As a writer for TMCnet, I occasionally get the chance to write about more than which technology company bought another or which combined forces to create the perfect interoperable IP-PBX solution. Sometimes, I write about social media and bullying (click this gratuitous link to one of my articles). As a result, I’ve been interested in watching the documentary Bully, which is out in limited release.
Bully delivers a thought-provoking discussion of peer-to-peer bullying in American schools. The Motion Picture Association originally gave the documentary an R-rating, which meant that many teens would not have had the opportunity to see the movie. The teens in Bully (sharp intake of breath) drop a few gratuitous F-bombs. The rating made me wonder why, as a culture, we think that sex and words associated with sex are worse than watching on-screen characters commit unspeakable acts of violence. How does a movie like Bully get an R-rating when movies like The Hunger Games get a PG-13 rating? I mean, when children fight to the death, that’s supposed to be disturbing. Right?
I’ve grown numb to a lot of violence in movies and on television. Oh, I still hide my eyes when everyone’s face melts off in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I never bat an eye when Apollo and Starbuck pump people full of lead on Battlestar Galactica. I’m not sure what makes one form of violence more digestible than another. For instance, in The Dark Knight, I didn’t flinch when Aaron Eckhart’s face was ripped off. I did, however, want to leave the theater when Two-Face pointed a gun at Commissioner Gordon’s little boy. I tend to avoid watching or reading about violence done to children. On the other hand, if adults want to slice and dice their innards, I usually don’t care.
So what about sex? Why are sex and the f-word so bad that the combination automatically generates an R-rating? If teenagers watch other teenagers say, “fuck,” whether in real life or on-screen, they are probably more likely to say, “fuck.” Gasp! If teenagers watch people have sex on-screen, then it may encourage them to want to experiment with sex. Zonkers! We are so afraid that our teens may think about sex that we never, ever want them to talk about it, hear about it, read about it or watch it in any shape or form. Teens, those awkward, acne-covered volcanoes of sex hormones, who are watching their reproductive parts grow more adult every day. I’m sure that if we protect them enough, they’ll never think about sex. Uh-huh. Yeah, right.
So what of violence? If we think that watching sex makes teens have sex, then it must follow that watching violence makes teens more violent. While the consequences of sex are hit or miss, the consequences of violence are always injury or death. Based on the gravity of the consequences alone, I’m less concerned about people being sexually titillated than I am about people becoming gratuitously violent. It seems that the Motion Picture Association, however, takes the opposite stance.
Study after study shows that watching fictional violence makes people more prone to aggressive behavior. Now, I’m not puritanical. I’m not Senator Liebermann, who thinks that violence in movies is responsible for the decline of America. But what if our cultural appetite for watching violence, and our willingness to shop it to people at a very young age, promotes the kind of aggression associated with bullying? In this day and age, thanks to social media and text messaging, aggression doesn’t require actual physical violence. You can bully someone vulnerable without ever having to even look that person in the eye while you do it.
I don’t suggest that we park out teens in front of Deep Throat, and I certainly don’t suggest that we teach our teens vulgar language. However, it’s undeniable that teen media, from video games to books to movies, is becoming increasingly violent. I’m not exactly sure why our art increasingly involves causing physical harm to others. I’m also not sure why we think sex is worse than, you know, ripping people’s arms off.