Outsourcing Morality to Hollywood

The LDS Church has asked church members to avoid R rated movies for quite some time.  (For a little more background, here is my post that discussed the documentary Cleanflix.)  As I reviewed that post recently, some ironic things struck me.

Hollywood often gets cited as having questionable morals, producing filth, and contributing to the moral decay to society.  I don’t think that criticism is unfair.  Of course, they also put together some wonderful stories.  The Ten Commandments comes to mind, but even movies that aren’t overly religious are pretty good:  Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, Lincoln, and Apollo 13 are some pretty good, moral movies.  There are some people that are very strict in avoiding R-rated movies.  They didn’t see The Passion of the Christ back in 2004 strictly because it was rated R.  I was looking for a quote from a prominent LDS person that indicated that this was one of the few cases where the movie rating system failed, but I didn’t find it.  I did find something similar from this Times and Seasons article.

Years ago, I also remember my elder’s quorum president in a singles ward bearing testimony in church about Saving Private Ryan.  He said he knew he shouldn’t have seen the movie because it was rated R, but the story was a fantastic tale of the heroism of our WW2 soldiers, their patriotism, and the higher cause of overcoming evil.  I never saw Schindler’s List in the movie theater because it was rated R.  But when it was broadcast on television, unedited without commercials, I decided to watch it.  It was a profoundly moving film, despite the violence and non-sexual nudity in the film.  I was particularly appalled that the Nazis forced Jewish male and female prisoners to strip naked, walk around the yard, and then German officers gunned down the naked Jewish prisoners randomly.  Truly the Nazis were incredibly evil.  Could that seen have been edited out?  Sure, but the depravity of the Nazis wouldn’t have been so “naked” for the world to see.  As disturbing as the scene was, it was also powerful.  Yes, it should have been rated R, but was an amazingly good film nonetheless.

I saw a comment on Facebook that said this:

taking your teenage son to see murders on stage is ok, but not if two men kiss. I understand that there wasn’t a content warning for this one and that’s why she says she’s upset. Still, it’s rather jarring that in society we more readily take in all kinds of violence, yet some can’t handle a kiss between to people of the same sex. It just shows you that we have a relatively high tolerance for violence in our media diets, but NOT for any relationships that don’t fit heterosexual norms. Gender is a powerful issue.

As I thought about this more, some of these films I mentioned about were rated R primarily for violence:  Saving Private Ryan, The Passion of the Christ, etc.  But there are other rated R movies that aren’t violent, aren’t sexual, but get the R-rating for simply using the F-bomb.  Recently I watched Argo, as well as Slumdog Millionaire.  Neither had gratuitous violence, and the only thing I remember were two f-bombs in Argo, and 1 in Slumdog.  (Maybe there was another, but I must have missed it–I don’t recall any sexual nudity, though there were some children’s bare butts shown.)  Frost/Nixon was another cerebral, non-violent, non-sexual movie with only a couple of f-bombs from Pres Nixon to make it forbidden for LDS members.  I am too young to remember the interview, but it was pretty astonishing to hear Pres. Nixon say that the president is above the law.

Some LDS members loved to use Cleanflix to see forbidden R-rated movies.  In my old post, I noted the irony:  “some movies, such as Pretty Woman were about a prostitute, and while nudity could be edited, the subject material was still about prostitution.”  This has led some church leaders to even say that PG-13 movies are bad, and I’m sure some are.  Back in the day, I used Cleanflix to watch Blackhawk Down.  Yes, they took out the f-bombs, but the violence was still pretty horrific, and the edited movie probably still should have earned an R rating.  The movie was moving, but at the end, I just shook my head and said, “Why did we go to Somalia in the first place?  What a nightmare that was!”  It did feel our soldiers needlessly died.

Of course Europe’s ratings are quite different than the U.S., so what are they to do without the guidance of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to vet these movies for them?  I know that everyone has their own personal tastes.  Some object to language, others violence, others sexuality/nudity.  Some of us have a high tolerance for each of these. I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project–that movie gave me the creeps for about a week after I saw it.  It was rated R only because of language–there was no gratuitous violence, although death was strongly implied.  There was no blood or nudity at all, but the f-bomb was rampant in the movie.  I can’t say it was a morally uplifting movie, but the creepiness factor was pretty impressive.  The Ring was another creepy movie with a PG-13 rating, and I don’t remember any f-bombs.  I’d rate them similarly on a creepy scale (if you’re into creepy movies), but I can absolutely understand why anyone would choose not to see either film.  The Alien films have also been a favorite of mine.

Here are some questions.

(1)  Would it be better for the Church to teach correct principles, and let the saints govern themselves, rather that outsource morality to the MPAA?

(2)  Do you agree that movies with 2 f-bombs deserve an R rating?

(3)  Do you think Americans in particular, are under-concerned about violence?

(4)  Do you think Americans in particular, are over-concerned about nudity and sex?

(5)  Are there R-rated movies that you think were either misclassified, or held a positive moral and spiritual message?


6 comments on “Outsourcing Morality to Hollywood

  1. So I’ll take a stab at your questions:
    1) [Church stance] Yes, teach correct principles and let members make their own decisions. MPAA ratings are mostly based on a checklist – words, visuals, etc… – that is divorced from context and I think context really matters. Additionally, you’ve correctly pointed out that MPAA ratings aren’t worldwide.

    2) [f-bombs] On this one, I don’t really care one way or another. I think we should expect people to be ‘informed’ consumers which requires learning about the actual content which generated the rating and then deciding based on that whether to see it or not. R rated movies often sell better in the market vs PG-13 so it’s not unheard of that gratuitous F-bombs are added to push a movie into R territory. Personally, I’m usually turned off by swearing and will more likely avoid movies I know have a lot of it.

    3) [violence] Violence is unfortunately a rather eternal component of human history but the availability of violent media in movies and video games doesn’t seem to correlate with negative behaviors in a measurable way (you could argue that it has an opposite affect based on US violent crime rates but it’s a stretch to assign causality). I think depictions of ‘real’ violence, including their moral (or immoral aspects), can have a powerful affect as the OP noted with certain films. Being reminded of the horrible nature of war without having to fight one seems like a good thing. That said, I think there are LDS arguments for avoiding films that glorify violence or make light of its costs – even to the ‘good guys’.

    4) [sex] Absolutely over-concerned. Few of us made it to earth without sex, and hopefully most of us will experience sex a lot before we leave. Given that it’s a central aspect to life and human relationships, it’s a natural component to any story that involves said humans. Just like violence, context matters a lot. Unfortunately, even R-rated movies don’t often show ‘real’ sex – rather a cartoon version with just a bit more skin showing than the sitcom or PG-13 version. This then plays into the nudity fetish of American culture where nudity = sex. If there wasn’t such a taboo around nudity, cartoon depictions of sex wouldn’t sell nearly as well and would likely get left out when they aren’t central to a story (I’ll admit perhaps I’m grossly optimistic in this regard, but hope springs eternal).

    5) [classification] I think the ratings system pretty much works as designed. It gives the lazy a general idea of what a movie may or may not include while allowing the movie studios to game the system to maximize profit. It also gives the theater industry sufficient gloss that they’re thinking of ‘the children’ to keep parents generally off their back (while doing little in fact reduce R rated consumption by the under 18 demographic).

    There are many R rated movies with positive, powerful messages. I remember watching ‘The Mission’ on VHS as a family in my early teens and how it made me think about sacrifice, atonement, and treating others. While that movie was PG, it had nudity (non-sexual), violence, and adult themes which might put it in the R camp today. Some of the best movies are hard to watch and don’t have happy endings, but they teach real lessons.

  2. You asked: “Would it be better for the Church to teach correct principles, and let the saints govern themselves, rather that outsource morality to the MPAA?”

    But isn’t that what the Church is doing now? I’m not aware of any time within at least the past decade when Church leaders have specifically “outlawed” movies with a particular rating; when they have talked about entertainment choices, they have talked about content rather than ratings.

    It seems to me that the R “prohibition” these days is more of a cultural thing than something coming from the top down.

  3. Like Eric says, I haven’t heard the “R” used as a crtieria from a churchwide or even stake presidency pulpit in many years. Then again, at lot of what was rated “R” in those days is rated PG-13 today.

  4. I did a quick search on LDS.org and came across this link: http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=2135

    On Sept 17, 2013, Lynn G. Robbins was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this devotional address was given on 17 September 2013. He said,

    We will have this end area at my extreme right represent G-rated movies. At the other extreme to my left is what Hollywood calls “adult entertainment.” In between the two extremes the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gives movies ratings of PG and PG-13. We will have this pulpit represent R rated, then NC-17, and adults only. In between the two extremes, where do we draw the line over which it would be dangerous to cross?


    In 1986 President Ezra Taft Benson warned members of the danger of anything “R rated” or beyond. 37 The members thought he had drawn a line. I know that because I have heard many members of the Church say, “Oh, we can watch that movie. It’s only a PG-13. The prophet gave us permission.” They don’t say that last part, but that is what they are thinking, because they thought he posted a speed limit, so to speak.

    But what would a movie given an R rating in 1986 be rated today? Would you agree that Hollywood has relaxed its standards? It is referred to as “ratings creep.” Hollywood has gradually allowed more vulgarity, profanity, nudity, violence, sex, etc., over the decades while maintaining the same ratings…..

    The cunning result of this creeping trend is that the 1986 R-rated movie has deceptively become a PG-13 or PG movie in 2013. The shifting or creeping of the line could be compared to the mists in Lehi’s dream that “blindeth the eyes, and hardeneth the hearts of the children of men, and leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost.” 39 As members justify the viewing of such movies based upon a deceptive rating, they become more and more desensitized to inappropriate material that a prophet identified as dangerous back in 1986. Those so deceived are pacified and lulled into Satan’s territory; hence this warning in For the Strength of Youth: “Take care that your use of media does not dull your sensitivity to the Spirit.”

    So I guess that Elder Robbins is technically teaching correct principles without giving a specific line. But if I’m in attendance, I think that the R-rating line of Pres Benson is now a PG-13 line. sure, there is some leeway, but I”m not hearing Robbins back away from Benson. In fact, I’m hearing Robbins be saying “avoid PG-13 movies.” Of course that implicitly still says R-rated movies should be off limits.

    Now I get what you’re saying, because he isn’t explicitly saying that. But he is implicitly endorsing Benson here, so I think the message hasn’t really changed. In fact, now it encompasses PG-13, not just R. You may also say that this wasn’t said at GC, it was said at BYU. Well, living not far from BYU, I can tell you that the culture doesn’t make a distinction between a BYU speech or a GC speech from a Seventy. I don’t think the church is backing away from Benson at all.

    And if so, does that mean that Saving Private Ryan, and The Passion are now acceptable even though R-rated? I suspect most orthodox church members would still say no.

  5. Pres. Hinckley said we should not see inappropriate movies, a very open-ended piece of guidance and possibly the best advice we could get from an Apostle and Church President. It puts the burden of responsibility on us to make informed judgments and choices and take responsibility for those choices. The rating system is not the church’s rating system. It was devised by the movie industry’s trade association to keep the government off moviemakers’ backs. And it isn’t even used outside our nation’s borders. I appreciate Pres. Hinckley more all the time. I always felt he wanted us to be grown ups and not spend our lives as children.

  6. As a non American, I have found this ratings advice from the church confusing for a while. each country has its own movie ratings system. In Australia we have the following ratings G ,PG, M ,MA, R. I usually equate our MA rating with the church’s R rating but just my working it out my self.

    I also know from friends that I have in Europe that over there they are lenient on sex and nudity but harsh on violence. when it comes to rating film content.

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