I have a long history as guardian of my students' moral values, when it comes to popular media. For about 15 years, I took my 8th graders (usually numbering more than 100, plus a couple dozen parents) on an out-of-state, multiple-day travel experience. These trips involved visits to iconic landmarks (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Gateway Arch, a blues club in Chicago, the Washington D.C. mall) as well as musical theatre performances and symphony concerts. My students also performed themselves, in public venues, clinics or as community service, in veterans' facilities or schools--a big part of the educational value of these excursions.
We also spent hours on motor coaches. Hours and hours and hours, in fact, of students and parent chaperones watching videos together. Laying down clear rules for what is and is not OK entertainment for four buses full of young teenagers is an exercise in judgment, discretion and just plain not giving in.
It doesn't help that what's a fun flick for one family is the manifest work of the devil for another. Ratings are only somewhat helpful. There are any number of PG-13 films that I'd happily encourage my own 8th grader to see, but I never felt I could pass that verdict on behalf of all the parents whose kids were traveling with me. Besides, PG-13 is a pretty ambiguous caption, encompassing some sleazy-value movies designed to slide under the ratings bar and cash in on the similar low entertainment threshold of your average adolescent viewer. It was never a hill I wanted to die on, however--so my inflexible rule was always: G or PG only, and yes, I know you're already 13.
Last night, I saw Hunger Games. I was a fan of the young adult book trilogy by Suzanne Collins--and thought the filmmaker, Gary Ross, did a terrific job of imaginatively illustrating many facets of a dystopian future and clarifying sociopolitical themes for young teens. Collins herself has said that she got the idea for Hunger Games from watching Iraq war footage as well as reality TV-- two things that young teenagers can see 24/7, pretty much unvarnished, on television.
I liked the books because the story appeals to a wide cross-section of young readers and offers a lot of ideas to chew on: Death as entertainment. Political oppression, through "inevitable" poverty. Strong, courageous, honest female heroes. Loyalty and family.
I've been following the reviews, finding negative appraisals and complaints about the film largely from those who perhaps expect more artistic sophistication than feasible out of a story written for young adults. And--while there is a great deal of violence in the story, it's always clear what the source of the violence is: an omnipotent government bent on using hideous cruelty involving children to promote "patriotic values." The language used by the fictional President Snow is significant: the "tributes" show "honor" in their "sacrifice" to protect a long-standing "peace." It's a powerful message: masses of people are lied to and controlled, for the benefit of the privileged.
Still, ratings are determined by three things: sexual content, rough language and violence--not ideas that might be considered provocative. Since there's no sex and no cursing, Hunger Games gets a go-ahead PG-13, while the powerful documentary film Bully was rated R, largely because the F-word (something kids hear daily in the cafeteria) is part of the recorded conversation between real kids.
What's the takeaway here? Fictional violence is OK for young teens, but a single raw word (a word that's bleeped out of popular reality shows dozens of times each episode) can stop an important film telling important truths about real cruelty in its tracks?
Is the message in Hunger Games considered non-threatening because it's fiction? Is the message in Bully threatening because it's a realistic portrait of what we're willing to ignore in a society that doesn't care for its most vulnerable members?
I'm not certain, honestly. But I am sure of a couple of things. My own children are adults now, but if they were in 8th grade, I'd want them to see both films. In shielding kids from unpleasant realities or challenging ideas, we don't do them or ourselves any favors. There's a difference between sex, violence and crude speech as gratuitous entertainment--ever see Mob Wives?-- and open examination of our values.
And parents should be making the call. Right?