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Hollywood's Trojan Horse

Hollywood's Trojan Horse

Do you know what your kids are watching in the newest PG-13 films?


While Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and other politicians push new restrictions on Hollywood's marketing of R-rated movies to children, the big studios have already made the debate irrelevant through their flagrant abuse of their own rating system.

Two current releases bearing the supposedly benign PG-13 rating send utterly irresponsible messages directly to a youthful audience, but because they avoided the R designation, worried politicians -- and concerned parents -- will foolishly ignore their impact.

The skillfully directed, consistently well-acted crazy/beautiful, for instance, stars the gorgeous and talented Kirsten Dunst as a 17-year-old free spirit who cheerfully engages in daily drunkenness, illegal drug use, orgiastic partying and aggressive sexual behavior with a boy she has just met. Taking a straight-arrow football star (Jay Hernandez) to her lavish Pacific Palisades home, she leads him to her bedroom. When her nervous partner spots a middle-aged man standing just beneath the window, she continues her assault and laughingly reassures him, ''Oh, don't worry -- it's just my father.''

The message is that if you're pretty and charismatic enough, you're truly indestructible.

Of course, many real-life teenagers may engage in similarly outrageous behavior, but not without messy, complicated consequences. In the film, however, the hero never helps the self-destructive heroine confront her problem drinking; instead, she influences him to let his grades plummet, alienate his hard-working Mexican-American family and walk out on midterms. Nevertheless, he still wins a scholarship to Annapolis, and the heroine (after sympathetic cops overlook her drunkenness and drug abuse) achieves a teary reconciliation with her congressman father (Bruce Davison), who agrees to make her a higher priority in his life. The feel-good ending sends the unmistakable message that if you're pretty and charismatic enough, then you're truly indestructible.

That's the same theme running through the similarly slick (and hateful) The Fast and the Furious. A magnetic young cast led by Paul Walker, Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez lends sex appeal to the sport of street racing -- with elaborately engineered hot rods hurtling through the streets of Los Angeles at 170 miles an hour and (of course) no serious injuries to any of the principals. When not engaged in this illegal racing (which attracts huge, eager crowds in the movie), the young speed demons enjoy drunken parties crowded with gorgeous women of every description. Several of the main characters also engage in a bit of larceny on the side -- hijacking trucks at high speed on the freeway to steal their cargoes. A newcomer to the gang happens to be an undercover cop sent to investigate these crimes, but like the audience, he's so charmed by the gang leader that he can't bring himself to arrest him.

Of course, all reasonably mature moviegoers understand that the hot-rodding in The Fast and the Furious -- including a scene of two cars crashing through a railroad crossing just inches ahead of an onrushing locomotive -- is outrageously unrealistic and could never be reproduced in real life. Yet the teens and pre-teens encouraged to see the film by the absurd PG-13 rating, comprise the one segment of the audience most likely to imitate some of the behavior displayed on screen. In fact, USA TODAY recently reported that police departments across the country worry about precisely that sort of imitation.

The PG-13 category allows wildly unsuitable material to smuggle its way past walls erected by even the most protective parents.

The PG-13 category has become, alas, the Trojan horse in the movie-rating system -- allowing wildly unsuitable material to smuggle its way past walls erected by even the most protective parents. The Motion Picture Association of America, the industry group that bestows the ratings, never provides detailed explanations of its decisions, but clearly ignores the underlying messages that films convey. Instead of considering a movie's moral or behavioral impact, the ratings board counts four letter words, or measures the extent of frontal nudity, or analyzes the nature of graphic gore. Ironically, such movies as The Fast and the Furious and crazy/beautiful might have been more appropriate for teenagers had the violence in the films been more realistic and disturbing: At least in that case they might have suggested negative consequences for the life choices they glorify.

The focus on superficial elements such as nudity and foul words leads to the anomalous situation in which Oscar winners with thought-provoking messages, such as Traffic, Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan, all drew the restrictive R rating, officially banning children under 17 unless accompanied by an adult.

Meanwhile, such racy and exploitative material as crazy/beautiful and The Fast and the Furious earns a PG-13 rating that encourages the attendance of kids, since not even those below age 10 are kept out of the theaters. Moreover, many parents ignore the crucial distinction between PG-13 and the familiar, reassuring PG -- assuming that anything other than R is by definition appropriate for children.

One way to address this common mistake would be for Hollywood to adopt a less-confusing shorthand: Instead of PG 13, the designation R-13 would recognize the undeniable fact that this intermediate rating is actually far closer to R in content than it is to the kids-friendly PG.

If the movie industry wanted to act responsibly, then this new R-13 designation would also restrict admission by children 12 and under -- unless accompanied by an adult. Even without such efforts, a new label would signal parents to consider such releases more carefully before they cheerfully send their kids.

More importantly, the ratings board owes it to the public to begin considering content as well as surface details. If Hollywood's chief lobbyist, Jack Valenti, would adjust the ratings system accordingly, he could do more to block the marketing of dangerous material to young people than the politicians who hope to commandeer the issue.

This article original appeared in USA Today 7.2.01

August 11, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, December 13, 2001 12:00 AM

Disagree with Itracey

I believe the point the article's author makes is not that movies should not portray sex, drugs, and violence but that the labeling of such content must reflect the overall presentation of the material-- it's "message"-- to be effective. "Boyz in the Hood" recieves an R rating for precisely the reason it is superior to "True Lies" (a PG rated film)-- it shows the consequences of violence.
I have found that ratings are of absolutely no help in determining the potential damage a movie may inflict on young viewers. I would reccomend instead that people find a reviewer they tend to agree with and see if that person suggests viewing the film. If you look more for quality than for age appropriateness, you end up weeding out all the really bad stuff aimed at kids anyway. Then if your children DO view something disturbing it is at least likely to have been presented in a more thoughtful and mature manner which shows the consequences of the characters' actions. This then makes it easier to discuss, as well.
Movies are potentially very valuable experiences that broaden one's horizons without actually placing one in physical danger. You can "see" how something like drug abuse effects a family without having to actually live through the experience, and potential scenarios are played out which one may not have considered before.
There is an excellent article I once read in which a doctor made a case for INCREASING the amount of gore in movies. Not to titillate, but to educate. As a physician, he had seen people come in with gunshot wounds who were surprised at how much it hurt and how much danger it placed their lives in-- after all, those guys on t.v. and in the movies could just limp off to another scene with three bullets in a leg and not a whimper. He argued that if people truly understood just how messy, painful, and debilitating real life violence is, they might not be so blase' about placing themselves and others in dangerous situations.

(4) Lee Tracy, August 21, 2001 12:00 AM

These Movies reflect Real Life

I agree that the fare labeled PG-13 may be inappropriate for kids. However, Jewish families in and out of the Palisades are exposed to all sorts of things that Michael may deem inappropriate for them. We do not have lily white pure kids exposed to drugs and sex solely in movies. They are experimenting with both in schools, and parents, even when they have good communication with their kids, often find that their smart and conscientious kids have gotten hooked on drugs or are engaging in dangerous sexual experimentation. And those that got them hooked in the first place are usually other basically good kids making stupid choices. How do we change things? Not by making movies fantasyland cautionary tales.

Perhaps the hardest things about the drug problem is the way it is becoming so Jewish a problem. XTC rings are working out of Israel and all over the US with Jews comprising much of the traffics. Jewish kids are killing and getting killed over drugs, and many, many well-off Jewish kids are using. If only it were a problem limited to secular Jews, but we know it isn't that either. It is certainly tempting to blame Hollywood (lots of Jews) and go home, but it does not solve the problem.

(3) Anonymous, August 16, 2001 12:00 AM

Do it yourself

Instead of writing everywhere, just have someone rate it and post it somewhere. I agree that movies can have mixed and confusing messages, but I don't know if I'd support a campaign to force studios to write moralistic stories.

(2) Anonymous, August 14, 2001 12:00 AM

Separate from a bad community

If once upon a time a Jewish parent could feel comfortable integrating into the popular culture, that time has come to an end. Reflective non-Jews recognized this as well: that all forms of entertainment have degraded themselves to the point that they are detrimental to the mental and spiritual health of the children and adults that partake in them. It is admirable to try to influence the film industry for the better, but better to separate from Hollywood completely. Even at its best it was called "mindless entertainment". Not fitting for Jewish families.

(1) brenda craig, August 12, 2001 12:00 AM

In agreement

Have found it necessary to review
almost everything, movies, games, music,
even text books.

So, what do we do? Where do we write
for better ratings? And who rates the
video games? I justed rented a game
for my 11 year old grandson. This game
had not only BAD words (spoken and written), but used seductive suggestions.

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