show me the sex.
Put another way, stories are more powerful when they invoke the viewer’s own emotions than when they just tell the viewer what they should be feeling, and sexual memories in particular are usually tied to particularly strong emotions. I want powerful stories, not pretty pictures.
What about violence?
I sort of implied that I don’t mind violence at all. That’s not quite right; I don’t like gratuitous or excessively graphic violence. I play a lot of violent video games, but I don’t think I play games that revel in it. Part of the reason I disliked Spec Ops: The Line is that it forces the player to do some horrific things in order to move on with the story. (You can’t get past one particular plot door without bombing the area with white phosphorus. The story later shames you for doing it.) The only way to win was not to play. Though, in the case of Spec Ops, maybe that was the point.
In many ways, the less realistic the violence, the better. When you think about it, MMOs like Guild Wars 2 are pretty violent; players single-handedly depopulate entire villages of locals just minding their own business, just for the loot. But it’s not bloody, and the local animals/villagers/mooks respawn after a few minutes so the next player can slaughter them all. Then there’s first-person shooters; in Half-Life 2, Gordon Freeman kills a lot of Combine soldiers, but they just collapse to the ground and you get a sound effect that tells you they’re dead. You don’t need to see the soldier’s guts splattered all over the wall.
“Less realistic” isn’t the right description. “More abstract” might be better. Some of the most beautiful fight scenes I’ve read are the duels between blademasters in The Wheel of Time (from which I derived my usual internet alias), which are generally described with sentences like “Rand attacked with Boar Rushes Down the Mountain.” Robert Jordan didn’t recount the actual fight, he used abstractions that let my mind fill in the details so much better than a blow-by-blow description ever could.
That doesn’t work very well in movies or video games since they’re primarily visual. However, there’s a difference between writing a sentence that says “the small man was pulverized into a fine red mist by Toru’s spiked tetsubo”, and actually showing it. (Bonus points if you can name the book I’m paraphrasing.)
So, what kind of violence in movies am I ok with? It sort of goes back to the whole “the more abstract the better” thing; generally if there’s no blood I don’t mind. The scene in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring where Aragorn cuts off Lurtz’ head and you see Lurtz’ neck stump pumping out blood was a bit much; most of the rest of the violence in the movie was basically “if you get hit by my shiny grey stick you have to lay down and hold still until the scene ends”. Video game logic. And that was fine, because the point of those scenes was Boromir defending the hobbits, or Merry and Pippin escaping from the Orc camp, or Aragorn being heroic, and so on.
Maybe another way to say this is that I don’t want to watch movies (or read books or play games) or parts of movies where the violence or the sex is the point, I want to watch/read/play interesting stories.
That said, I suspect that when it comes to deciding which movies I will let my daughters see, I’ll be deciding based on violence a lot more than I’ll be deciding based on sex. I already know what kind of person I am, and seeing Legolas feather a bunch of Uruk-hai isn’t going to make me want to go to the mall and buy a bow and shoot up a bunch of bystanders; my kids are still figuring out how the world works and how they fit into it, and I doubt violent movies would contribute anything positive to their development.
Just don’t ask me how old they’ll have to be before I let them watch Lord of the Rings, because I don’t have the faintest idea. I may know what kind of person I am, but that doesn’t mean I already know how to be a good father!