The content of American film and television “entertainment” has undoubtedly become more coarse and adult-oriented in recent years. Some movies and television programs are not fit for kids, and many adults don’t want to absorb the bad language, skin and gratuitous violence that characterizes mediated culture today. With that in mind, Sony Pictures last month started a “Clean Version Initiative.” The idea was to allow consumers to buy and watch certain movies that were scrubbed of foul language, sexual innuendo and graphic violence. Seems like a reasonable idea that would allow greater distribution of the movies and give viewers more control of the content they receive.
The Hollywood crowd, however, was infuriated that Sony would dare consider editing out offensive language and graphic violence from cinematic “art.” Actor/screenwriter tweeting an expletive filled threatening outburst that Sony “is gonna get hell for F---ING with our movies. Shove the clean versions up you’re a----!” The Directors Guild of America joined in and led the formal protest. Sony has backed away from the initiative.
This flap is a minor skirmish in the overall culture war playing out today, but it speaks volumes about the mindset of people who purport to guide the film and television industry. Offensive language, sexual content and heinous violence are today considered essential to the messages created by a good many producers and directors in the detached world of moviemakers.
Sony’s plan would have still allowed unedited versions of films to remain in the marketplace for viewers who wanted to see the mature content. But that wasn’t good enough for the sex and violence champions who insist that viewers see films with all of the indecorous content included. The Hollywood apologists talk about protecting the artistic rights of the show directors, but that’s simply misdirection. The ultimate intent of the creative community is to disrupt traditional societal standards and expectations of decency.
Great films do, indeed, contribute to the artistic community and help explore the human condition. But society must stop short of considering any and all filmmaking to be “art.” Only phony artists would demand that indecent and profane words, gross humor, senseless violence and other pathological nonsense should count as artistic expression.
It is difficult to see any upside to using supposed entertainment to destroy acceptable societal principles, but it appears that is what some film producers are intent on doing. A society defines itself by its storytelling, and those stories can enhance the culture or degrade it.
Mediated expressions of off-color humor and gross violence at some point dehumanize people. The profane and outlandish become legitimized as a result of dissemination by the industries of culture. Then, once particular expletives and ill-mannered content becomes standardized, Hollywood simply lowers society further into the cultural cesspool, finding new ways to shock and sensationalize. The endless cycle of societal degradation continues unabated, as has been witnessed for several decades now.
Talk of maintaining standards in expression always seems to generate defenders who want to ride First Amendment high horses in protection of the lowest common denominator. The First Amendment, however, doesn’t endorse an “anything goes” approach to art. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the year 2000, “The Constitution no more enforces a relativistic philosophy or moral nihilism than it does any other point of view. The Constitution exists precisely so that opinions and judgments, including esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature, can be formed, tested, and expressed.” The key, Kennedy went on to write, is that individuals must decide these standards, not the government. Rogen, of course, maintains the right to produce whatever coarse content he wants. Collectively, however, decent society must be courageous enough to distinguish worthwhile art from the culturally vacuous.
Filmmakers of yesteryear told stories of romance and tragedy without naked rumps, potty jokes and gory violence. Admittedly, low brow films have always been part of the moviemaking sphere, but the crass wasn’t celebrated and defended with the worthy. The “enlightened” producers of today should learn to differentiate true artistic expression from the cultural barbarism they are promoting today.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University. He is a recognized authority on media and journalistic ethics and standards, having been interviewed and quoted by over 125 newspapers. He has made over a hundred appearances on radio and television shows. He is a contributing op-ed columnist on contemporary media issues, and is the author of the book "Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences."