Scary Move

When Both Parties Team Up to Target Hollywood, Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid!

If the pols push the industry hard enough, and the public continues to back them up, we could well see a time when movies and music are forced into a state of latency. And make no mistake: The right is after nothing less than the suppression of transgressive culture. As Lynn Cheney told that Senate committee last week, the problem isn't the marketing of entertainment; "It's the content."

Consider the way the word "children" is used by these crusaders. It collapses the distinction between adolescents and kids, as if a youth of 17 were as much in need of supervision as a child of eight. In the ongoing war against hip-hop and horror films, one can see the skirmish line of a much more profound struggle to control teenagers. It's a battle being waged in every school that bans certain articles of clothing, every class that teaches abstinence and not contraception, every community where kids are subject to random police searches. In this culture, teenagers are children until they are arrested, at which point they can be tried in many jurisdictions as adults.

illustration: Carly Castillon

But teens are not the culture bashers' only target. Minors are being used "as a smokescreen for a larger agenda, which is depriving adults of their access to this material," says the ACLU's Strossen. "Because in most media, if the youth market is eliminated, the adult market is going to be affected as well." Take movies. Though kids represent just 17 percent of the filmgoing public, they generate 35 percent of all movie revenues. That's because young people like to see their favorite movies over and over again, especially in the company of friends. A true diminution of that market would greatly shrink the revenue of R-rated films, making it more difficult to produce them on a major budget and heightening the temptation to cut films so they can pass as PG.

As for the record industry, hard as it is to regulate, there's no doubt that if youths under 17 were actually prevented from buying records with parental advisories, Eminem's next album would be lucky to go aluminum.

It's hard to imagine pop culture being busted. So much money is involved; so many people love this stuff. But as Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, this is a nation of promiscuous puritans. That tension makes us eternally attracted to expression—and equally susceptible to repression.

If the culture war is ever won, it will be because the victor has a better grasp of the conditions that produce crackdowns. This ear to the ground is what enabled conservatives to run rings around civil libertarians when the hot-button issue was crime. The result was the enactment of policies that led to the incarceration of millions. The stakes in the current conflict are not quite so high, but the loss of freedom is serious enough.

The only way to prevent that is for the enemies of censorship to deal with the root reasons for people's anxiety. It's not enough to point out that violent culture doesn't lead children to act violently. That won't settle the question, because violence isn't ultimately what the panic is about.

"In formal and informal ways, Americans are connecting a lot less with our friends, neighbors, and families," says Robert Putnam, whose book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, describes a nation becoming increasingly atomized. "The range of activities we're doing less of together is startlingly wide—from voting to taking vacations with the family to watching television with the kids. And I bet parents are going to movies with their children a lot less."

As a measure of this intimacy gap, Putnam cites a YMCA survey that turns the cliché about teenagers wanting to be apart from their parents on its head. Two-thirds of the adolescents polled said they yearn to spend more time with their families. No wonder young people are 10 times as likely to be clinically depressed as their grandparents were at the same age. This is not just an artifact of medical reporting, Putnam maintains; it's a response to a new reality. Unhappy kids watch a lot of television, and they are much more likely than in previous generations to do so alone, if only because so many have TV sets, CD players, video decks, and play stations in their rooms.

In this hermetic environment, youth culture is much more enveloping and less mediated than it was a generation ago. No one can say how a steady hail of kinky images and rhymes affects a troubled child; the research will always be ambiguous because there's no way to measure such a complex interaction. But one thing seems clear: The market in violent entertainment isn't driving kids; it's the other way around. Perhaps what this culture expresses is the rage so many young people feel. For parents who sense this relationship but feels powerless to intervene, having some system that determines what their children see and hear must be tempting indeed.

Film flack Jack Valenti shrugs off this bind, grousing that no rating system will help parents who "feebly perform the duty of parenting." It's time for freedom fighters to reject such contempt, and to stand up for disassembled families: to join the campaign for flexible work hours, to demand programs that educate children about the entertainment they consume, to get real about the meaning of slash-and-bash culture. Cheney and Lieberman wouldn't be so credible if they hadn't cornered the market in moral thinking. As Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship says: "For the system to work, the critics have to make their voices heard as loudly as the stuff that's out there."

In other words: Speak truth to pop.

Research: Rouven Gueissaz

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