Coming-of-Age Film Sparks Conservative Criticism

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - A new film, drawing a loose comparison to the 1967 hit, "The Graduate," is drawing fire from cultural conservatives for its portrayal of a 15-year-old boy with a crush on his stepmother who goes on to have an affair with the stepmother's best friend.

In the Graduate, Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, was a college graduate seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. But in the new, independent release called "Tadpole," the fictional sexual relationship involves a minor and an adult.

While conservative groups criticize the movie as a portrayal of statutory rape, one sex therapist interviewed by called Tadpole an "artistically fine" film that does a "passive job" of bringing the topic of adult/juvenile sexual relationships "into open discussion."

A Dangerous Trend?

"What concerns me is the adults and the kids who go to the movie theater and are exposed to this concept more and more frequently and ... exposed to the idea in favorable terms - whether it's a deep, sincere drama, or whether it's a lighthearted comedy," said Steven Isaac, associate editor of Plugged In magazine, published by the conservative group, Focus on the Family.

"It is a trend, and it is a dangerous one," Isaac said. "Our local politician does not change who we are, but our local Cineplex can."

Ed Vitagliano, a spokesman for the American Family Association drew the comparison between Tadpole and the Hoffman/Bancroft film that sparked controversy when it was released 35 years ago.

"In The Graduate, it was adultery, but it was [involving] adults," said Vitagliano. "I certainly don't approve of that, but this [Tadpole] goes even further. This is a 15-year-old boy."

"We're concerned when traditional values about human sexuality or marriage and family are undermined," Vitagliano added.

Tadpole was a big hit at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and was later picked up for distribution by Disney-owned Miramax Films.

Just 'Business as Usual'

Gerald Baldasty, professor and chair of the communications department at the University of Washington, calls the production "business as usual" - just another example of the entertainment media's calculated attempts to reach young audiences for economic purposes.

While admitting that the media has the power to contribute to the "normalization" of issues that once were considered taboo, Baldasty maintained that, "the media are pretty conservative in many ways." He also said the reaction of Isaac and other conservatives amounted to "a Chicken-Little-the sky is falling [attitude]."

"I'm always very uncomfortable with those kinds of broad statements about corrosion," Baldasty told "I don't think we're going to hell in a hand-basket."

Isaac predicts "more breakdown of social taboos when it comes to sexual behavior.

"You throw something out as an absurdity and eventually it will become commonality," he said.

'An Artistically Fine Movie'

Dr. Barnaby B. Barratt is a sex therapist and president-elect of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). After recently viewing Tadpole, he told that it's "quite an artistically fine movie" that "does a quite passive job of bringing the fact that this is a struggle very often into open discussion."

"The fact of the matter is as we grow up, the idea of sex with people older than us is both fascinating and repulsive," he said.

Statutory rape, Barratt added, is only a problem because the standards are "arbitrated legally rather than on the basis of developmental psychology [and] psychological information." The act portrayed in the movie would be a felony in only eight states, Barrat said.

According to Barrat, neither American society nor U.S. lawmakers adequately distinguish between pedophilia (sexual attraction to children), which he calls "a horrendous crime," and ephebofilia (sexual attraction to adolescents), which Barrat describes as a "much grayer issue."

As for the movie's potential impact on young viewers, Barrat dismissed the power of the medium. "I don't think movies have that much influence. I really don't," he said.

E-mail a news tip to Jessica Cantelon.

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