What We Sacrifice to the Golden Idol of Political Correctness

How much distance has grown between reality and its depiction in American pop culture? Jeff Merrion laments the widening gap between what we experience every day and what we see on TV.

I was about to write an article about how The Science of Sleep, though commonly thought of as a whimsical flight of fancy, could actually be remade as a terrifying stalker movie.

I was online researching some scenes from the movie to use as evidence towards my thesis of Stephane as super-creepy stalker when I stumbled upon a website called ScreenIt. The site is for parents who want to monitor the content of films their children watch. For every movie that comes out, the site catalogs (quite extensively) a list of all the moments that could possibly be considered offensive.

Courtesy of the American Memory Project

On the surface, this is a good idea; parents should have some manner of deciding whether a film is appropriate for their children. Of course, such a system already exists: the MPAA stamps pictures with ratings from G to NC-17. But parents frequently complain that too much variance exists within the same MPAA rating – a PG-13 movie can still be fairly offensive. So, I suppose, this is where the fine folks at ScreenIt come in.

At the top of each movie listing the site displays a handy grid listing types of objectionable content and their frequency in the movie. For example, ScreenIt tells us that The Science of Sleep contains an “extreme” amount of sex and/or nudity (not true). This matrix is more than sufficient for any parents who wish to shield their child from a certain type of content.

However, the site continues with a play-by-play of each instance of objectionable material, spoiling the entire plot. Plus, many of the details given by ScreenIt are decidedly inoffensive. Under the “blood and gore” category for The Science of Sleep, the site lists the following incident: “Guy farts.” Unless that was a truly exceptional instance of flatulence, we can rest assured that it was neither bloody nor gory. Do we really have to shield our children from farts?

The site abounds with such examples, most bafflingly for children’s movies. For the movie WALL-E (the pinnacle of human achievement, by the way), the site lists this as bad behavior children might want to imitate: “Waalllleee (said in a drawn out way.)” So what if there is a sarcastic line in the movie? Sarcasm is a fundamental mode of communication in our culture, and children are capable of contextualizing sarcasm in their own minds.

But besides irritating me with its prudishness, the site also irks me because it is a shining exemplar of a weird, singularly American, head-in-the-sand sense of social correctness that pervades mainstream culture. It is often said that entertainment is a mirror of culture. If this is the case, then our media is a frosted mirror that allows the vague shapes of reality through, but not the banal blemishes of quotidian life. This frosted mirror of culture could be caused by wishful thinking or by a tremulous respect for political correctness.

Courtesy of the American Memory Project

To see how skewed the depiction of quotidian life is in the media, we can examine the treatment of sex on television and in movies. We have fashioned an idol out of political correctness, and the idol dictates that, out of respect for young viewers, we not show graphic sexuality on television or movies watched by children. Unfortunately, biology dictates that we are a sex-obsessed race! So that we may satiate our lust to see lust on television and in movies, we create a twisted sexuality almost entirely unreflective of the real world.

Sex is treated (especially on TV, but also in many movies) as a consequence-free romp. To discuss the negative emotional and physical effects of sex with any sort of seriousness would violate our sense of taste. Can you imagine what would happen if there were an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry realizes he’s contracted a potpourri of STD’s because he’s been having one night stands every week for ten years? So, we put our heads in the sand. We deliver to our children some bizarre ideas about sex and relationships because it is easier than violating our sense of political correctness.

Perhaps the astronomical rates of teen STD infection and pregnancy are so high can be partially attributed to the fact that such a poor facsimile of true human sexuality is given to children via the media.

Though I won’t go into it any further, the same holds true for violence in the media.

My point is that by pandering to our concept of political correctness, we have created an unrealistic and damaging depiction of life. If every instance of movie violence was like the curb-stomp in American History X, and every treatment of teen sex was like Juno, how would our culture change? If we socialized our children into the world of WALL-E (Earth destroyed by vapid rampant consumerism) instead of Kung Fu Panda (a panda bear does kung fu), would they turn out any better than us?

And that is why ScreenIt bothers me; it advances a stupid, dangerous, head-in-the-sand attitude towards the reflection of life in mainstream media. Here’s where the danger lies: trying to shield their children from the harsh realities of life, adults socialize their kids into a television and movie world free of the unfortunate banal truths of existence. The kids, upon maturity, learn (often the hard way) that there is a discrepancy between the media world and the real world. And so the cycle continues, catalyzed by more sites like ScreenIt that make offerings to our golden cow idol of political correctness.

While he excels in most other areas, Jeff Merrion’s spatial logic falls within the lower third percentile of United States citizens. He is a Religious Studies major and, as such, has a long life of administrative assistantship awaiting him. To potential employers: Jeff makes a mean cup of coffee.