It all started innocently enough. "Mom, can we see the new James Bond movie?" my middle-schooler asked. "All my friends have seen it. It's rated PG-13."
Normally, I just say "no." Ever since my son was about 2 years old, when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were being used to sell everything from breakfast cereal to pajamas, I've been concerned about the way violence is marketed to children. For years I have been saying "no" to violent television programs, movies, video games, arcade games, toy guns, action figures and more. In a violence-happy children's culture, "no" had practically become my middle name.
It began after I did some research and found out that violence is a learned behavior. In 1992, after reviewing hundreds of studies and 30 years of research, the American Psychological Association arrived at "the irrefutable conclusion that viewing violence increases violence." I realized that children's entertainment and toys are important--children learn lifelong values in their early years. I became so passionate about this issue that in 1995 I started a national grass-roots organization, The Lion & Lamb Project, to get the message out to parents.
But my son is growing up. He's reading voraciously, writing computer code, and doing stand-up comedy in our living room. Maybe, I thought, it's time to loosen up a little bit.
I remember seeing James Bond movies as a teen, and it was relatively tame, understated stuff compared to the ultra-violent fare that today's teens are growing up with.
So I said "yes" to the latest James Bond film, "The World Is Not Enough." I went for the brand name, as I didn't see anything in the movie reviews to indicate that the brand had changed.
Well, words are not enough to describe my outrage at the explicit torture, carnage, heavy artillery, and sheer frenzy of killing that assaulted us at this latest Bond film. The clever gadgets of yesteryear were replaced by M-16s, Uzis, hand grenades, handguns, flame throwers, missiles, a nuclear bomb, and more.
In this post-Columbine era, I was especially struck by the extensive use of machine guns. In one scene, the villain smiled repeatedly as he gunned down his opponents. "Are you sure this is a PG-13 film?" I whispered to my son. "Yes," he replied shakily.
Some time later, Bond was graphically tortured in a seated contraption that pushed a wooden rod into the back of his skull, forcing his head against a metal brace and leaving him painfully gasping for breath. "Do you know what happens to a man when he strangulates?" the scantily-clad villainess asked him, as she seductively sat on his lap.
A couple of minutes later, the tables had turned and this woman was daring Bond to kill her "in cold blood." Bond does shoot her, from about two feet away. After her lifeless body falls back on the bed--a bed she had previously shared with Bond--he takes a moment to tenderly caress her forehead before moving on to more killings.
"This is a PG-13 movie?" I asked, and got up to leave. Even though this was a much more violent Bond than I remembered, I would have had no problem with it had it been rated R. I have no issue with adults seeing adult themes, and am not suggesting censorship. What upsets me is that such a movie would be actively marketed to children, and receive a PG-13 rating.
"Where did you hear about this movie?" I asked my son. "Oh, you know, television, ads, my friends. And when we had gym out on the field, a skywriter came and wrote '007' across the sky."
At Lion & Lamb, we have already documented the way PG-13 and R-rated films are marketed to children as young as 4 through toy guns, action figures and Halloween costumes. I have been horrified, along with other parents of young children, watching violent previews promoting R-rated movies at G-rated matinees. But sky-writing ads over public schools--that's a new one.
Last May, I testified before the Senate Commerce Committee at a hearing about the marketing of violence to children. I told the panel that when millions of dollars are spent marketing violence directly to children, it is unconscionable for industry to tell parents they can stem this marketing onslaught by "just saying no."
But for now, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) can place a PG-13 rating on a movie that 10 years ago would have been rated R, advertise that movie above playgrounds, and tell parents that they have been "strongly cautioned."
But what are the criteria for a PG-13 film? How much violence or language or nudity is acceptable in a PG-13 film as compared to a PG film or an R-rated film? The MPAA guidelines offer no specific criteria to help parents make an informed decision, except for this: "If violence is too rough or persistent, the film goes into the R (restricted) rating."
I went back to see the film with a friend, and this time we took notes. We counted about 20 machine guns and 24 handguns in at least seven extended killing scenes that together lasted for more than an hour. We actually saw 20 people die, although the actual body count was much higher. We witnessed two different types of torture, as well as pistol-whipping and graphic hand-to-hand (and head-to-wall) combat.
How much violence is "too rough or persistent," I asked an MPAA spokesman, who immediately went on background. "It's all subjective," he assured me. The gist of his argument was that--like pornography--the industry Ratings Board knows "rough and persistent" violence when it sees it. In the case of the Bond film, the board just didn't see it.
"Are there any child experts--teachers, psychologists--on this panel? Are there any requirements for being on this board?" I asked. There are no criteria, I was told, except parenthood. And people with credentials need not apply--"we want parents, not academicians."
I was suddenly reminded of a Hollywood classic, "The Wizard of Oz": "Don't look at the man behind the curtain!" What you would see behind the vaunted MPAA ratings system is simply this: a group of eight to 13 Hollywood-area parents--hand-picked by MPAA President Jack Valenti and generously paid by the movie industry--with allegedly no qualifications for the job and no criteria on which to base their work. It's a case of the wolf guarding the henhouse--or, in this case, the wolf guarding our children.
I once had the occasion to ask Jack Valenti whether he would work with parents to stop the marketing of violent movies and related products to children--he would not give a straight "yes" or "no" answer.
As far as Valenti is concerned, industry has zero responsibility for stopping the marketing of violence to children. On the other hand--and Valenti is quite vehement about this--parents need to be 100 percent responsible.
Scriptwriter William Mastrosimone is one of the few industry voices willing to speak out against this double standard. "I was not surprised by Littleton," he writes in the online magazine Written By, "but I was nauseated by Hollywood's knee-jerk state of denial."
The attitude in Hollywood, he says, is that each scriptwriter and director is responsible only to himself. He once asked a group of scriptwriters if they would be willing to make minor changes to a movie if it could be proven that those changes would prevent a Columbine. To a person, they answered "no."
So now I am baking brownies and taking up a collection to hire a Hollywood sky writer. This pilot will fly over the major movie studios at lunch time with a simple message: "Enough already."
HOLLYWOOD TOY TIE-INS
Many entertainment products rated by industry groups as suitable "for mature audience" only, actually are being marketed directly to young children. This is one way industry groups can make sure that these products are not really "restricted" to adults, but capture the largest possible market share--especially the lucrative children and teen market.
For example, several R and PG-13 movies now are marketed to children through action figures, video games and Halloween costumes.
"Starship Troopers," "one of the bloodiest films of all time," said one review, has action figures complete with "awesome battle-action features."
According to Galoob Toys, the manufacturer, these toys are appropriate for children ages 4 and up.
Other examples of cross-marketing, according to The Lion & Lamb Project:
* "Aliens," MPAA rating: R. Flags: not for children, violence, graphic violence, explicit language, profanity. Roger Ebert: "The movie made me feel bad. It filled me with feelings of unease and disquiet and anxiety."
From a toy package, ages 4 and up: "It's the galaxy's last chance for survival as the vicious Aliens, ferocious Predators and fearless Marines clash in the ultimate battle of domination!"
* "Starship Troopers," MPAA rating: R. Flags: graphic violence, nudity, profanity. The All-Movie Guide (http://allmovie.com/): "To say that this was the bloodiest film in recent memory would do it a disservice." Toys designed for children ages 4 and up.
* "Scream," MPAA rating: R. Flags: not for children, graphic violence. Roger Ebert: "I was aware of the incredible level of gore in this film. It is really violent."
Toys, for "Scream 2": "Teenage slasher king is back! Instead of chasing Neve Campbell, he's after you."
* "The Mummy," MPAA rating: PG-13. Flags: violence, sexual situations, explicit language. From toy packaging: "Impale The Mummy! . . . Watch as his intestines fall out of his chest!" "Slice The Mummy! . . . Witness him split open!"
Daphne White is executive director of The Lion & Lamb Project, an initiative to stop the merchandising of violence to children (www.lionlamb.org). Its offices are in Bethesda.
CAPTION: James Bond (Pierce Brosnan, left) confronts Renard (Robert Carlyle) in "The World Is Not Enough."