A time traveller from the 20th Century would very likely be shocked by how standards have plummeted in the film industry in a little over a decade – particularly with movies aimed at the teen market. Even parents from the swinging ’60s and ’70s would have thought twice about the explicit films now routinely sanctioned by censors for viewing by teenagers.
If you have been living under a rock over the past decade and are not aware of how hard-core films have become, you could catch up by viewing the trilogy of films made about the increasingly popular phenomenon of “friends with benefits”. As you will probably already be aware, the term refers to the practice of entering a physical relationship with a friend with whom you have no romantic intentions – offering all the advantage of marriage without the emotional entanglement!
The movies that flaunt this practice include the much-hyped Friends With Benefits, as well as Love and Other Drugs and No Strings Attached – all big-budget efforts with high-profile casts and very similar plots. In each of them two friends jump into bed together after promising there will be no emotional engagement. In each case the film’s director was saved from having to go through the usual time-consuming courting rituals that go with romantic plots before getting to the explicit bits of the relationship. In other words, they were able to dive right in early in the film – a big advantage when you are seeking to satisfy the tastes of the so-called “internet-porn generation”.
And there are many more films rated for teens that are just as sexually explicit – films like Hall Pass, The Kids are Alright, The Change-Up and so on. Take it from this reviewer, the hard-core scenes in these films go far beyond anything parents would have viewed in their own teen years.
One of the reasons that things are getting so bad is that there are no international classification standards for movies. As a result, films that are restricted to those over 17 years in the United States are routinely shown to 15-year-olds in Australia. (You may find this surprising given that the US classification board, the Motion Picture Association of America Inc, is not a government body, but a private initiative “designed to advance the business interests of its members”, rather than to protect the interests of children. By contrast, the Australian film watchdog was set up by the Australian Government explicitly to protect young filmgoers. Go figure.)
In Australia there has been little protest about the libertarian classification system. One possible reason is that most cinemas are now very much the preserve of the young. Many of the movies rated as suitable for teens do not have plots that would interest parents, so it is possible that many parents are not yet aware of how hard-core the footage is getting. By the time that these films filter through to family TV screens it will be too late for parents to do anything about them.
The situation is a little different with violent computer games. Some publicity has been given to the fact that violent games rated for 15-year-olds and above in Australia are restricted to adult users in other countries. But despite some protest about this situation, so far nothing has been done to change it.
In a sense, though, the question of the age at which teenagers can be exposed to graphic sex and violence is a distraction from the main game. The real issue is whether these films should be screened even for older teens. People exploiting other people for their own pleasure is not only immoral, it is inherently ugly, and should be labelled in some way that gets that point across. (Of course, in each of the movies already mentioned a real relationship develops between each of the couples, but studies show that in the real world this does not happen – when people set out to exploit each other love does not bloom. Normally it just kills the friendship.)
The fact is that these films illustrate dramatically how public standards of morality have been slipping. And even more worrying than the rapidly falling moral standards is the fact that there has been little protest about what is happening. So far the only attempt to resist the trend has come from a handful of web sites that seek to inform parents about the contents of individual films. Some of these have been established by religious bodies. An example is the United States Catholic News Service site which is linked to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Its movie reviews not only offer a guide to the artistic merits of each film, but also consider the moral aspects of each one and its suitability for different age groups. (This is refreshing given that the reviews published by many church groups, including Catholic bodies, seem to have no interest at all in such questions.)
An even more thorough guide to the content of films is offered by kids-in-mind.com This site offers a 10-point rating system for each film in terms of “Sex and nudity”, “violence and gore”, and “Profanity”. If parents want more detailed, the site’s reviews offer a full account of each offending scene.
Knowing which films are unsuitable for children is a real advantage for responsible parents. Not only does it allow them to protect their own children, it helps them to cast a vote against unhealthy movies – every time we buy or rent an inappropriate movie we are casting a vote in favour of the values, or lack of them, behind these movies. If nobody bought or rented them they would stop being made. Fewer R-rated movies, particularly sexually explicit ones, are made these days because the R-rating has tarnished their image. But more and more of the material that was once found only in R-rated movies is now finding its way into movies rated for teens. And those films help to set standards for what is considered as appropriate viewing material, as well as establishing social attitudes to what is “normal” or acceptable behaviour.
As an editorial in the Australian family magazine, Perspective, summed up: “It might be argued that those who don’t want to watch such material don’t have to. But the truth is that the process of having it officially sanctioned by a government-backed ratings system serves to legitimise it. It helps to promote the idea that it is all ‘normal’, ‘natural’ and acceptable. At least where online pornography is concerned, younger people have a sense that what they are viewing is wrong. But where the graphic material that now finds its way into films is concerned, kids who say no are often made to feel that they are the strange ones. After all, their peers can argue, even the government condones it.”
The bottom line is that parents, and other responsible members of the community, need to do more to fight these trends than just refusing to see the movies. They need to write to governments, to classification boards and to movie studios protesting about what is happening. Unless more people respond, you can bet things will continue to get worse. And we will only have ourselves to blame.
William West is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. He first began reviewing movies 35 years ago.