Friday, August 10, 2012

Entertainment Standards, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Game of Thrones

(This post is a spoiler-free zone in case you haven't watched the shows discussed herein)

I've seen beheadings. I've witnessed stabbings, gougings, torture; dozens of grisly deaths. I've heard profanity, blasphemy, and despicably misogynistic language. I've seen a plethora of naked bodies, some male but mostly female, in situations ranging from exploitatively sexual to downright disturbing. I've seen a world that's grim, dark, and often hopeless, in which life is brief and freedom is what can be defended with a sword. Yes, I've been watching Game of Thrones.

My wife and I are currently midway through the second season of HBO's epic Dungeons n' Dragons for grown-ups, and it's already primed to take a spot on my Favorite TV Show list.*  Still, it's not always an easy show to watch. I'm not the type to blanch at the excesses of modern entertainment, but I have thought to myself in more than a few Game of Thrones episodes, "man, that is awfully graphic" and demurely averted my eyes from various acts of onscreen debauchery. Not enough to stop watching, but it's gotten me thinking about entertainment and standards.


I'm an active, faithful LDS guy, but my standards in movies and TV are lax compared to most church members. Most Mormons will not watch R-rated movies due to prophetic council on the matter a few decades ago. Some members are even more strict. I know a family whose single-digit limit on swear words (which includes "oh my god") disqualifies many popular movies, and there was an elder on my mission who admitted to having never seen a PG-13 movie at all.

Self-imposed restrictions on entertainment is an important cultural marker of Mormonism, and it's not my intention to argue that my standards are better than anybody else's. I don't have moral or religious justifications for everything I watch. Frankly, I just like quality movies and TV shows, and that's enough for me. Game of Thrones doesn't meet the standards dictated by mainstream LDS teachings, so I'll just have to live with that, for better or worse.

Still, there's plenty to analyze in why we do or don't watch certain things. For many American Mormons the R-rating is a firm boundary, though some make exceptions for "worthwhile" movies like Saving Private Ryan or popular "barely R-rated" shows -- in high school, when my standards were more in-line with Mormon norms, I was nevertheless one of many Mormon boys who justified to myself watching The Matrix in theaters. Most PG-13 movies are acceptable, though raunchier comedies and anything with strong sexuality is probably taboo. TV is murkier. HBO dramas are probably out (though the "Saving Private Ryan" exception may apply to Band of Brothers), but whether to draw the line at South Park, The Simpsons, or Desperate Housewives is open to debate.

Pictured: way, way, way over the line wherever you draw it

Amidst all this boundary-drawing I've noticed that not all bad things are equally bad. The hierarchy of content from least to most heinous seems to begin with violence, then progress to foul language and culminate in the worst thing of all: sex.

Mormons, like most Americas, are generally okay with all sorts of murder and mayhem. As long as the camera doesn't linger on specific acts of bloodshed we are comfortable. Violence is also the first standard relaxed for "good" movies like the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan. For language, we generally shrug off the occasional curse word until it starts to become excessive, and we tend to be more sensitive to cursing than to violence. Meanwhile, sex and nudity are right out. It's safe to say that most Mormons, including myself, are more uncomfortable watching a brief nude scene than a torture scene or a profane tirade.

Is that case of misplaced priorities? I don't know. You could argue that misused sexuality is more of a problem nowadays than violence, and I guess that's a testament to our increasingly less-dangerous world. But if nudity is categorically frowned upon, where do you draw the line between film and, say, Renaissance art? The Church's strong emphasis on sexual purity and avoiding pornography probably explains our discomfort with naked people on film (mostly women, since male nudity is usually played for laughs), even if it passes the Stewart Test. But if sex or nudity is depicted in ways not meant to titillate, is it ever okay? I've heard it told that some other countries tend to be more permissive of sex than violence in popular entertainment, and if that's true I'd be curious to know how that affects the shows Mormons find acceptable in those places.

Because I'm not about to do a Google Image Search for "sex" or "nudity"

Regardless of where you draw the line, I think your attitude toward objectionable content reflects how you view the purpose of entertainment. The Church teaches the necessity of watching and listening to uplifting and edifying media, so from that perspective it makes sense to avoid unpleasant things. I can think of plenty of shows packed with gratuitous sex, violence, and profanity -- as much as I liked Kill Bill, I wouldn't call it a socially redeeming movie. But just like entertainment can uplift and show the best of humanity, it can also be a powerful means of examining harsh truths. The question is, how explicitly should we examine these things? If a graphic war movie unflinchingly shows the horrors of warfare, can it make us more thoughtful or does it just desensitize us? What about a movie about sex addiction or prostitution? My current favorite show, The Wire, depicts the effects of drugs, violence, money, and corruption on multiple layers of society, and it's hard to envision its immersive world shorn of pervasive profanity. Even an ugly and sordid world like Game of Thrones might offer a few lessons for the careful viewer.

So on what basis do you decide what to watch and what to avoid? To what extent should standards be applied throughout society or church? What do you see as the purpose of entertainment and is content that would normally be prohibited acceptable in some circumstances? Whoever reads this, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


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*In case you wondered, the list is, in no particular order: Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Community, The Simpsons, Scrubs, and Avatar. I still need to see heavy-hitters like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Deadwood, so I've clearly got some work to do before I can call my list definitive.

19 comments:

  1. My standards include the following:

    1. Don't watch rated R.

    2. Be careful about which PG-13 movies to watch.

    3. Not comfortable with sex/nudity. I prefer the "tasteful cutaway." We've been counseled to treat our bodies (and others') as sacred temples and I believe part of that is not seeing all the intimate details of actors and actresses. :)

    4. Slightly more comfortable with swearing. If I've seen movies often enough, I just hit mute when they're particularly bad (e.g. the song in "The Wedding Singer"). Clark and I have actually already discussed the fact that some of our favorite shows (e.g. "Community," "Futurama") will only be watched after the children go to bed because the language is a lot stronger than we want our young children to be exposed to.

    5. Not a fan of violence but that might just be my personality anyway. Even though I love the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, I'll skip battles all the time. (Really, what's the point of dwelling on a battle for 40 minutes? I know they fight, I know people die, I know war can be simultaneously glorious and horrible, I don't need it rubbed in my face for so long.)
    On another side note, my high school history teacher had us get on the floor, set up our tables in a trench-like fashion, turned off the lights, and had us *listen* to the first 15 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan." Since you asked about the education value of entertainment, I think this was a wonderful, but tasteful, way of exposing us to the realities of something as gruesome as war.

    I also think the rating system needs to be modified. I won't go into it now because it's late and I need rest, but it does need to be changed. A tier or two added so that viewers can have a better feel of what kind of movie they're about to see. :)

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    2. I imagine we'll be making some tough decisions whenever kids enter the picture for us :). It sounds like you're a bit closer to the average Mormon in your movie watching standards -- I'm curious, do you guys have any "Saving Private Ryan" exceptions, and if so on what grounds might you allow for one?

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  2. Good post. This is something I've wondered about also, as my personal judgment with films and TV shows seems to be, "I don't like sex, violence, or profanity, unless it's a really good show, or they add to the scene, or they draw attention to some really interesting idea, or it's just done in a cool way." So, in other words, I should not be considered an authority on this subject by anyone.

    It does make me think, though, about something I read once a long time ago. Someone was talking about the whole movie violence vs. movie sex issue (how violence is more acceptable than sex), and they pointed out something that I found pretty interesting. When we see a particularly violent and bloody scene in a movie, we know that no actors were actually harmed. The blood and guts are nothing more than special effects, the guns are loaded with blanks, and the knives are all blunt with hidden tubes squirting fake blood. With nudity, however, there are no special effects; you are actually seeing a naked body.

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    1. True fact, but as far as the nakedness and sex goes, while you might be seeing a real naked body your average movie sex scene doesn't show actual or even particularly realistic sex; movie sex is just as artificial as movie blood. So what is it about seeing a person naked that's so bad? I'm not really saying it is or isn't or that sex scenes are okay, I just find it interesting that we draw such a firm line on it, ya know?

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    2. Because we're supposed to feel shame. Filthy, filthy shame.

      I know that's not necessarily what anyone wants, but it's definitely an unintended consequence.

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  3. Nice post. I decide to watch, not watch, turn off, or lampoon movies, TV shows, and books based upon whether or not the content has a point. An overabundance of meaningless slapstick humor can bother me just as much as pointless sex scenes. Admittedly, I find a lot of sex, nudity, violence, and profanity in entertainment to be pointless. But just the presence of any of these things isn't enough for me to avoid them.

    Of course, this is all subjective, but when isn't it? Your question as to where we draw the line is apt. If someone draws the line at rated PG-13 movies, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, that doesn't mean the line perfectly applies to me. They can judge my choices, I can judge their's, but in the end we're basing our choices on subjective criteria, not a set in stone, no exceptions, infallible, universally true moral rubric. I think Mormons, in this case, can base their choices on a useful (and even wise) set of guidelines. But personal application of those guidelines is an individual matter. One size does not fit all. Call me a moral relativist, but that's how I see it.

    Keep up the good writing. I've stopped by this blog frequently and almost commented on the Disney Villain post way back when, but then crept back into the shadows. Sorry. Again, nice work.

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    1. Thanks for the reply. I think you've hit on something interesting in your first paragraph, about whether a movie has a point. I'm more offended by the popularity of the Transformers franchise than I am by R-rated content. Maybe this isn't a fair thing to say, but it sometimes seems Mormons aren't good at recognizing quality movies because we're too concerned about finding "appropriate" ones. That makes me sound incredibly snobbish, but there you go :)

      Also, I'm totally down with moral relativism: as I see it, everybody's a relativist whether they admit it or not, and thank goodness for it. Relativism has a bad name because it's associated with having no standards at all, but it really just means recognizing that standards are dependent on cultural and social factors and are as subject to shifting as anything else. Relativism is why we believe Jesus' teachings about love apply universally and not just to a small subset of fellow believers, so more power to it.

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  4. This is a tough one. Sara and I have spent a good amount of time discussing our choices of entertainment. Our guiding principle is whether or not we feel the message being sent will add value to our lives. King's Speech - fantastic, Schindler's List - amazing (even with the brief sexy scene) but the dozens of movies whose sole comedic punch line is sex, not for me.

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    1. King's Speech is a perfect example of a good movie strict "no-R Mormons" might just miss. Which is sad because the profane tirade that earned the rating was critical for character development and a major plot point to boot.

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  5. I watched the Game of Thrones because I liked the books. I turned it off because it was so boring that it did not justify the gratuitous nudity and banal profanity. Really, the F-word in medieval times? Time to study a bit of history.

    I also liked Band of Brothers and watched it to the end even though it had a high number of F-words. It shot for historical accuracy. What was interesting was that when it was screened for those GIs who were there is that they universally agreed that there was much more swearing and use of the F-word in the series than actually occurred during their experience in WWII. Hollyweird wan to be accurate except when it comes to using profranity. Why?

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    1. I remember reading that in Deadwood the writers included modern profanity because the actual historical swears sound quaint nowadays and f-bombs convey the appropriate harshness for our ears; sort of a dynamic equivalence of cursing. I don't know if that logic was applied to Band of Brothers or Game of Thrones -- I'm sure the expectation that HBO dramas are just supposed to have adult content played as much a part as anything, for better or worse (although I guess any historical comparisons for Game of Thrones break down when you consider that the show has magic and dragons...)

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  6. My standards (as you well know) are basically likes Brett's and yours - if the show is really good and not totally destroyed by the sex, violence, profanity, etc. then I'll probably watch it. Shows like Superbad and American Pie don't really appeal to me because sex is just an overused, terrible joke. Shows like Game of Thrones I get really into even if I spend half an episode turned away, just listening for plot.

    Having been a very heavy user of profanity in my years, I don't mind it except for when it feels unnatural, like the actors are just trying to throw in as many F-bombs as possible. Honestly, the only time I heard a lot of profanity in real life was in high school. Ever since then it has waned. I'm not sure why Hollywood insists on using so damn much of it. Like that one scene you showed me from The Wire where the two guys walk around the crime scene and the only word used is the F word and they each say it about 50 times... While I could see a little of that happening in real life, I doubt real detectives walk around crimes scenes going, "F F F F F F F F F F F F F F F F F F F F, etc."

    It's hard to say what I will and won't watch, but lately I've been less inclined to watch so much nudity. I'm really sick of seeing so much of so many people.

    And even the shows that do use sex and violence and profanity to advance the plot, how much of that should I even watch? I just don't know where I should draw the line.

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    1. Although I hope whoever wrote that scene of The Wire won an award for that -- best repeated use of the f-bomb in television history :)

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  7. I will own up to my own biases; I dare say that I am more generous in my "standards" than Casey, Brett, or Brooke. I've attended a para-theatrical performance mixing Shakespeare's Macbeth with film noir like Hitchcock in which a naked man wearing a ceremonial/demonic bull mask came up to me and pushed me out of the way to get to a prop that he needed. The fact that he got stage blood on my clothes made me more uncomfortable than seeing or being close to his genitalia. And when I later saw Lady Macbeth disrobe to desperately wash blood off her hands and the rest of her body, I wasn't particularly embarrassed or uneasy even though she was like eight feet away from where I was standing. I have a different threshold and I recognize that.

    Still I can't say that profanity, violence, or nudity/representations of sexuality never bother me--sometimes they do. However, I think it's also worth noting that sometimes they are supposed to. Take Lady Macbeth for instance, whereas the naked male body took place in a disorienting bacchanalian scene of divination and strobe lights, his body did not interact in a disturbing way like hers. With Lady Macbeth, the degree of voyeurism which film noir both uses and critiques was purposefully disturbing. The audience can be comfortable with a nude body in its presence, but the way the environment framed the body was different. Basically, it was like she was performing for us without "knowing" we were watching--think of the shower scene from "Psycho." This was quite different from the male witch who was willing to push me out of the way. The witches interacted with the audience much more. Nude bodies were present in the same production, but their position or relationship with the audience was made quite different. And one was meant specifically to call attention to our desire to watch Lady Macbeth in her vulnerability, her viciousness, and her insanity. The audience was watching an actress undress, but what she was really revealing was the darkness in our desire to look on at such horror. It wasn't uncomfortable because she took her clothes off, but because her disrobing unveiled us.

    One discussion often left underdeveloped within systems of standards is whether or not representations are advocating for what they are displaying. One consequence of having a standard that (self)censors something like representations of sexuality or "sinful behavior" is that it tends to generate a mindset that any representation of sexuality or such behavior is by its very nature advocacy. The intent might not be their, but it will have that effect.

    I can't wholly discount this line of thinking. Because I believe representations (be they cinematic, theatrical, advertising, or even linguistic) do rehearse and teach us what we think about the world, our history, and ourselves. I would deny years of feminist and post-structuralist training if I denied that what we engage with shapes and informs how we think and to some extent how we act or behave. That said, I do hold that I don't think it's ever as cut and dry as pouring water into a vase.

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  8. Sorry, one more thought:

    Here's what I think is interesting about the discussion of standards: it's generally framed in a paradigm of "how am I impacted by the things that I watch?" What does the external stimulus do to my internal composition? We have standards in order to protect or safe-guard a way of being that we don't want corrupted. Like I said, I don't think there's anything wrong with this (it reads like second-wave feminist critiques to me and I dont have a problem with that). But it is not the only way of thinking about standards.

    Another way to approach standards is not an internal locus but actually an external locus, when you do things for reasons outside of your self or for purposes that serve the community. Usually these reasons get decried as hypocrisy because you might be doing something because other people want you to and not necessarily because you believe it. That's a good point to address, but one could also posit that there is merit in the fact that someone believes that behaving in a certain way is important because its important to the group.

    How about a concrete example? A few conferences ago, Elder L. Tom Perry talked about how when he was a business man he didn't want his associates to think that he drank alcohol. He didn't drink because of his beliefs, but he didn't stop there. He didn't want anyone mistaking his water for another drink, so he drank milk. His choice did more than satisfy an inner commitment to a principle of belief; it entered the realm of communicating those beliefs actively to a community of business men. This was the very reason that C.S. Lewis found Mormons and other ascetics annoying. To him such performative piety was seen as indicative of pride. For Lewis, Perry wasn't refraining from drinking out for God, but for the attention of men--those inside his faith to give him validation and those outside his faith to see his peculiarity. For Lewis, God is not present.

    I think Lewis has a point, but I also disagree. Mostly because of a verse in 3 Nephi 27 concerning the gospel of Christ where Christ says that the Father lifted him upon the cross that the world might see him. I think that Christ's mission was filled with denouncements against Pharisees who fastidiously observed the law. That should be in our minds daily. But there is something to the notion of invitations calling attention. In his history "Mormonism in Transition," Thomas Alexander makes the argument that the word of wisdom took on the role that it did when the Church needed something to distinguish them from the rest of the world after the end of polygamy. Early asceticism in the revelation took on a new life as the nation debated over the piety of prohibition. The Word of Wisdom acted as a way that the Mormon people could be a light to the rest of the world (aka USA Nation) as a faith community that was "already living" such standards.

    Some like Lewis decry Mormons as acting self-righteous for living according to such a code. But their sentiment ignores that the purpose of such ways of living is not solely for the renovation of the individual, but how that code of conduct can be utilized to proselytize.

    I think that the Word of Wisdom and entertainment issues can be paralleled. Perhaps, we don't imbibe substances or watch forms of entertainment because it affects our internality. OR perhaps we don't take substances into our bodies or bring certain entertainment into our lives because the very act of abstinence is way by which we proclaim something different. I think the latter might be seen as hypocritical, but I think it merits more consideration and recognition. It can offer different avenues of dialogue to discuss how we think about standards and how we make or apply them in our own lives. It requires stepping back from romanticized individualism and locating the center of our moral behavior inside the communities we belong to . . . and being okay with that.

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    1. I'm 'a respond to both your thoughts here. In terms of representations of sexuality being seen as advocacy, I think you absolutely see that in Mormon culture -- any depiction of sexuality is seen as advocacy, so we are counseled to avoid it at all costs. It reminds me of how we teach modesty and how it actually fetishizes the female body and creates unhealthy situations where, for example, guys write creepy notes to girls at BYU because their hemlines are perceived as scandalous. I wonder if it also might promote the "good girl syndrome" where people (usually women, apparently) internalize negative attitudes about sex so much that when they're married and it suddenly becomes okay they find the act difficult, repulsive, or even painful. But on the other hand, I can easily imagine a situation where racy media or pornography might encourage a skewed view of sexuality that's equally unhealthy, so I don't think the solution is that we should all go out and start watching a bunch of sex scenes :). Just that it's worth thinking about why things are the way they are.

      As far as the externality of standards, I mentioned in my post that not watching certain entertainment is a cultural marker for Mormonism, so it's absolutely something we do to create and conform with our community and set ourselves apart from others. There are Mormons for whom having a set of firms rules about Shows They Will Not Watch is a key component of how they want to be perceived as Mormons, just like the Word of Wisdom can be. It can perhaps be a matter of pride like Lewis contends, but I think it's mostly just a matter of establishing a group identity. Folks like me who don't rely on that identifier may be reluctant to "out" ourselves as watchers of HBO or AMC dramas for fear of community judgement (real or imagined). In Sunday School and conversations with other church members I tend to say nothing if someone talks about "our" standards even if what's being discussed isn't actually MY standard. I know the community norms, and I'm generally not keen to rock the boat...except for in this blog :)

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  9. My standards are pretty clear too: I'll see it if I think it's likely to be good. Love Game of Thrones, and see the sexuality and violence as clearly central to the atavistic and violent world they're creating. I'm also LDS, but the rating system is simply worthless--I don't know, or care, what the rating is for anything I see. Just found your blog, love it!

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    1. That sounds like a standard I can get behind! Based on the two or three posts I'vs skimmed so far it seems I'll be following your blog as well. Your blogger profile says you're a Theater History guy, which, as it happens, one of our contributors is as well. You might get a kick out of these posts:
      http://mightycw.blogspot.com/2012/04/pioneer-story-short-play.html
      http://mightycw.blogspot.com/2012/04/memorial.html
      http://mightycw.blogspot.com/2012/07/agamemnon-in-aulis-please-bless-allan.html
      http://mightycw.blogspot.com/2012/02/on-masturbatory-rage.html

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