July 28, 1999

July 28, 1999 | Commentary on Regulation

Switching Channels

Whenever parents complain about the entertainment industry's increasing obsession with sex, violence and foul language, its defenders nearly always offer the same solution: Switch stations. Buy some other video game. Rent a different movie.

The problem is, the industry's cultural refuse is so pervasive there's almost no escaping it. For every "Family Channel," there are two networks running foul-mouthed shows like "South Park." Every "Star Wars" video game seems outnumbered by scores of graphic shoot-em-ups like "Quake." Every "Lion King" shares space at the local video store with smutty films such as "Cruel Intentions" and "Austin Powers."

Worse, sexual innuendo, rough language, and violence now routinely show up in movies and shows aimed at teenagers and pre-teens. Consider one of this summer's releases, "American Pie," which Rolling Stone calls "a prime slice of raunchy fun." It carries an "R" rating for the swearing, partial nudity and sexual jokes that saturate the story, which involves a crusade by several high school seniors to lose their virginity by prom night. Theoretically, an "R" keeps the under-17 crowd away -- yet who can deny they are the film's intended audience?

Even those who steer clear of the local multiplex can't totally avoid this junk. Recently, a mother in Georgia became outraged by the Austin Powers doll her 11-year-old son picked up from the shelf of a Toys 'R' Us store. Clad only in glasses and socks, the doll had a voice chip which asked, "Do I make you horny, baby? Do I?" The store later apologized, explaining that it had accidentally received a shipment of "adult" Austin Powers dolls intended for another store. Small comfort when your child is asking, "Mommy, what does 'horny' mean?"

Even some of today's G-rated fare offers no relief. Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," for example, is full of beautiful art, catchy lyrics and humorous moments, but it also contains a frightening scene in which an evil cleric threatens to kill the attractive heroine if she refuses to have sex with him. Parents who hoped to treat their kids to 80 minutes of harmless, animated fun suddenly found themselves trying to explain why a man of God thought so little of committing at least two of the seven deadly sins.

My own parents keep a close watch over the television set, trying to shield my 8-year-old brother, Jamie, from cultural enlightenment such as "Jerry Springer" and the daytime soaps, as well as "Friends," "Party of Five," "Beverly Hills: 90210" and other programs that air shortly before his bedtime. These shows may be entertaining for adults, but they're unsuitable for kids -- so much so that former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford recently signed an open letter taking Hollywood producers to task for creating "an increasingly toxic popular culture."

For kids, it doesn't take much exposure to this kind of garbage before a lasting impression is made. A few years ago, for example, Jamie saw a professional wrestling match on TV and immediately began pestering friends and family members with threats of body-slams and head-locks. Fortunately, his role-playing led to relatively few injuries -- unlike the 7-year-old wrestling fan in Dallas who accidentally killed his 3-year-old brother while mimicking a wrestling move.

From Freddie Krueger masks in Halloween shops to Marilyn Manson and the Beastie Boys on music-store shelves, families are finding an increasing amount of inappropriate material intruding on their territory. Parents should be able to turn on the television set, go to the movies with their children, and shop at toy and video stores without wondering whether they should carry blindfolds for their kids.

Entertainment execs should give families more movies like "The Sandlot" and "The Spitfire Grill," more music groups like Jars of Clay and the Dixie Chicks, and more TV programs like "Touched by an Angel" and "Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman." That doesn't mean every product must be kid-friendly or that risqué material can't be made available to adults. But does adult-oriented content have to invade nearly every corner of ordinary life?

Society's come a long way since Hollywood producer David O. Selznick was fined for including the word "damn" in the final scene of 1939's "Gone With The Wind." Sixty years later, the movie version of "South Park" (a "raunchy assault on authority … tasteless, irreverent," according to Newsweek) boasts the highest number of obscenities per minute of any film, ever. Can no happy medium be found?

Amanda Parise, the 1999 Lawrence Wade journalism fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is a senior at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

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