Sex, Drugs, and Cars with Naughty Bits: Kids-in-Mind.com
At an earlier and arguably less judgmental time in my life, I mentally grouped sex stuff (dirty books, acts, or, say, innuendo) in with possums or slipping on icy sidewalks: other people might not mind these experiences, and I could accept that, but I wanted no part of them. From this perspective, a site like Kids-in-Mind seems harmless enough, and perhaps even useful. Why shouldn’t people have the ability to monitor what children in their care are exposed to? The long answer to a relatively short question, which I will attempt to explain in this essay, is that the site simply cannot accomplish its own mission and ends up serving a much more disturbing function, one which I believe to be not only unnecessary, but ultimately harmful to one’s imagination and capacity for critical thought.
I began my examination of the Kids-in-Mind website with its mission statement, which includes this intriguing explanation: “Since our system is based on objective standards, not the viewer's age or the artistic merits of a film, we enable concerned adults to determine whether a movie is appropriate for them or their children according to their own criteria.”
The site’s mission seems clear enough, but how is it accomplished? The first step is to divide the contents of each movie into four possible categories of offensive material: Sex/Nudity, Violence/Gore, Substance Abuse, and Profanity. While this may seem overly dogmatic, there are instances of surprisingly sensitive inclusions. For example, Nicole Kidman’s rape scene from Dogville is covered — as are other sexually violent moments from other films — under both Sex/Nudity and Violence/Gore. Rape, therefore, becomes understandable as a violent act with sexual overtones, not classifiable as simply a sex act. I am not at all certain this conflation is deliberate on the part of Kids-in-Mind, but I’ll still give the website credit for the classification, since it is a valuable conclusion.
In addition to its cataloguing of offenses, the site also provides “topics for discussion” that might be brought up by each film, as well as the supposed “message” of the movie. The latter turns out to be a sort of uncomfortable marriage between a theme and a moral. “We all need something to believe in” or “be kind and good and you will be rewarded” might be better suited to one of Aesop’s fables or the Book of Proverbs rather than as summaries for The Santa Clause 2 and All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, respectively, but they do seem to make more sense than the existence of these films at all. “You have to be true to yourself” seems to be the most popular message, pithily applicable to everything from Jerry Maguire to The Banger Sisters, underscoring the thematic connections between pretentious films and sappy movies that have more in common than their stars or directors might like to admit.
The “topics for discussion” fare somewhat better, although they’re often more of a stretch. Perhaps people should realize on their own that they need to discuss “attitudes about women in the workplace, conceit, bestiality, diversity, homosexuality, redemption, sexual harassment, competition, casual sex, network ratings, pornography, and respect” after seeing Anchorman, but thanks to Kids-in-Mind, no one need run the risk of neglecting to do so.
This site forces you, as a film viewer, to examine the evidence presented, then to weigh your own values. What is more powerful: an image or an implication, affection or profanity? If, for example, you want to see 28 Weeks Later, common sense dictates that you are not likely to bring your toddler, although I saw (and heard the prolonged cries of) very young children during each installment of The Lord of the Rings1. But if you are trying to decide whether to view it yourself, you must ask yourself which of the following scenes from are more potentially offensive (as they are all given the same nonjudgmental weight on the site):
1. Sex/Nudity: A husband and wife kiss a few times.
2. Violence/Gore: A man attacks another man, drools blood on his face, gouges his eyes out, and the man lies still, but then vomits blood, transforms, and attacks other people.
3. Substance Use: People drink wine with dinner.
4. Profanity: 28 F-words2 … 2 religious profanities, 5 religious exclamations.
The themes you might tackle after watching this film include “epidemics, viruses, panic, fear, quarantine, fear of infection, guilt, evacuation, immunity, and extermination”; one might also ponder its succinctly true message: “some viruses just won’t die.”
Interestingly, however, the site does not limit itself to the “objective” presentation of questionable material, despite its protestations of neutrality and lack of judgment. For instance, does it matter if the actions in question are completely impossible and can only be considered dirty if one purposely imagines them to be that way? Take, for instance, Cars3 , a 2006 animated Pixar film nominated for two Oscars, in which: “a male and female car flirt and drive together. Two female cars flirt with a male car and swoon over him in a couple of scenes. A male car flirts with a female car and asks her out to dinner.… A male car lifts up its chassis as if to flash its privates at a female car.” What’s interesting here is what’s missing: the guy car is not actually waggling tire-sized testicles at the lady car, and his action is only dirty if you care to anthropomorphize it quite deliberately in what I can only consider to be a creepy and fetishistic way. A human being is looking at this movie and clearly making a judgment which adds something to the objects presented onscreen. I have a difficult time attributing this intellectual charade even to a clever, sensitive, and precocious child who is then presumably shocked by what he or she has mentally created. It’s “as if” he had privates, not that he does, and this seems to impose the exact sort of judgment call the website claims not to have. How is innuendo evaluated in a ratingless ratings system? Look, I don’t believe children think about cars having genitalia, but if they do, they’re way too old and pervy for this movie. The gesture of literally engendering automobiles reads to me as a gratuitously adult trope. In other words, if you imagine a car having private bits — the sort that should perhaps be covered by heavy-duty tarp underwear — being offended by a children’s film may not be the most pressing issue to address in your life.
As in real life, of course, the Profanity sections make for less compelling reading material than the Sex/Nudity and Violence/Gore portions do. However, sometimes the profanity can be an interesting exercise in procrastination, should one choose to use it as such. Consider the following infractions from Backbeat: “The F-word is used about 10 times, along with a British term meaning the same thing, as well as an assortment of anatomical and scatological references and profane insults.” Instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing (namely, grading my students’ papers), I found myself contemplating exactly which British term might have been used, since there are several to choose from that would fit that description, and the fact that it would have to be something Liverpudlian, since the film is about the Beatles. In an act of procrastinational genius, I have since assembled my own list of possible references, both anatomical and scatological, that I am gradually working into my repertoire as part of an ongoing project to expand my vocabulary.
For those truly gifted in the art of stalling, I recommend a knowledgeable associate’s practice of creating “found haiku” using carefully selected elements from the Kids-in-Mind lists. Consider the following gem inspired by the Violence/Gore portion of 1998’s Paulie, the story of a talking parrot, costarring Cheech Marin:
the young girl falls from
a second story window.
oh, reckless driver.
And here’s one that sums up the key dramatic elements of The Pelican Brief, a 1994 legal thriller starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, which has even less to do with birds:
a few mild profanities
To be honest, I occasionally found myself wondering if the site was perhaps supposed to be titillating, if in a pitiful sort of way. It’s strange to think of a Kids-in-Mind contributor watching a movie while recording such precise sequences of steps and details. In fact, sometimes I think such excruciating dissection backfires, creating a passage that more closely resembles a Penthouse Forum vignette written by Gertrude Stein than it does a cautionary list of actions children supposedly should not be exposed to: “A couple is kissing in bed (we see his bare chest and both of her bare breasts for a few minutes) and they run their hands down each other's bodies; the couple takes turns with the man on top at times and the woman on top at times and we see thrusting movements a few times when the man is on top. A couple is in bed in a different scene (we see his bare chest and her bare shoulders) and the man is on top thrusting and his movements become more frenzied and rougher as the act becomes violent — during this the woman moans and at times she seems to enjoy it.” I’ll admit I enjoyed reading that much more than I did watching Vanilla Sky.
The sex stuff on the site can also serve another purpose, I believe, one much more interesting and complex than that of making me blush. It completely undermines the allegedly neutral stance Kids-in-Mind adopts. This occurred to me as I was perusing the review of Election, specifically the following passage: “several kisses, sometimes passionate … a man and woman kiss and roll around on the floor.… A man and woman have intercourse in an unusual position .”4 To report that two people are kissing is a fact more than it is an interpretation (although the term passionate is certainly a subjective one, requiring a distinct value judgment on the part of the observer), while the latter portion of the summary inherently contains a judgment, whether well-intentioned or not. When we look at people doing something, then tell someone else about it, by virtue of our repetition we automatically impose our own judgment on the subsequent utterance. Who is to say what constitutes an “unusual” position? Perhaps for the Kids-in-Mind team, the idea of anything other than missionary or reverse cowgirl is, well, “unusual.” But for a website that proclaims its neutrality at every turn, this seems like a careless and ignorant oversight at best, and at worst abject hypocrisy at its most virulent, especially because the specifics of this “unusual” position are never even explained (much to my chagrin).
Why do we actually need this kind of resource? I am not saying it shouldn’t exist, but I am definitely saying that it cannot accomplish the very things we need it for. There is no way to prevent children from being horrified by what they witness. I’m not advocating taking children to see horror films or anything else their concerned parents may deem inappropriate, although I remain unsure if parents can actually predict and interpret what those elements might turn out to be, even with the use of the lists on the site. A critic should certainly mention relevant elements of a film. Roger Ebert, for instance, might say that a given film is particularly explicit, but in a decidedly judgmental way, explaining perhaps that while a film may not be suitable for children, the actions it depicts are contextually justified. A subjective and educated review of a film can be just as telling as — and also more accurate than — a list which claims to make no judgments.
Overall, while I don’t agree with the mission or execution of Kids-in-Mind, I can’t stop thinking about it, a fact which, given my generally low attention span for websites, is an amazing feat in itself. There are some real surprises here, as the movies reviewed seem nearly as random as the judgments made concerning their sex, violence, and drug activities. Derek Jarman’s highly experimental 1992 film Edward II is included, sandwiched in the “E” section between Edtv and Eight Below. And while I remembered a lot of things from Enemy at the Gates, I had somehow forgotten that a man “passes gas to blow out a candle .”5 Lest you conclude I wasted time by looking at this site, let me assure you that the hours I spent pondering the intricacies of Kids-in-Mind furthered my own cinematic viewing aspirations. Although I had no initial interest in seeing either Lords of Dogtown or Black Snake Moan, I was sufficiently intrigued by the sex scene descriptions and relieved at the relative lack of violence to consider squeezing these onto the list of “movies with animals in their titles” that I plan to add to my Netflix queue. Please let me know if there are more I should consider — and happy viewing, whether or not you use the site.
1 At the third movie I spent most of my time watching a woman dressed as Gandalf; she rose to her feet somewhat unsteadily every time her hero came on-screen, then noisily argued for a refund after a bizarre and unwarranted fire alarm interrupted our viewing during a crucial battle scene in which evil almost triumphed over good.
2 Far be it from me to question the accuracy of Kids-in-Mind’s staff, but this statistic does seem surprisingly low for a 99-minute zombie film. It also seems like a good example of nongratuitous cursing. If not while being chased by an unfortunate creature with “rage virus,” when else would it be more fitting to unleash your cornucopia of fucks?
3 Although I limited my discussion here to Cars, it was not easy to stop there. Consider the following “Sex/Violence” entries from the PG-rated Madagascar and the possible pauses for thought contained therein: “A lemur sings a song about women moving their bodies. A lion dreams about steak and describes it in romantic terms.”
4 For the life of me, I cannot remember what this position might be. It’s been a long time since I saw Election, but now I am curious. Sadly, unlike another website (thebarefacts.com), Kids-in-Mind does not specify at exactly what point in each film specific instances of sex and nudity occur.
5 Is a child more likely to be traumatized by this than by the film’s message, “War is hell”?
Copyright 2007, Erica Bernheim
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