Sunday, June 10, 2012

Context over Content

Years ago as a new mother, I was fraught with concern over what my children were exposed to. Namely, the media. As most parents I was - and still am - worried what the impact will be over what they see and hear. Violence, profanity, sex... these are all predominant themes in our culture and what is acceptable for some parents is out of bounds for others.

I kept it pretty basic, and because I was so young and new at the parenting game, I had blanket rules over what I would allow my children to see or hear. Anything with overt violence, of course, was unacceptable. So were movies that would be too scary and give them nightmares. And nudity. Because, of course, nudity implies sex, doesn't it? Anything of a sexual nature must be kept from view. And I felt fortunate that there were all of these ratings on materials that would tell me what I should and should not let my children see and hear.

One day, I was watching one of my favorite movies, "Interview With a Vampire" and I hadn't seen it in a while. Therefore, I was caught off guard by how much nudity is actually in that movie. Full frontal nudity, to be exact. There is a scene in this film, where the child vampire comes upon a square and through the sliver of a door crack, sees a beautiful woman bathing herself. She was fully naked and you could see everything from her breasts to the triangular patch of hair between her legs. My hand flew immediately to shield my six year olds eyes and I was embarrassed and felt guilty all in one instant. And then I paused... and without processing my intent, I dropped my hand and allowed him to look. This woman was not doing anything remotely sexual. She was bathing, that was all. Something we all do, something he had seen me do many times. Why the shame and embarrassment? The content was nudity - the context was completely innocent, a woman taking a bath. If I take him to an art museum, he would see countless naked bodies doing all sorts of nonsexual things. In art, nudity is celebrated. It is beautiful!

From that point forward, I stopped worrying at all of the content, and instead began to focus on the context of material. After all, the above image of a woman standing onstage with her breasts exposed is nowhere near as sexually explicit as two individuals embraced and moving up and down in obvious intercourse - and yet, the ratings on our television and movies do not allow for these fine distinctions. Because of that, we have commercials on the radio that talk about a woman who likes to wake up with a "Dicken's Cider" and how her friend is appalled about the vulgarity of such a statement until she realizes the technical flub that allows such trashy comments to be uttered on the radio - the content of the words Dicken's Cider is completely innocent, the context of what those words sound like when said together is not taken into consideration when laws pertaining to censorship are created.
The context over content rule applies to many things, not only those which occur in film and television. For instance, swearing. Is shouting the word, "shit" in a moment of frustration nearly as detrimental to a young child as telling them that they have "poop for brains"? Of course not. Yet, swearing is often banned from many households out of hand because it is considered bad for a child to hear, and some parents will say damaging things to their children but feel that they're ok, skating on a technicality. They're not using foul language, they're not outwardly calling their children names, even if they are implying it.
A few days ago, I was having a conversation with some friends of mine. We were discussing child pageantry and the outfits those little girls often wear in their competitions. I wish to share part of that conversation but at the same time, I mean no disrespect to those who participate in beauty competitions. These are only my observations, after all. The argument many parents of pageantry girls make is that their children are fully clothed. That they wear less clothing to a public swimming pool or the beach. My counter argument, once again, is the context: the motivations and implications behind those outfits. The makeup, the hair, waxing, tanning, clothes that no grown woman could get away with wearing outside of a strip club or racy stage show (with out others raising their eyebrows at her). It is what those outfits and get ups symbolize in our culture - the context they are designated for being used to judge a little girl is something I cannot reconcile for myself.
But I recognize that when it comes to context, we all may have a different definition of the context, which is why when censorship is established the lawmakers are forced to use blanket discriminations based on content alone. A friend of mine recently took her two young children to see a comedian-slash-magician perform at her local theme park. She was told that it was family friendly but was sorely disappointed - even outraged as the show was, in her opinion, quite inappropriate for young kids to see. The outfits on the dancers she (and others) claimed, belonged in a strip club, along with the provocative dance numbers. I read a bit of the argument, and some people were upset that these parents were angry. They claimed that women at the beach wear less clothing than those women up on stage, what's the problem?
The problem, once again, goes back to context. Girls at the beach are there to tan and swim. Of course, they want to look good and the "sexy" innuendo does play a part. Is it the same thing as a costume that is designed for the sole purpose of being sexy, donning thigh high stockings held up with garter belts, bedazzled brassieres and mini skirts while the women undulate, present their backsides to the audience and dry-hump the male dancers or the floor? That, it appears is subject to individual determination.
A society that has only recently come to tolerate images of breastfeeding mothers in the media (and I use the word tolerate very very loosely), yet allows for regular viewing couples who are in the midst of various intimate acts, but get away with it because technically no genitals are showing, needs to rethink it's parameters of what is acceptable child-friendly content. It all goes back to context, and since it is nearly impossible to regulate on a grand scheme, it is something that every family and every parent must examine and decide for themselves.

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