I once wrote about a conversation I had with a friend of a friend, a Christian conservative who told me that he would only watch films that are appropriate for his teenage daughter to see. For him, the measure of a movie’s worthiness is whether or not it is suitable for his 12 year old.

I was reminded of my subsequent bemusement over this after seeing the uproar over the film Hounddog at this week’s Sundance Film Festival. Hounddog, directed by Deborah Kampmeier, is a Southern Gothic tale, the story of a girl played by the brilliant 12 year old actress Dakota Fanning. The girl is growing up in the 1960s South with her abusive father and alcoholic grandmother, and turns to the music of Elvis Presley to escape the trauma of sexual abuse.

The main controversy appears to centre around a rape scene in the film, a scene which has managed to upset some people who hadn’t even seen it. Note that Fanning is never depicted in a suggestive or graphic manner in the film, let alone nude. Kampmeier says, “If you have a hand hitting the ground, Dakota screaming ‘stop’ and you see a zipper unzip – that creates a rape.” So the scene is non-graphic in its depiction of rape; it is accomplished by the suggestion that rape is occurring in a manner which leaves no doubt that that is the case.

Ted Baehr is the chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, the organisation behind MovieGuide, a movie review magazine for Christians. The Commission is also responsible for the annual Report To The Entertainment Industry, which identifies the ten best films for families and the ten best films for mature audiences from the previous year.

Baehr has remained fairly uncontroversial for the many years he’s been doing this, remarkably. But an insight of the man came last August when he made an appearance on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country in which he compared the dinner scene in Talladega Nights to the Holocaust Museum’s use of sarcasm as an attempt to depict the film’s contempt of Christianity. Obviously he didn’t appreciate Ricky Bobby’s prayer to “Dear Little Baby Jesus, in your little golden diaper,” nor his insistence that he could pray to any Jesus he wants. Baehr then called fellow Scarborough guest Leeann Tweeden an “advocate for blasphemy.”

Baehr makes news again this week as one of those outraged by Fanning’s appearance in Hounddog. He claims the movie breaks federal child-pornography law. He said that the law covers material that “appears” to show minors engaging in a sexual act. “Even if they’re not actually performing the explicit act, we are dealing with a legal issue here.” Baehr said Fanning is being exploited in the film, and that it should be considered an outrage. “Children at 12 do not have the ability to make the types of decisions that we’re talking about here. If we’re offended by some comedian’s racial slur, why aren’t we offended by somebody taking advantage of a 12 year old child?”

It seems a tad convenient that a guy who’s made a career out of protecting adults from adult material is finding fault with a movie that’s controversial because of a sex scene. For this reason, it appears that Baehr is using grounds of “a legal issue” as an excuse to attack this film. Would Baehr have been any happier with Hounddog had there been no “legal issue” surrounding it? I’m sure even he would acknowledge that he would not. So this whole federal law argument is moot, as, I would argue, is his argument that Fanning was exploited. One may as well assert that Fanning was exploited in Charlotte’s Web when she was asked to handle farmyard pigs. What’s the difference? To exploit someone is to use them unfairly. The young actress is, rightly, subject to the authority of her parents who were happy with the screenplays and present on the sets of both Charlotte’s Web and Hounddog. Moreover, Fanning appears to have a great degree of control over her own burgeoning acting career and is very articulate in saying so. It could be argued that if anyone is exploiting Fanning, it is in fact Baehr, who is using her to mount an attack upon one of her own films in order to support his ideology.

If it’s not because of the “legal issues” (and it’s not) and it’s not because Fanning is being exploited (and she’s not), then why would Baehr so vehemently oppose this film, and the rape scene specifically?

The answer provokes a question I’ve often asked of those who frequently take offense to the content of motion pictures. Is the act of watching a film morally equivalent to endorsing the acts depicted therein? It seems obvious to me that is is not. Nobody would claim that it is wrong to watch a Western in which John Wayne shoots someone on the grounds that observing a portrayal of the act of murder would be to endorse the act of murder. No-one believes it wrong to watch a film about crime on the grounds that to observe crime is to endorse crime. So why do we continually see sexual content condemned by the Christian Right on the grounds that it is wrong to merely observe human sexual activity portrayed in art?

Baehr would not go so far as to say that Kampmeier is endorsing, or wishing her audience to endorse, the act of rape. He probably doesn’t even believe that himself, which explains the excuses he’s offering instead for his opposition to the movie. But he is therefore opposing this movie irrationally. If there is no legal issue (and there’s not), and there’s no exploitation (and there’s not), and the film is not intended to endorse the act of rape (not even Baehr would suggest that this is the case) then on what rational basis is he objecting to the movie?

The basic answer is that he’s not objecting to the movie on a rational basis at all. Rather, Baehr is speaking for millions of Christian conservatives who simply do not like to see anything shocking, particularly with regard to human sexuality, in any movies, ever, for any reason. They consider all such reasons invalid, because they’ve inherited a theology (and therefore a general approach to life) which views sexuality as something that should remain between the two sheets of a marital bed at all times. They don’t see film as art, and they don’t see art as the valid exploration of anything and everything relevant to the human situation. It’s on this same basis that another Sundance film exploring bestiality, and yet another exploring masturbation, are attacked with similar gusto.

Kampmeier is dealing with an issue in this film that few others are daring enough to address. Representatives of the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network explained to Sundance attendees that, in the time it took the audience to watch the film, eight children under the age of 12 were sexually assaulted. This is not a pornographic movie. It’s a film about sexual abuse; it certainly isn’t intended or likely to turn one on or get one off. It’s a disturbing piece of work dealing with the dark subject of rape and sexual assault, a piece of work that has been described as uncomfortable, disturbing and distressing. And that’s exactly what Kampmeier intended it to be.

The interesting thing is that I’ve yet to encounter a representative of the moral Right that can respond adequately or coherently to any of these criticisms. I would encourage those occupying that position to ask themselves if there is some specific injunction in either moral or ethical theory or theology that makes sexuality an inappropriate subject for legitimate art or even legitimate humor? How much flesh can be shown before you’d allow your 12 year old to see it? Why? At what stage must a camera switch off to make a love scene acceptable? Why? How much kissing, for example, should be shown? Why? And I’ve never heard an evangelical give an articulate or consistent theory regarding their prohibition of ‘swear’ words, or which words fall into a prohibited category and why, or whether the words are inherently evil or just contextually wrong, or whether in that case it is still prohibited to utter such words if nobody else is present to hear them, or why their use in acting roles is therefore not justified, or whether there is a consensus on the criteria for establishing certain words as ‘taboo’, or any number of other relevant questions.

Basically, asking a Christian conservative to give logical rationale regarding their theory of acceptable art is like chatting with your pet hamster about postmodernism; the only thing it’s likely to illuminate is the futility of the conversation.

Alas, for logical rationale about the rape scene in Hounddog, it seems we could do no better than to listen to the words of a 12 year old girl. “It’s a movie, and it’s called acting. I’m not going through anything. And for me, when it’s done it’s done. I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s not a rape movie. That’s not even the point of the film,” said Dakota Fanning, reacting to the uproar about her work. Responding to those who went as far as to call for the arrest of her agent and mother, Fanning reacted, “When it gets to the point of attacking my mother, my agent, my teacher, who were all on the set that day, that started to make me mad. I can let other things go, but when people start to talk about my mother, like, that’s really bad in my opinion; that’s an attack, and that’s not fair. They hadn’t seen the movie.”

The Christian conservative I wrote about at the beginning said he wouldn’t watch any film that was unsuitable for his 12 year old daughter. Perhaps that’s why a 12 year old Dakota Fanning makes considerably more sense than he, Ted Baehr, and the droves of Christian conservatives who are so upset about Hounddog.