In the years before I had children, and even for much of the past seven years of parenting, I have loudly and indignantly declared to anyone who would listen that I would much rather show my children sex than violence. I pretentiously and self-righteously condemned our culture of guns and machismo, wondering at great volume why the motion picture rating folks will not allow my children to see a naked human body, but will let them watch stormtroopers get mowed down with wild abandon. “I have no problem,” I preached, “with my children seeing sex in a movie. I have a much bigger problem with them seeing shooting, fighting, and killing!” I declared all of these things with great certainty. As it turns out, I was also totally wrong.
Ruby is seven, and she loves superheros. We play superhero video games, pose superhero action figures, read superhero comics, and watch superhero cartoons. It is only natural then, that she has a desire to watch superhero movies. Unfortunately for her, I am not that “cool” of a Dad. I have been to the theaters with my wife to see superhero movies, and we have seen some of her classmates there with their parents, so I know that some people will take their 7-year-olds to see PG-13 movies, but I am not one of those people.
We made a deal, of sorts, that 7 is too young for PG-13, but we can talk again at 8. And as part of this exploratory deal we are going to watch most of our PG movies first, to make sure that they are not too scary or intense for her. If she can handle all that PG has to throw at her, we can talk about PG-13. In a year or two.
She’s doing pretty well with it so far. She loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Coraline. She has always been into The Dark Crystal, and though Labyrinth scared her a year ago, she watched it again recently and made it all the way to the end. But those are kids movies, meant for kids. Which she is. But as much as superheroes are for “kids,” I would argue that Iron Man and Spider-Man and The Avengers are not made for kids. They are made for fanboys. And my daughter is a fanboy. But she is also 7.
The PG movie that she most wants to see, probably because I talk about it all the time, is Ghostbusters. And I don’t know if she is ready. She says she is. But it is a little scary. I watched it when I was her age, and it did things to my brain. And yet when I think about that movie, it is not the scary ghosts that I dread explaining to my daughter. It is the sexual references. And when I imagine sitting down to watch Iron Man with her, I am not at all concerned about the missiles or the smashing. I am worried about the scene where Tony sleeps with the reporter. It turns out that I am, in practice, much more comfortable showing my kids scenes of violence than I am showing them scenes of sex.
There is actually a very simple reason for this. Laziness. You see, violence is easy. It is bad. When we see something violent on the screen and my kids ask me about it, I can say that it is never okay. We don’t behave that way. That is just a movie, but in real life violence is a non-starter. A no-brainer. End of discussion. Sex, on the other hand, is a brainer. It is not easy. Beginning of discussion. Because, unlike violence, it is complicated. Sometimes it is okay, and sometimes it is not. And even when it is okay, it is not okay to share or talk about in most situations. It is intimate and messy, and so are the conversations about it. How much do I need to explain about one-night-stands to my 7-year-old daughter. Are they never okay for any reason? Are they on the same level of moral black and white as shooting someone? Maybe to some, but not to me. I just can’t condemn sex the same way I can condemn violence. Ugh. Parenting.
I will say that there is a certain level of sexual promiscuity that I can easily discourage in the same way that I can with violence, but even then it is generally about the emotional choices of the characters, and not the sexual acts themselves that are the problem, whereas with violence it is the opposite.
“Did you see how that man punched that other man in the face? That was because he was upset. Everyone gets angry, and that’s okay, but we never punch people. What are some other ways we can express our anger besides face punching?” That’s pretty straightforward. The emotions are okay, but the actions are not.
“Did you see how that man had sex with all of those women in a row? That was because he was upset. But he has a lot of issues that he needs to work out. He should be able to have sex, but the way he was doing it was bad because he was not respecting those women, or himself, probably going back to that scene with his mother where she was screaming at his father. So now he has these feelings buried deep down, and some poor attitudes about women that he needs to deal with in therapy, because what he really wants is a stable relationship, but he’s never going to get until he…you know what? Nevermind. Let’s watch Frozen again instead.” See? Slightly more complex.
So while I desperately want to be that guy who is far happier letting his children see natural expressions of human love than with letting them see acts of physical violence, I equally don’t want to be the guy who has to pause the movie every few minutes to have a deep and meaningful conversation about human sexuality. That sounds super annoying. I suppose one solution would be to anticipate the questionable scenes in advance and have some frank discussions beforehand. That may end up being the road we will go down. But for now I’ll stick with the “she’s only 7” defense, and continue worrying more about fart jokes in Shrek than black light jokes in Guardians of the Galaxy. At least for another year.