One of the most widely-obeyed yet unofficial “rules” of Mormonism is that members of the Church must not see R-rated movies. I call the rule unofficial because that’s what it is. Although many adult members of the LDS faith shun all R-rated movies as a matter of principle, they have never been commanded—or even strongly encouraged—to do so. Not really. And I personally believe those who eschew R-rated movies simply because they are rated R are thereby making a serious mistake. Allow me to explain…
First off, many LDS folks will eagerly attest that some Church leader or another has counseled followers not to see R-rated movies. Perhaps the most explicit example of this comes from Ezra Taft Benson, who during his tenure as the President of the Church, said plainly: “Don’t see R-rated movies.”1 What many members of the LDS faith fail to realize is that President Benson was speaking specifically to the youth of the Church—those between the ages of 12 and 17. Indeed, I cannot find a single, official admonition from an LDS authority, against R-rated movies, that is not directed expressly to teenagers—that is, to the very age group that the Motion Picture Association of America suggests may not be the appropriate audience for such films. To my knowledge, no Church leader has ever told adult members of the LDS community that they mustn’t, or even shouldn’t, view R-rated material. I urge anyone who is skeptical of this claim to do some research of his/her own. If such a person can prove me wrong, I will gladly stand corrected. Until then, I’m not holding my breath.
Now, there are two lines of thought that a typical R-rated-movie-avoiding LDS person might offer in response to my comments. One, such a person may insist that if the youth should avoid R-rated movies, it follows that adults should also avoid R-rated movies. After all, the thinking goes, what is good for the child is good for the adult. Two, the person may insist that R-rated movies are to be avoided not because they are rated R, but because such films undoubtedly include content that it is inappropriate for anyone to see and/or to hear—a fact to which the R-rating attests. On this view, the R-rating is regarded as a warning, but the movie is avoided because of the danger to which that warning points (not because of the warning itself). I should note that these responses are not mutually exclusive. A person may simultaneously yet consistently offer both responses in order to defend the view that R-rated movies should be avoided by the LDS adult.
Neither response is satisfactory, however. Let us examine the first response (call it R1): that what is good for a child (i.e. non-adult) is good for an adult. Or, more precisely, that what is bad for a child is bad for an adult. While this is certainly plausible in many instances—eating your vegetables, saying ‘no’ to drugs, avoiding stealing, etc.—it fails to hold in the extremely generalized sense that R1 requires. It is patently false that if it is bad or inappropriate for a child to know about, to see, and/or to hear certain things, it is likewise bad or inappropriate for an adult to know about, to see, and/or to hear those things. To list just a few obvious examples, here are some things that I don’t want my children to know about before they reach a certain level of psychological and emotional maturity: rape, abortion, suicide, child molestation, terrorism, AIDS, serial killing. But the list isn’t limited to things that are typically regarded as negative, bad, or as things to avoid. Also on the list are things like sex, birth control, orgasms, and (on a wholly unrelated note) where hamburgers come from! Once my children are appropriately mature, I think they should know about all of these things. In the meantime, such knowledge can serve only to confuse and/or to harm them. It is best that these matters—many of which would garner an R-rating if examined or explored on film—be kept from those who are not adequately prepared to deal with them. Responsible adults, on the other hand, should not be kept from maturely dealing with these issues, including viewing films that may broach such topics.
Interestingly, there are spiritual/religious parallels that support my way of thinking. In the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul suggests that one must be adequately prepared to learn and to handle certain kinds of information and knowledge before that information and knowledge is received. Related points are made in Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews (5:11-14) and in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants (19:22; 50:40). The Biblical notion of learning line upon line and precept upon precept promotes a similar idea (see Isaiah 28). Meanwhile, for as much as Mormons emphasize the importance of LDS temples, it is commonly understood that one should not be prematurely exposed to the sacred ordinances that take place therein. This remains true even though it is an implicit belief of any adherent to the faith that, ideally, everyone will prepare for and participate in those ordinances. But as my aforementioned examples should have made clear, exercising discretion with what, when, and how we expose others to certain kinds of information is important not only in spiritual matters. Rather, it is a central feature of being a responsible person, period. As responsible adults more specifically, we should not allow our children to take on things that they themselves cannot responsibly handle. It’s quite possible that most R-rated content is something that even a young teenager cannot responsibly handle. And yet that doesn’t mean an adult can’t.
This brings us to the second possible response (call it R2): that R-rated movies should be avoided because of the inappropriate content that they undoubtedly possess. This is a much more reasonable line of thinking, and yet it doesn’t work as a response to my initial claim that a movie should not be avoided simply because it is R-rated. Anyone who sincerely holds R2 is admitting that the rating itself is ultimately irrelevant. My concern is that many people who would claim to hold R2 do not in fact do so, and that despite their claims to the contrary, these people really do avoid movies simply because they are rated R. The most obvious case of this is when a person shuns R-rated movies but freely watches movies that are rated PG-13 (or even PG) without any consideration of why a given film has received the rating it did. PG-13 movies in particular can be quite crude and profane, may contain excessive violence, can contain some degree of nudity, and are typically allowed at least one or two uses of the granddaddy of swear words (clue: it rhymes with “duck”). If a person watches a PG-13 movie without hesitation but cites something like R2 as a reason for avoiding all R-rated movies, such a person is inconsistent at best. Sadly, I believe many Mormons fall into this camp. Better off are those who avoid PG-13 and R-rated movies altogether. But even these people run the risk of inconsistency if they freely watch PG movies. It may surprise you, but some PG movies contain nudity (one gag in the PG-rated Airplane! involves a close-up of fully-exposed breasts exaggeratedly bouncing) and even the very-similar-to-“duck” word (e.g. Benny & Joon). Knowing this, the sincere holder of R2 should not watch any movies without learning what specific content the movies will include. In practice, it may be easier for this person never to watch movies again.
The practical complications of avoiding certain types of content are exacerbated by the fact that the MPAA ratings system is both wildly inconsistent and, to a greater extent than many people realize, arbitrary. As I’ve pointed out in a previous post, the Motion Picture Association of America is not a government institution. It is not regulated in the way that many people might assume. According to some former employees of the MPAA, there are no official criteria for the ratings board to follow when deciding what a film should be rated. They simply watch a movie and vote on its classification.2 This leads to some bizarre results. Although the ratings system didn’t exist in 1960 when Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho was released—a fairly tame film by today’s standards—the MPAA saddled the film with an R-rating in 1984. Meanwhile, in the same year, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released and received a PG rating. For those who don’t know, Temple of Doom features graphic and gruesome scenes of human sacrificial killing and contains more than a little sexual innuendo. (Parental guidance suggested, indeed!) Anyone who will watch Temple of Doom but will not watch any R-rated movie whatsoever is in serious danger of being a hypocrite. I could list a plethora of R-rated movies that are “cleaner” than Temple of Doom and that I’d much rather have my own kids watch.
The purpose of this post, however, is not to examine the shortcomings of the MPAA ratings system, nor is it to say that all adults should be watching R-rated movies. Rather, the point is that there is no good reason for avoiding R-rated movies simply because they are rated R. Even devout Mormons need not subscribe to the view that R-rated movies should be shunned without exception. It is worth reiterating that adult members of the LDS Church have never been instructed to avoid all R-rated movies.
The question remains whether it is ever particularly worthwhile to view an R-rated movie. The answer strikes me as an obvious ‘yes.’ I imagine the only people who would deny this would deny that movies in general have any merit or value. Such a view is so extreme and absurd that I do not think it worth addressing. It also strikes me as clearly false that something with content presumably deserving of an R-rating is automatically without value. The Bible is more graphic and “R-rated” than many R-rated films (as is the Book of Mormon). Does it matter that one reads the Bible but watches a movie? I’m not sure why that would matter, but I know many people draw a moral distinction between what’s written and what’s on film (even barring the issue of nudity). Does it matter if/that the accounts in the Bible are true? If they are, one might reasonably suppose that makes the stories all the worse. But even if it doesn’t, and even if it’s the case that scripture is of a higher value because it is God’s intended message for us, it should be clear that something valuable can come out of studying (via books or movies) situations that are not wholly “G-rated.” Furthermore, those who experience the events only vicariously are bound to learn many of the same lessons, whether reading an accurate history or watching a purely fabricated story unfold onscreen. “R-rated” content notwithstanding, the meaning and import of certain truths can be conveyed equally well via fiction or non-fiction. This makes a moral distinction between reading tales of rape and murder in the scriptures and watching an R-rated film like The King’s Speech (true story) or Slumdog Millionaire (not so true story) highly suspect. I’d argue that in some instances, truth simply cannot be conveyed in its fullest or noblest sense without including “R-rated” material. And for that reason, I am thankful that my religion does not prohibit me, as a mature adult, from choosing what movies I watch.
2This information comes from the documentary This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated.