I had a conversation yesterday with a small group of acquaintances on Hollywood movies. The following comment was made regarding the current Dukes of Hazzard flick: “I’m not interested in seeing it…. if it isn’t something I can take my teenage kid to see, then I certainly don’t want to see it.”

You may recognise the style of sentiment. It is often spoken by those who are, or have been surrounded most of their lives by, evangelical conservatives, though such a statement doesn’t rely on the speaker himself being what you would call ‘religious’. It got me pondering again about what would prompt such a strong reaction to a movie that is, as far as I can remember, pretty tame. There are two distinct parts of the above statement: 1) that the speaker would not take his teenage kid, or, presumably, allow his teenage kid to go by themselves, to see Dukes of Hazzard, and 2) that the speaker would not watch anything that he would not allow his children to watch.

Among the many movie review websites, there are a few christian ones, one in particular, which may give us a better idea of what fuels the right-wing approach to modern media. One of the most entertaining is a site called Plugged In Online (pluggedinonline.com), the movie review section of fundamentalist christian author Dr James Dobson’s Focus on the Family website (family.org). Each review attempts to catalogue through a Dobson worldview the movie’s positive elements, spiritual content, sexual content, violent content, crude or profane language, drug and alcohol content and other negative elements, of which, one quickly discovers, the reviewers have a penchant for finding. Aside from the obvious amusement I get from such comments as “A woman makes an obscene gesture”, it soon becomes apparent that the criteria they use to establish whether or not a movie is worthy of viewing is incredibly narrow. In fact, it is consistent with my belief that evangelicalism comprises an unproportional hang-up about human sexuality to note that, in the case of Plugged In Online, sexual content is the focus of the majority of its criticism and the primary criteria by which it assesses a film’s merits.

But the disapproval of conservatives with regard to most movies, while not difficult to spot, is not always explicit either. When something isn’t explicit, it is often implied in a way which leaves no doubt as to the principals informing the opinion behind it. And that is what I’m interested in – to get behind comments like the one made above and find out if the principals which lead one to make such a statement are good principals or not. Plugged In Online starts by listing the above elements of the movie in order, like in this review of Dukes of Hazzard:

“When Luke launches the movie by having sex with Laurie, she’s seen in her underwear, and he’s seen in boxers.”

“When [Bo and Luke] finally find the girl they’re looking for, she and her roommate are wearing only towels.” (Worthy of mention, obviously…)

“At bars, people drink and smoke.” (A keen observation.)

“For laughs, the camera zooms in on visual miscues to make you think Uncle Jessie and Daisy have a ‘thing’ going on. Outtakes that run during the closing credits contain even more foul content.” (A condemnation here, although no attempt to say exactly what the reviewer thinks is “foul” and why).

Daisy Duke, played by Jessica Simpson, is introduced in the review like this: “There is only one reason for Daisy to exist in the Duke family in this post-TV reincarnation, and that’s to use her sex appeal to get her relatives out of trouble. … Ugh.” (That final syllable is the noise of disapproval.)

The conclusion of the review makes the most explicit judgement: “Sexual sludge”, “laced with vulgarity” and “sleazy”. Yet, throughout the whole website, there is rarely, in most cases, never, a connection made between the ‘negative’ elements listed in such a precise manner and the conclusions, which are damning in the extreme. It is simply assumed and taken for granted that the word ‘shit’ is ‘vulgar’ and should not be uttered, that sex appeal should be kept off of celluloid, that raising one’s middle finger is evil, that sex acts themselves in movies are almost tantamount to walking the road to hell… you get the point. No explanations, no theological arguments, no ethical theories, no moral reasoning – just the unsupported notion that ‘Its bad, therefore it shouldn’t be in a movie.’

(I’m not sure where the idea of “crude language” came from. It seems it can only have happened due to misunderstanding. In any case, there isn’t any way you can convince me that a mere word can have a moral bias. And by the way, contrary to what Plugged In Online is fond of pointing out, God’s name is not profaned when someone says “Oh my God” – for a number of reasons – and God’s name is not ‘God’ anymore than my own name is ‘Human’.)

But let me grant something for the sake of argument, just to get closer to the principal of the thing. Even if we agree that sexual promiscuity is wrong, even if we agree that there are a certain few words that are actually inherently evil in and of themselves, even if we agree that consumption of alcohol is wrong and that smoking will take you to The Pit…. do these people really believe that, in order to justify viewing a movie, you must AGREE with the actions of the characters and ensure a morally acceptable outcome in the story?

That is blatantly ridiculous.

The idea that, to watch a movie, read a book, view a painting or listen to a song, one is somehow automatically endorsing the actions or story portrayed by that art …is bizarre at the very least. Watching is an fundamentally different act to endorsing. Watching and APPRECIATING is an entirely different act to endorsing. Furthermore, watching, appreciating and ENJOYING is an entirely different act to endorsing. When I watch a Western and see a bad guy shoot someone in the street, am I endorsing the act of murder? When the reviewers at Plugged In Online saw The Passion Of The Christ (which they glowed about, incidentally), were they endorsing the act of crucifixion? Would they support a crucifixion today? Of course not – its absurd. Yet there isn’t any more reason to say that by watching a movie depicting sexual promiscuity (for example), one is endorsing it, or that it is somehow wrong to watch it; much less a movie which is intended for pure comedy, not even to make a point, like Dukes of Hazzard.

(In the Plugged In Online review of the movie Crash, directed by Paul Haggis, the reviewer even goes so far as to admit that the movie worked in its primary goal of exploring our “…preconceived notions of others.” But he didn’t like the “ultra-thick layer of grimy material [he] had just waded through to be reminded [of it]”. He finishes by throwing the entire thing out the window: “At the risk of sounding trite, I could’ve watched Sesame Street to be reminded of that”!)

Historically, the movies evangelicals have sought to ban are based on this same flaw of reasoning. Lolita is one example that springs to mind. Nabokov’s complex story depicts a middle-aged man’s tormented desire for his pubescent stepdaughter, with a wonderful dichotomy between the shock of watching it unfold and trying to establish objectivity (since Humbert is himself the narrator and there are clues that he is somewhat delusional). The cause of conservatives at the time was to BAN it. Why? Ignoring entirely the rich, complex narrative, choosing not to explore the incredibly intricate roles at play, or a million other analyses of this critically acclaimed work, they made a reactionary judgement which was, at its heart, deeply flawed. It was based on the bizarre premise that to OBSERVE is, in the case of a film, to ENDORSE. That is plainly idiotic. Do they really think that Nabokov wished to give credence to pedophilia?

Back to the original statement. “If it isn’t something I can take my teenage kid to see, then I certainly don’t want to see it.” In the case of Dukes of Hazzard, the speaker here (for whatever reason) considers it to be inappropriate for his teenage daughter to see. What is more astonishing, though, is his desire to ‘protect’ HIMSELF, as an adult, from such a movie also. As far as I can tell from Plugged In Online and other reviews, the central problem evangelicals are having with Dukes of Hazzard is the sexually dynamic Daisy Duke character. I’m confused! I’m confused that a grown man would not be able to deal maturely with humour that uses Jessica Simpson’s (considerable) sex appeal to evoke amusing responses from other characters! Am I missing something? Is there any particular reason why such a gag would be unsuitable, EVEN for his 16 year old daughter? Is there some specific injunction in either moral or ethical theory or theology that makes sexuality beyond the reach of legitimate humour, that makes the topic of sex WRONG to joke about?

Consistent with the statement I heard yesterday, its true that Plugged In Online rarely, if ever, gives a movie the thumbs-up unless it is viewable by the entire family. I find it breathtaking that conservatives see no need to distinguish between the intellectual and emotional assets of kids in contrast to adults. It is indicative of an irrational distrust of adults and a desire for control. But in reality, they’re as disconnected from the fact that adults have rational faculties and intellect as I am from their retarded worldview. Maybe it should be ‘Plugged OUT Online’.

Dear conservatives: wouldn’t it be great to take off the shackles your theological mentors gave you and learn to think for yourself?

John Wright