Friday night as I was waiting for a takeout order in a downtown Salt Lake sandwich shop, I read a fascinating article in the City Weekly paper about a UVU professor’s dismay at prevailing attitudes in Utah toward “inappropriate” movies and, in particular, his disgust at the existence of movie-editing businesses, such as CleanFlix.
He wrote of how difficult it is to teach a class on media and communication when half of your class refuses to view the material you want to discuss. As an outsider to Mormon culture, he tried to understand his students’ perspective, with predictable results:
I try and try, and fail and fail, to take their perspective. “So, what are you afraid is going to happen if you watch an R-rated movie?”
“Those images go in and you can’t get them out. It affects the way you think. It will desensitize you to the real thing.”
“The real thing?”
“Do you all read romance novels and watch romantic movies?”
Oh, yes, they do!
“Does that desensitize you to romance?”
“It’s not the same thing!”
But, to argue about the reasons for fearing R-rated movies is to miss the point.
But the “death of the author” also implies that the meanings of words and images are in people, at the moment and in the context of their interpretation, while clean-movie editing is based on the idea that the meanings of words and images are in the symbols themselves, fixed and stable across time, context and audience members. Thus, some words are good—here, there, now and always—and some words are bad—here, there, now and always. That’s why they call them “bad words.” The theory is that certain words and images have bad meanings and create bad thoughts, regardless of their contexts. They must, otherwise, the whole enterprise, of allowing this word but excluding that word (yes to “Jesus,” but no to “penis”), would be entirely absurd!
Language codes (like Carlin’s famous list of the seven dirty words you can’t say on TV) don’t work because language doesn’t work that way. The meanings of words don’t stand still long enough for us to put them into boxes with their meanings affixed like postage stamps. When a would-be verbal prison guard attempts to lock up a word, he doesn’t touch its meaning. Put a word in a box and its meaning leaks right out. Can’t say “sex”? Let’s just call it “rock & roll.” Can’t say “sexy”? I’ll just say, “that girl over there, she’s got it.” Are they going to banish the word “it”?
Above all else, CleanFlicks presents an attempt to police sexual expression and desire organized around the “clean/dirty” dichotomy. But, the idea of “clean movies” and “dirty movies” is a fairy tale for children. It is as real as the Easter Bunny. There is no objective or moral science there. Words and images don’t have objective or scientific meanings. They have subjective, cultural meanings. They are contextual. People, with particular values, histories, vocabularies, patterns of cultural taste, etc., interpret them, in relation to a whole range of elements, inside the texts and out.
Language is a messy business, to be sure. Context is everything, and context is random, beyond our control. We invent these language codes to impose stability and order so we can sleep at night. A world where things mean what they say is quite comforting to a lot of people, and these codes of acceptable language and images contribute to that sense of well-being. But how strange is it that a religion as large and diverse as the LDS church would adopt the American film industry’s rating system as an arbiter of acceptable images and language? The MPAA determines ratings by checking off a list of words, images, and actions–and then quantifying their occurrence in a film. Say the word “fuck” once, and it’s a PG-13 film; say it again, and you’re in R territory. And what distinguishes the bare-breasted woman in Oskar Schindler’s bed from, say, the bare-breasted woman who literally pops into the frame of Airplane!?
In short, the codes themselves are random, subjective, and contextual, yet they give the illusion of hard-and-fast boundaries. And thus we remove meaning from where it is rightly created (within ourselves) and invest it in symbols. We effectively censor our ability to “read” and interpret by adopting the limits and biases of some other reader who has determined in advance what we should and should not experience. We surrender to the idea that words and images mean something fixed, with a stark line separating the good from the bad–we stay safe and clean by staying on the right side of the line.
Terry Eagleton suggested that Mormonism has evolved from a once-vibrant and revolutionary movement to one in which you aren’t allowed to say “fuck.” But it wasn’t always that way. Early Mormonism seems rooted in possibilities: creating a Zion on earth, building the kingdom, redeeming the House of Israel. But the same impulse to impose order and structure on a random and often frightening universe drove the early Mormons just as much as the CleanFlix folks. Early Mormons sought for reassurance that what they did mattered, that there was some sort of cosmic significance in even the most mundane activities in frontier America. The Mormon community sought from the beginning to separate itself from the Gentile world; they set up cooperative economic and social structures and called for converts to gather to places of refuge from the world. Latter-day Saints were constructing their own dichotomies, seeking to establish something “fixed and stable across time, context, and audience.”
In the 21st century, Mormons are far less separated from the rest of the world geographically or culturally, so these dichotomies become much more important for many as cultural markers that delineate the borders of what it is to be a Latter-day Saint. Not surprisingly, these markers almost always appear as dichotomies. Thus, Boyd Packer warns that we should not allow “inappropriate” thoughts to remain on the stage of our minds (they can be driven out with a hymn), and Thomas Monson insists that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind, thus “doubting, agnostic thoughts” must be banished from our thoughts.
But, like language, life is rarely lived within the black and white. Joseph Smith seems to have recognized this with his emphasis on a more situational and relative morality. But trying to live a black-and-white life not only causes us to miss the gray areas, but it also prevents us from seeing all the other colors of the spectrum.