The “R-rating” is a hot topic when it comes to movies in LDS culture. I’m glad that it is. It means that we are worried about how we are living our lives and we recognize that what we partake of, be it media or food, should be kept within certain boundaries.

Creating a healthy diet is partly dependent on how balanced it is— remembering to have more grains than red meats, to add enough roughage, to keep hydrated, etc. And we should do the same for our media diets as well— more hearty, value-driven Iranian movies than Pirates of the Caribbean is probably a good rule of thumb. But the other part of making a healthy diet, both food-based and media based—comes from simply agreeing to not consume other substances.

Dennis just wrote an excellent post on the topic, but I have a few more things to say and hope that I’m not beating a dead horse by doing it now.

I recently had to alter my perception on what substances I will and will not consume. I’ve developed a medical condition that prevents me from eating anything fried, most cheeses, and above all, pork. I technically shouldn’t even eat raw vegetables, according to the doctors here. This isn’t a cry for sympathy; its nothing like having Coeliac disease, where all gluten must be avoided. But my condition has shed new light on some views about media consumption. In normal circumstances, raw vegetables would be preferable to cooked, and breads and grains should be the base of any diet.

Now these issues become rapidly more complicated as we discuss media, but it is in this spirit that I think we ought to approach discussion about media consumption as well.

My mission president once asked me, “Are you keeping the Word of Wisdom if you just don’t smoke and don’t drink?” The question is an important one. Is the Word of Wisdom simply about abstinence? Or is there something proactive and spiritual about it? I’m afraid that at the heart of LDS discussion behind “R-ratings” is, as Dennis suggested, a lack of responsibility for our media choices. We think we are ’safe’ if the movie isn’t ‘R.’

Yet rarely do we ask ourselves where that “R” came from. There is an organization called the Motion Picture Association of America, or the MPAA, which is mainly in charge of the ratings in America. I won’t go in to the history or functions much (I’ve included the wikipedia link, and recommend reading it for those interested), but I would like to dispel a myth about it, which is that the MPAA is a governmental organization. This is false. It is a self-appointed organization. It was created by movie companies. No one asked them to form it, no one needed to. It was in their best interest to do so. It is run by individuals who get their paychecks, in essence, from movie companies, and it serves their interests. Its goal, then, is to make money.

Does this bother anyone else? That supposedly decisions that are wholly rooted in morality are being made by an organization who has financial interests in making its moral judgments? This is only a few steps away from priestcraft in my mind. There have been major changes taking place in the MPAA’s organization and administration, but nothing I’ve said has or can be changed.

What if I found out that the doctor who diagnosed my condition worked for a food company whose product he happened to recommend to treat my disease? What if all doctors were employed by that company? The implications are frightening.

So if we are unwilling to allow a company to determine our food-based diet, why are we so willing to allow the MPAA to determine our morality-based media diet?

I am not suggesting that we loosen our moral standards, but I am suggesting that we reconsider placing our faith in a financially-driven rating organization. But then this question is raised: Is the Australian rating system better because it is government-run? I don’t know the answer to that. But at least, then, who’s running it and what their goals are would be clear to all, whereas the MPAA is based on shape-shifting, policy-shifting, and convoluted dealings — not to mention their favoring Hollywood releases over lower-budget features like Saints and Soldiers. While the content of movies is something that should be discussed (and at least the MPAA is saying something about it), the way we’re talking about it should be more thoughtful.

So much good has come because of President Benson’s statement and so much darkness has been avoided. But would he be surprised at how much as been made of his one comment in one talk about the Book of Mormon? The principle, in my opinion, has far more relevance and importance today than it could have possibly had when he said it. But a lot more baggage has come with that statement than probably anyone could have foreseen.

The history of President Benson’s address (it was given to youth before it was published in the Ensign, it was not a General Conference address) is worth noting. There are some things that are never appropriate, no matter your age, but our church definitely understands that some things are very age specific. The Aaronic priesthood is a preparatory one. Deacons don’t sit in with the High Priests. And if a sister becomes pregnant before she is 18, she goes to Relief Society, not Young Womens anymore. You don’t hold disciplinary councils in front of the general body of the church, let alone the primary. The principle is that just because something isn’t for everyone and every age doesn’t mean it’s evil.

Example: The Thin Red Line [1998] is and should be rated “R.” Not because of some hard and fast rule like it swears too much or, like other war films, is drenched in gore. The closest thing to a ’sex-scene’ is a dream-like memory of Miranda Otto pulling on her husband’s arms (both are fully clothed, but the sunlight and music make that simple action sensuous). But the “R” is not given for sexual content but for “mature philosophical themes,” meaning that it meditates on the nature of war through an existential lens. In this vein I think the recommendation is right that youth under the age of 17 shouldn’t see the film without an adult. I think that there are exceptions to the rule, but most kids under 17 wouldn’t have the presence of mind to read the film properly. This doesn’t mean that it is evil. I highly recommend the film and consider it by far a greater achievement than Saving Private Ryan which came out the same year, but it’s not a movie for 10 year-olds.

I’m not suggesting, as Orson Scott Card did, that R-rated movies should be avoided with some exceptions. I’m suggesting we should have a different standard that is independent of the MPAA.

But President Benson and other great men and women have used this specific distinction. Does that mean that President Benson was officially giving our institutional endorsement to the MPAA and the corporations that run it? Of course not. A similar example comes to my mind from the writings of Alma. In Alma 40:18-20, we read several times about the soul and the body being reunited. Yet in D&C 88:15-17, we learn that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man,” meaning that the word ’soul’ should only be used to describe the spirit and the body together. If that is so, it is impossible for the soul to be reunited with the body.

Does this mean that Alma didn’t know the difference? Or that Joseph Smith was wrong? All I do know is that both men were prophets. It could be that Alma just used the word incorrectly. That is a possibility which doesn’t make him any less of a prophet. The truth is that the guideline that President Benson gave cannot seriously be applied in a global church where most of the population has no idea what “R” means. Likewise, the administration of such ratings has changed so much since then (some years the purchasing of specific ratings has been easier, some years harder) that the system, not the counsel, can’t be considered reliable.

And we are the better for it. Might we do better if we got on our knees when making major media choices, rather than accepting what the MPAA has to say? I, for one, have a more delicate media palate than most, and I consider sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld more detrimental to my organism than the R-rated Bulworth or In the Bedroom. Bulworth shouldn’t be seen by children or by me on a regular basis, due to its flippant vulgarity and use of the f-word. Most people I know, who aren’t members of our church, use that word. I spend time with them and I don’t use that word. But I gained more from that treatise on American democracy and its corruptions as well as its successes, not to mention a hope for an honest politician, than I have from more than a dozen fluffy Disney movies, parading under the banner of “family films.”

I believe that as Latter-day Saints, we owe it to ourselves to call things by their true names rather than accepting corporate taglines or partisan moral assessments.

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