Sex and violence: Which is “worse”?January 25, 2008
From a 2006 blog post:
Hearts ripped out of chests and held aloft in all their pulsating, graphic glory as thousands of people cheer in delirious approval. Heads decapitated and tossed as gifts to the crowd, people rushing to catch them with the same fervor and delight as a child catching a foul ball in their mitt at a baseball game.
Just two of many such violent, over-the-top, gut-wrenching, stomach-turning scenes in Mel Gibson’s masterful piece of moviemaking, the R-rated “Apocalypto,” which opened at No. 1 at the box office.
Now imagine a movie featuring a man and a woman madly in love — so much in love they can’t keep their hands off each other. In this movie, which tells a compelling story that is also masterful, they repeatedly make love to each other and we see them naked (as we see the Mayan tribesmen and women in “Apocalypto”). The scenes are as sexually explicit as “Apocalypto” is violently explicit and nothing is left to the imagination.
How would that movie be rated? R or NC-17?
When it comes to media, squeamishness with respect to sex and nudity coupled with comparative tolerance for violence is probably more correctly described as an American phenomenon, rather than one specific to Mormondom. Recall the Janet Jackson Super Bowl XXXVIII controversy (“Nipplegate”)–Mormons certainly weren’t alone in their outrage.
That controversy is emblematic of this idiosyncrasy. The big television companies take comparatively little heat for profuse amounts of violence featured in their shows, but the instant a bare breast shows up, controversy ensues, and the FCC decides it’s time to “crack down.” While we’re willing to tolerate incessant beatings and killings in prime time dramas, a bare nipple (something that every human being has) on a female breast (something that roughly half the human population has) is “obscene.”
The MPAA apparently embraces a similar philosophy. While a movie may feature a liberal amount of violent content and still sneak in under the PG-13 rating (e.g., Mr. and Mrs. Smith or any James Bond film), an exposed breast is almost a guaranteed R. Too much sex, and you’ve got an NC-17 on your hands (e.g., Ang Lee’s recent Lust, Caution). I’m really not sure how much violence would be required to merit an NC-17 rating, but as the blog post quoted above hints at, apparently it’s not a particularly stringent standard.
Why is this? This perplexing approach seems totally arbitrary. When you get down to it, nudity is unspectacular (even though, in a strange alliance, both pornographers and social conservatives have tried to convince us that nudity is inherently sexual); all of us have nipples and genitals. Sex is one of the most beautiful, natural, and common of human behaviors. The desire for such intimacy is something that virtually every human being, from adolescence onward, can relate to. Violence, on the other hand, is one of the most disturbing of human tendencies. If sex represents a high point in human relations, intentionally killing or inflicting physical pain on another person certainly marks a low point.
Yet we love it when Tom Cruise shoots another nameless bad guy in the forehead and when Matt Damon kills with his bare hands.
Levi Peterson writes, “I consider the depiction of violence unrelated to sex far more pornographic than the non-violent depiction of sexual parts and acts. Ironically, millions of readers and TV watchers who pride themselves upon their militancy against sexual display calmly ingest graphic shootings, stabbings, decapitations, and disembowelments.” Such people, he continues, “do not commit a sin of lust, [but] they commit an obverse sin of prudery. Prudery forces the sexual impulse underground, banishes it to the territory of the abnormal and forbidden. Ironically, prudery reinforces pornography.”
Before I conclude, I would like to clarify that I am neither condemning all violence in media nor advocating the graphic or gratuitous depiction of sex. I believe that violent imagery may be used to reinforce a non-violent message. I also believe that sex should not be exploited, but should be treated in a tactful, mature manner. (Note that, as just implied, I feel it should be treated, rather than neglected, in our media.)
If we are more comfortable seeing one person blow another’s head off than we are two people in passionate embrace, I have to wonder: What is wrong with us?