Warning: This article
contains arguments that challenge conventional North American
thinking (or lack thereof) regarding media, culture, and youth
behaviour. Some paragraphs may offend (politically correct) readers.
Whether you're watching
a television program or a movie, often even when you're playing a
video game, you will see warnings about content. Those warnings exist
to help you make an informed decision about whether you or your
children should take in whatever is about to pop onto the screen. But
now the warnings at the beginning of a production are increasingly
being followed by disclaimers and warnings at the end as well. My
wife and I noticed this as we were watching the credits roll at the
end of the DVD version of Mamma Mia.
Taken at face value,
Mamma Mia is an entertaining musical that features the songs
of Swedish pop group ABBA, of which I admit I'm a fan. To summarize
the story, it's about a young woman named Sophie who grew up with her
single mum on a Greek island and wants to finally learn who her
father is so he can walk her down the aisle when she gets married. So
Sophie invites the three men who could conceivably be her father to
her wedding in hopes of learning the truth.
But there's more to this
movie that just what's on the surface. As the credits roll at the end
of the production there's a fascinating disclaimer that makes sure
all viewers understand that smoking is a dangerously unhealthy habit
and that nothing was meant to encourage young people to smoke. Was
there a lot of smoking in Mamma Mia? Hardly. The only tobacco
product was one scene of Sophie's fiancé chomping on an unlit cigar.
And it came during the musical number, Lay All Your Love on Me
that featured the fiancé singing the familiar lyrics, "You've
heard me saying that smoking was my only vice." That's it. But
in the new age of responsible movie production, that's enough to
warrant a disclaimer.
The disclaimer is the
result of a major policy at Universal Pictures which "discourages
depictions of tobacco smoking in all youth-rated films and will exert
its influence, where possible, to minimize the occurrence of smoking
incidents in them". Universal even has a "Tobacco
Depictions Committee" to ensure compliance. Other Hollywood
production companies have similar policies. Their logic is simple.
According to the American Legacy Foundation more than half of
youth-rated (G, PG, PG-13) movies contain smoking and research
indicates those images can influence 200,000 new youth smokers per
year. Universal may be on to something here. This is one of the
few times that any movie production house has explicitly admitted
that content can influence behaviour for good or ill.
But if that's the case,
what about the rest of Mamma Mia? It can leave you wondering
where Universal's disclaimer is for the other images in what is
considered a youth-rated movie. I caution you, though, that the
following my spoil the movie for you if you haven't seen it. Here's a
sampling of some of the content teenagers would take in. One
character refers to her repeated marriages, breast enhancements, and
skimpy underwear. Later in the movie a young man hits on a woman
about three times his age and she responds by flirting with him. The
choreography of the movie during several songs features sexually
charged images of shaking bottoms, spread out legs, crotch grabs,
pelvic thrusts, and a woman's cleavage. As well, two women are shown
severely hung over. Two gay man are shown exchanging lustful glances
Perhaps more powerful
than even those images are key plot elements in Mamma Mia. The
main character, Sophie, starts off planning to get married and trying
to learn about herself by finding out who her father is. Yet she
comes to the jaded realization she doesn't need marriage, so she runs
off and lives with her fiancé, and is happy meeting her three
possible dads without ever knowing which man is really her father.
Moreover, Sophie's mum overcomes her regrets for living promiscuously
in her youth and leaving her daughter essentially fatherless by
dismissing her concerns as "Catholic guilt". The concept of
consequences for poor moral choices seems lost on the producers of
this film (and the original stage musical).
Universal's concern for influence on youth, there is no disclaimer
encouraging young viewers to ignore what they'd just seen. It seems
ironic that a young man chomping an unlit cigar calls for a
disclaimer, but all the other images get nary a mention. The only
clue you have about the content before viewing the movie is a PG-13
rating that "strongly cautions" parents about "some
sex-related comments." Still, if we accept the premise that
movies (and other media) influence youth behaviour, there is good
reason to consider what other types of content Universal and other
companies may wish to limit in youth-rated films. Is it not plausible
that the normalization of promiscuity and open sexuality on screen
will influence the behaviour of teenagers and young adults? If so,
that has some major implications.
The choices young people
make could be life-changing, for better or for worse. Doctors Joe S.
McIlhaney and Freda McKissic Bush have reviewed some of the latest
neuro-scientific research on the effect of sex on teenagers. In their
book Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting our
Children they outline how sexual activity releases chemicals in
the brain that create emotional bonds between the people involved.
Breaking those bonds is not only painful, it makes it more difficult
for someone to form a new bond in the future. But at the same time,
the rush of dopamine experienced during sex is especially addictive
in the young brain. And Doctors McIlhaney and McKissic Bush note that
such an addiction can lead young people to adopt riskier sexual
behaviour more frequently. And Wendy Shalit notes in her book Girls
Gone Mild that many young women, find that living on the sexual
wild side has left them unable to trust men, fearful of disease and
emotional pain, and depressingly dissatisfied.
the case of an addictive substance such as tobacco, which is a
notable cause of lung cancer, emphysema, and other deadly ailments,
movie producers have decided to take action for films young people
are likely to see. I applaud them for that. But why do they not do
the same when it comes to casual sex, which can also be addictive and
cause serious mental and physical health problems? In fact, they
could go a step further and not simply avoid what might cause
negative behaviour, but deliberately show what could influence
positive behaviour in young people. Then again, this is Hollywood
we're talking about. I won't hold my breath.
Daniel Proussalidis is a journalist
and broadcaster in Ottawa, Canada.