What makes something obscene? I know the law has its own esoteric definition, but there’s no universal standard. What’s obscene to one person may be mundane to others. How else do you explain old cigarette commercials to millennials or the Super Bowl halftime show to baby boomers?
I ask this question because someone pointed out recently just how many of the biggest, most successful box office movies of the past 10 years rely on violence to sell tickets. I’m not knocking it. I was among those cheering during the final battle scene at the end of “Avengers Endgame.” I also freely admit I watched every season of “24” and was entertained by all the violence it included.
However, that same person who pointed out how much violence was part of these big-budget entertainment products, but was still PG-13. At the same time, if even one of those products included a single image of a female nipple or a depiction of a male penis, then it wouldn’t just be rated R. It would be deemed too obscene for children.
Think about that for a moment. A network TV show can freely depict a scene where Jack Baur tortures a prisoner and a PG-13 movie can depict Captain America beating the crap out of nameless thugs in an elevator, but the viewing public just can’t handle the sight of a female nipple. That’s just too much.
The only thing that could make it worse is the depiction of a penis. That wouldn’t just make a movie or TV show rated R. It would be classified as porn. Never mind the fact that half the population has a penis and even kids know what a penis looks like. Just a depiction of one in any form of media is enough to make it obscene. Meanwhile, you can buy a shirt that has Captain America punching the President.
Now, I know I’m bias because I write sexy stories and talk about sexy topics, but I feel it’s a relevant question to ask.
Why are we more comfortable consuming violent content than sexual content?
I get that sex makes people uncomfortable. I also get why parents don’t like talking to their kids about it. However, when it comes to violence, it’s okay to keep that in a proverbial blind spot.
I remember cartoons in the 80s and 90s. Those cartoons, in addition to being glorified toy commercials, used some form of violence to resolve a plot or tell a story. Some parents complained, but nobody thought it was obscene.
I remember watching “R-Rated” movies as a kid too. I put that in quotes because, by today’s standards, these movies would barley qualify as PG-13. The first “Terminator” movie was rated R. I saw it as a kid. My parents didn’t make a big deal about the sex scene in it, but that was often cited as the scene that made that movie R-rated.
If those same kids watched a simple depiction of two naked people making love, minus the violence, then that content would still be considered mature. If that scene didn’t hide genitals, then it would be considered porn. It doesn’t matter if the scene is romantic, tasteful, and completely consensual. It’s still as pornographic as the most depraved parts of the internet.
Why is that the case?
Why is this a fair standard?
Why do depictions of violence get a pass while depictions of sex are subject to rigid standards?
I understand sex makes people uncomfortable. I also understand that people can be immature about it. They can be just as immature about violence too, but people are willing to confront and tolerate it. With sex, however, it’s always obscene. It’s always taboo. There’s no room for nuance or context.
Going back to the standards of obscenity I mentioned earlier, I think there’s room for improvement. Violence, by definition, harms people. Sex, when done right, does the exact opposite. If we’re going to have standards for obscenity, then let’s at least keep things in perspective.