Thou Shall Not Watch Rated-R MoviesJanuary 21, 2008
by the narrator
I grew up believing that all rated-R movies were pornographic. I don’t recall ever actually being taught this, but the rhetoric and taboo from my family and through church implied and ingrained this into my mind. It wasn’t until I was twelve or thirteen that I saw my first R movie. I remember it well. I was at my best friend JR’s house for a sleepover where we stayed up late and watched Terminator 2.
Now it has been a long time since I had last seen that movie, but from what I remember, the movie was awesome (at least from the perspective of an adolescent) and there wasn’t anything offensive. I don’t recall any gratuitous violence, sex, nudity, or vulgarity. What exactly was it that I had been sheltered from for all this time? It was certainly not pornographic (as a teenage boy, I would have certainly remembered that). There wasn’t any gore. This wasn’t snuff. I’ll admit that it wasn’t necessarily the most morally uplifting film, but on the other hand, it wasn’t the opposite either. The movie didn’t preach or support immorality (unless helping a bio-cast cyborg from the future to protect the future leader and savior of mankind from a mimetic polyally android is immoral).
Since this introduction to the world of rated-R movies, I would not be surprised if I have seen more R movies than any other rating. In fact my current DVD collection probably has a 2:1 ratio of R to non-R movies. While some rated R movies certainly could be called pornographic, so are many PG-13 movies. In fact, I would say I have probably seen more PG-13 movies that I have found offensive or immoral than R movies.
So with that brief introduction to my relationship to the R. Here are some thoughts on Mormonism and R-rated media.
1. There is no Mormon commandment or standard against rated-R movies. A few days ago, two of my aunts left comments on my family’s website celebrating a recent Mormon American Idol contestant who apparently boasted that she had never seen an rated-R movies. “She told them that she was raised differently–had never seen an r-rated movie, etc. She told them that they couldn’t bring her over to the “dark side.” Bet you couldn’t guess what religion she is!” “The judges thought it was pretty weird for a married young couple not to have seen R-rated movies. Well, there are many of us in this country who have the same standards.” It seems wherever I go in Mormondom, there is the omnipresent appeal to this Mormon prohibition of the R. Where did this come from?
In an April 1986 general conference address, President Ezra Taft Benson speaking directly to the youth of the church encouraged them to avoid lewd media. Rated-R movies were among the list of things he encouraged the youth to refrain from. Since that address, any sort of call to avoid the R has been limited to 2 or 3 lines from seventies who usually just quote President Benson – the last of these occurring in 1993. The general membership of the church has never been instructed to avoid the R, and contrary to most myths, the Church’s Strength of the Youth pamphlet/booklet has never contained instructions prohibiting the youth from watching rated-R movies.
But President Benson said so! First of all, this talk was directly given to the Aaronic priesthood youth, so to turn it into a general claim is going beyond the scope of his talk. Furthermore (and this is part of a much bigger issue which I’ll leave out), the statements made by a President of the Church – even in general conference – are hardly grounds for determining LDS doctrine or commandment. There is a long list of statements made by Church Presidents in general conferences that have never become become Church commandment or doctrine. For example, Brigham Young’s Adam-God Doctrine or Spencer W. Kimball’s October 1978 conference talk against hunting.
2. The myth of the prohibition of the R prevents Mormons from seeing some very good movies. In his unsatisfactory book, What Is Mormonism All About?: Answers to the 150 Most Commonly Asked Questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, author W. F. Walker. Johanson begins his answer to the question of why Mormons don’t watch rated-R movies with the rhetorical question “Why would anybody even want to watch a rated-R movie?” He then continues to provide a caricature of the R nothing more than violent and pornographic trash. It became quickly clear that he was simply an ignoramus who has never seen a rated-R movie, nor is willing to recognize that an R movie can have some value.
Not only are all R movies not simply trash, but some of the movies that have most impacted my life in a positive way have been rated R. One of the first movies I saw after my mission was the beautiful and powerful theatrical translation of Stephen King’ The Green Mile which deeply moved me and gave me a whole new perspective of the immorality of the death penalty and our prison system (King’s The Shawshank Redemption did much of the same). War movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Glory, and the recent and amazing Letters from Iwo Jima are must-sees in this age of wars and rumors of wars. Historical depictions such as Schindler’s List or Munich help us learn from the mistakes from our past so as not to repeat them. Not only are many R-movies morally uplifting, but many (though perhaps not having a moral message) are just powerful works of art. Children of Men, Sweeney Todd, No Country for Old Men, Gone Baby Gone, Kill Bill, and The Passion are just a few recent R’s off the top of my head that excel in their artistic story-telling – whether or not the R rating was warranted.
3. The myth of a Mormon prohibition of the R leads too often to self-righteous holier-than-thou judging. Back to W.F. Walker Johanson’s lacking book. “Why would anybody even want to watch a rated-R movie?” When you create a false commandment, you create a false sense of righteousness resulting in false and ignorant judgments of others. Growing up, I thought people who watched rated R movies were sinning.
4. The R prohibition is no standard to judge the contents of a movie. While growing, the R was strictly prohibited in our home. If we were watching a PG-13 movie, my dad would have the vcr in hand, ever ready to depress the fast-forward button in case something were to show up on the television screen. It was embarrassing in front of friends.
The prohibition of the R is very much akin to the modern revision of the Word of Wisdom, the biggest difference being that the latter has an actual official position. With the modern Word of Wisdom we find all too many Mormons who won’t touch a Coke because of the unhealthiness of caffeine, but continue to stuff already obese bodies with fats, sugars, and cholesterol. They spare on meats about as much as Mitt Romney spares on lacking integrity. Similarly, I see many Mormons who frown on any rated-R movie (while even recognizing that there may be nothing wrong with the movie besides its rating), but have an an anything-goes policy with offensive hyper-sexualized PG-13 movies simply because it does not have the scarlet R. Like the Pharisees of old, they have placed a false fence as a standard of righteousness and have failed to recognize what was that that fence surrounded.
Now I don’t think that all R movies are for everybody. I don’t think any movie is for everybody. (I also think that most LDS-films are for nobody. Nor do I believe that ratings should be simply ignored. More than not, the MPAA ratings (which are very problematic) give a somewhat appropriate guide to helping us make a decision. However, that rating should not be the sole guide, but rather a sign by which we should then proceed to make further inquiries. If we see a PG-13 or R rating, we should find out why such is the case, and then determine if those things can appropriately fit within our own personal guidelines, sensibilities, and gospel understanding.
* On a side note, Richard Dutcher’s new movie Falling, billboarded as the first rated-R Mormon-film is crap. Seriously. Don’t see it.