Friday, September 01, 2006

Nell Minow (aka The Movie Mom), Joe Bob Briggs, and the Death of Fun

January 15, 1982 was more than the 55th anniversary of the Black Dahlia killing, it also saw the birth of the first Joe Bob Briggs drive-in movie review. The 80's were the decade that the culture wars really took root in the American psyche and Joe Bob jumped into the fray head first. Joe Bob came armed with a sharp sense of humor and a vast knowledge of blood, breasts, and beasts.

December 1984 Tipper Gore, according to her book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society, purchased Purple Rain by Prince for her then 11-year old daughter. Four months after Tipper Gore purchased the Prince CD, Joe Bob Briggs was fired from the Dallas Times Herald due to protests of a spoof version of "We are the World" called "We are the Weird." The events are not directly related, nor is the fact that both Raising Kids and Joe Bob's Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In were published in 1987. But these events do show the power that the culture wars hold on our collective consciousness.

The culture wars are an interesting phenomenon where political opponents on one issue can be the staunchest allies on another issue. This is especially true whenever "what is best for the kids" comes into the picture. People who might attack one another, if not for the intervening presence of police, during a protest/support rally at an abortion clinic find often find themselves agreeing about how movie X, or song Y, are the root cause of all the shenanigans teenagers are getting themselves into today. Ask an anti-abortion Baptist, or a liberal Sociologist, about the nefarious influence of Hip Hop and you'll get the same response. The critics might use a different vocabulary, but the critique is the same. It is the same old story that has been handed down since the Waltz, Ragtime, and Rock n' Roll. As the reverend in Footloose might say, "It's the Devil's music." Or as Theodor Adorno might say, "It is a vulgar manipulation of the youthful proletariat."

Today, the culture wars are alive and well. This morning NPR hosted an interview with Nell Minow (aka The Movie Mom). Minow has written a book about how parents can become more involved with their children's movie choices. Shades of Tipper and the PMRC? In the NPR interview Minow discussed how the PG rated Material Girls starring the "Duff Sisters" was inappropriate for children. Minow was especially disturbed by Hilary Duff's imitation of Erin Brocovich and the inclusion of prostitution in the narrative. According to Minow, sexual innuendo doesn't belong in a movie rated appropriate for 2nd and 3rd graders. I think I agree with her that overt sexual innuendo might be inappropriate for 7 and 8 year olds, but I was taken aback when she said that PG movies were for 2nd and 3rd graders. That's right, Nell Minow believes that PG (Parental Guidance) describes a movie that should be appropriate for 2nd and 3rd graders. Don't believe me? Listen to the interview. I thought the words "Parental Guidance suggested" meant parental guidance suggested and not, "send your 7 and 8 year-olds alone to this picture before reviewing it yourself."

Here is how the MPAA, the ratings body, describes a PG movie.

This is a film which clearly needs to be examined by parents before they let their children attend. The label PG plainly states parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children, but leaves the parent to make the decision. Parents are warned against sending their children, unseen and without inquiry, to PG-rated movies. The theme of a PG-rated film may itself call for parental guidance. There may be some profanity in these films. There may be some violence or brief nudity. However, these elements are not considered so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance. There is no drug use content in a PG-rated film. The PG rating, suggesting parental guidance, is thus an alert for examination of a film by parents before deciding on its viewing by their children. Obviously such a line is difficult to draw. In our pluralistic society it is not easy to make judgments without incurring some disagreement. As long as parents know they must exercise parental responsibility, the rating serves as a meaningful guide and as a warning. (emphasis mine)

I may be wrong here, but "There may be some violence or brief nudity" is a pretty clear statement that doesn't imply the film is alright for 2nd and 3rd graders. I might concede that the MPAA, by having a PG-13 rating at all, is doing the public a disservice, but there is no way that PG means "okay for little Timmy." Add to this the shock that Minow has that Hilary Duff, little Lizzy Maguire, is starring in a film with sexual innuendo, and I think that Minow doesn't live in the same world as I do, or she isn't paying attention. Sure Duff was Lizzy, but she is also (at least for now) dating Joel Madden of the pop-punk band "Good Charlotte." I think she might be at that stage where she is trying to live down her "good girl" image, but that could just be me.

The "worried" side of the culture wars are alive and well in 2006, but what about the humorous defender Joe Bob Briggs? What has he been up to lately? He's written two excellent books, Profoundly Disturbing and Profoundly Erotic. These books are insightful and detailed scholarly glimpses into the history of "shocking" cinema. Joe Bob has even had an article about the "star" of the porn film Deep Throat published at National Review Online. These works by Joe Bob Briggs are all informative, they are also well written, but none of them are funny. These are not the Joe Bob I know and love. I shouldn't love the funny Joe Bob since according to his criteria I am ineligible to vote in the Hubbies (the Drive-In Academy Awards). My ownership of "Police" CDs makes me a Communist in the old Joe Bob's world. But I think the new Joe Bob might want to discuss how the "Police" fuse Ska and Rock with Punk sensibilities. Joe Bob Briggs has become more like his Bruce Banner-esque alter ego John Bloom than the Joe Bob I know and love. John Bloom, the Vanderbilt honors graduate, might write the following sentence, "Chain Saw was the first baby-boomer shocker, in which pampered but idealistic suburban children, distrustful of anyone older than thirty, are terrorized by the deformed adult world that dwells on the grungy side of the railroad tracks." I cannot see Joe Bob, America's foremost expert on Drive-In movies, writing those words. No...Joe Bob would write, "We all have our favorite scenes in Saw. I guess mine is when the cannibal family tries to feed Marilyn Burns to Grandpa, but Grandpa's too weak to suck through a straw or lift his dinner hammer high enough to crush her brain into potato salad."

The voices, and critiques, by the "worried" side of the culture wars haven't changed over the years. They are still genuinely worried about children and so their arguments remain the same. The defenders of schlock have changed though. Joe Bob isn't as funny as he used to be, now he publishes books that have academically insightful commentary about the films the "worried" side worry about. No longer is Saw "a national symbol of everything that had gone wrong with American culture." Now it has cultural significance and, "has become America's cultural shorthand for perversity, moral decline, and especially the corruption of children." Joe Bob wouldn't even know how to spell perversity.

I like John Bloom a lot, and I think you should read his books. But I do miss Joe Bob, he would know what to say to Nell that would put her in a murderous rage. He might say something like, "I wanted to tell you that I do NOT subscribe to filth and violence. I buy it off the newstand."

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