MOMS Against Movie Violence

There's something frightening about Jacqueline Sears, something the Southampton, Mass. woman might not even realize about herself. As founder and head of the group Mothers Offended by the Media, Sears comes off looking for all the world like a would-be censor. And while she claims with apparent sincerity that she has no interest in banning certain films and TV programs, her drive to win a new rating for children's movies places her dangerously near, if not directly on, that most dangerous of political landscapes, the slippery slope. A mother of two -- her daughter, Jennifer, is 5, her son, Tommy, 8 months -- Sears started MOM this past August out of a concern that "the maturity of some media has an adverse effect on young children." As its first project, MOM is petitioning the Motion Picture Association of America to create a new rating, PS (for pre-school), that would be given only to films completely free of violent content. Under current MPAA guidelines, a movie is eligible for a children's rating, G, if it contains no sex, no nudity, no drug references and a minimum of violence. Sears said she thinks that's fine for kids ages 7 and older, but she doesn't believe it's healthy for younger children to see films with any violent content. And she doesn't exactly think the MPAA has been living up to its own standards. Sears points to The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as perhaps the most compelling example of G-rated kids entertainment that doesn't come even remotely close to keeping violence at a minimum. "Violence is all you see in the Power Rangers movie," she noted. "They're just beating each other up throughout the whole movie. And this is minimum violence?" But it doesn't stop with Power Rangers and other obviously violence-based offerings, Sears said. She's also unhappy with kids entertainment champion Disney. In two recent blockbusters, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, she charges, Disney included scenes that it should have known were too violent for younger children, including a scene in which the Beast is stabbed. "That is not a minimum of violence; that is a stabbing," Sears said. "I'm a parent and I don't think a stabbing is something I want my pre-school children to see." That doesn't mean Disney shouldn't have made those films, she said. Nor does it mean the company should have made them without the violent acts. It does, however, mean someone should have warned parents to think twice -- or to preview the films -- before allowing their younger children to watch. "I think kids 7 or 8 and up can handle a lot of this stuff," Sears said. "If my kids were that age and I could explain [the violence] to them, I don't think I'd mind it. But it's more than young children can handle -- you get to know that when your daughter has nightmares over G movies." Sears said it's simplistic to dismiss her and MOM's growing national membership as overprotective reactionaries. And she believes most people would agree with her objectives if they had a real idea of the degree to which graphic, overly realistic violence has crept into kids entertainment. Noting that she recently watched an old cartoon in which Daffy Duck tries to stop a stork from delivering an unwanted duckling using various violent means, Sears said many adults believe cartoon violence is still limited to the Acme dynamite school of befuddled, char-headed victims. "If that cartoon was made today, that stork would end up with an ax in his head -- blood gushing everywhere," she said. "That's the standard of violence now." Sears, who has won the support and aid of Teachers for Removing Unhealthy Children's Entertainment, a national group, said she has been in contact with the MPAA about her concerns and is encouraged by the organization's policy of giving thought to any request for change made by petition. She intends to submit the petition by early January and hopes to have gathered several thousand signatures by then. Sears insists she is not even remotely interested in censorship. "Even if I was, there's no way I'm going to control Disney," she said. "All I'm trying to do is get a rating just for the young kids and let parents make better decisions." There are elements in official MOM documents, however, that appear to belie Sears' stated lack of interest in censorship. While the MPAA rating system is voluntary, for example, MOM's petition promises to "force the entertainment business to behave more responsibly when it comes to our young children." In its mission statement, MOM promises to create a "'violence free zone' of TV shows and films directed to children," bringing in a medium, television, that is not guided by a ratings system, and, moreover, doing so in a manner that implies an effort to keep some programs off the air or confined to specific time slots. And although Sears said she hasn't settled on a strategy for "cleaning up" violent kids television, it's clear that such a goal can't be achieved without engaging in some form of censorship. Perhaps most telling, though, is the following statement from a recent MOM press release: "Even if you don't allow your child to watch another violent movie, other children will still be watching and your child could be their next victim. Let's return children's' movies to the children." Sears could not explain how the proposed new rating would prevent other people's children from seeing violent G-rated films except to say she believes most parents will keep their kids away from such movies once they realize what they depict. Given the success of even the most controversial children's films of recent years, however, it seems unlikely that large numbers of parents will keep their 4- and 5-year-olds from seeing the latest heavily marketed Disney offering, regardless of its rating. For it's part, Disney isn't particularly worried about the effort. While he was reluctant to dismiss Sears or MOM, Disney's PR manager Rick Rhoades said he couldn't size up the group because he's never heard of it. "If they get the MPAA's ear, if their movement is successful, then we'll take a look at what we need to do," he said. Rhoades said it is impossible to say whether Disney would change its successful movie-making practices in order to score PS ratings. "We're sensitive to what people want and we're always looking for new ways to make our products better, so we would look at anything the MPAA brought to us. But obviously we think we already to our best to provide top-quality kids entertainment; we put out good, wholesome, family stuff." Rhoades wouldn't discuss the influence major studios such as Disney wield over the MPAA, influence that likely would allow the company to get any rating it wants on its product, whether Sears succeeds or not. Sears said she believes the zero-violence standard her petition would set for the PS rating would effectively shut down any attempts to bend the rules.

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