In response to questions about cultural influences that lead to
violence by kids, President Clinton boasted of his administration’s role
in promoting a television ratings system and legislation requiring
V-chips to be installed in all new TVs.
It’s uncanny how one man can be wrong so often.
One of the worst developments in American cultural history was the
advent of the movie ratings system in 1968.
Conventional wisdom today suggests that the more content information
provided to parents the more they will be able to protect children from
unhealthy, immoral cultural influences. The story of the movie ratings
system proves this is not necessarily true. In fact, the very opposite
might be true.
Prior to the institution of the ratings system by the Motion Picture
Association of America, the film industry maintained its moral bearings
through a close relationship with U.S. churches. The Catholic and
Protestant churches voluntarily, at the behest of the major studios,
reviewed every major motion picture script prior to production —
advising content changes and suggesting cuts.
Hollywood loved this relationship. It guaranteed that its products
would be well-received by the church-going American public, families,
children, the biggest possible audiences. Far more people attended
movies during the 30 years of this system than in the 30 years since.
Far more. The result — creatively speaking — was Hollywood’s “Golden
Age” of movies.
But, as I have explained in a previous column,
the church abandoned Hollywood — not vice versa. In a desperate effort
to maintain some standards for the creative community, which always
pushes the envelope on moral themes and artistic license, the MPAA
developed the movie ratings system in 1968.
The effect of the ratings system was to give parents a sense of
complacency about the content of movies. Parents didn’t pay attention to
what their kids were seeing, probably believing — falsely — that their
kids would be kept out of theaters showing R-rated movies. Anyone who
has attended an R-rated movie lately knows that unsupervised kids are
plentiful in those theaters. It’s frightening when you consider the
themes and graphic images to which they are exposed.
Hollywood directors have shirked any sense of responsibility since
the ratings system began. They have a built-in excuse: “I’m making an
adult movie, not one for kids. After all, it will be rated R. Just keep
your kids out.” That’s what they say, yet most of these R-rated movies
are intentionally made for teen-agers — boys in particular.
Now the same misguided principle — one that clearly didn’t work —
is being applied to television.
Since the ratings system began, television content has plummeted to
new lows. And it’s not just a question of stopping your own kids from
watching the filth. What about your neighbors’ kids? How do you exercise
any influence over them? And how will you prevent them from influencing
your kids — or, worse yet — victimizing them?
You can place your kids in private schools, you can take away their
television sets, you can monitor the kind of music to which they listen,
but it is next to impossible in America today to shelter them from
nasty, immoral, unhealthy, dangerously destructive cultural influences.
And it is impossible to protect them from the other members of society
who choose to live in that polluted moral eco-system.
For instance, I’ll bet that the parents of Cassie Bernall
did their best to help her make good choices about the movies she saw,
the music to which she listened and the television programs she watched.
Nevertheless, she was shot dead at Columbine High School by a teen
predator whose parents weren’t even aware he was building bombs in his
The V-chip wouldn’t offer your kids any protection whatsoever from
the evil influences of the pop culture. Neither does the television
ratings system. As we’ve seen after 30 years of the movie ratings
system, things are only getting worse. Ratings systems are a disaster.
What is needed to reclaim the culture is a re-emphasis on personal
responsibility — not just by parents and kids, but by the entertainment
industry as well. The purveyors of garbage need to rediscover shame —
not under government coercion, but under pressure from the marketplace.
That pressure can only come from one place — the religious
institutions which abandoned responsibility for the culture a generation
ago. They need to re-engage. They need to reassert themselves, their
values and their ethics. In short, they need to redefine right and wrong
for a culture hopelessly adrift in a sea of moral relativism.