Many devout Latter-day Saints don’t — or at least think they shouldn’t — watch R-rated movies.
This belief has permeated their religious culture for decades. And while top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have warned about such films, there has never been a general proscription against viewing them.
So where did this supposed blanket ban on such films originate? Does it still have the same hold on Latter-day Saint culture today? And are there movies that adult members not only could watch (without any guilt) but indeed should watch?
Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast with David Scott, a communication professor at Utah Valley University and an expert on Latter-day Saint culture and media and their intersection with religiosity.
What are the roots of this R-rated ban from within Latter-day Saint culture?
When the Motion Picture Association created the R rating in the late 1960s and 1970s, soon thereafter LDS leaders began giving talks at [the faith’s] General Conference proscribing [R-rated films] and saying that they were a bad idea. Prior to that, church leaders usually focused on content rather than rules-based ratings. They also added it to the curriculum for the youth, which makes a lot of sense, because, you know, young people who are under 17, probably shouldn’t always see R-rated movies.
Does the R-rating prohibition have the same pervasiveness in Latter-day Saint culture today?
The students I teach at UVU, a lot of them are Latter-day Saints, are more resistant to the ratings. But many of them tell me their parents still adhere to it and focus on it quite a bit.
Why did the church give over content control to some outside arbiter?
In part, it’s that some people prefer a rules-based approach. They like it black and white, and they want to know what is kosher and what is taboo. Some church leaders were more than happy to use that delineation and make it easier for people to make that decision, at least those who want the church to make that decision for them. … To some of the people who I’ve interviewed who chose to watch R-rated movies, one of their primary arguments was “we’re not going to let the Motion Picture Association tell us what we can or can’t watch.” So they would actually note its arbitrariness. The other problem with using that rating system is that it’s American-centric. I interviewed people in Australia and they said, “Well, of course, we don’t see R-rated movies. But R-rated movies in Australia would be the equivalent of an X-rated movie in the United States.”
What about the PG-13 rating?
Some people have pushed back even against PG-13. I remember a woman I interviewed once who said, “Heaven is G-rated. So if you want to go to heaven, you have to watch G-rated movies.”
Why do you think Latter-day Saints seem to be OK with extraordinary levels of violence, even gratuitous violence, while trying to avoid watching any nudity or sexual intimacy?
That reflects the broader culture in the United States, which is fearful of nudity, kind of provincial in its approach to human sexuality. Whereas violence is everywhere in American entertainment. In the first study I did with BYU students about our ratings in the 1990s, there were three groups that came out in the analysis: One were the people I called “absolutist,” who said “leaders tell us don’t see R-rated movies, and so I won’t see them.” The second group were those who were more what we called “situationalists,” where they would listen to feedback from friends and family members, and make decisions based on the overall theme of the film. But my third group, I called them “escapist.” Those were people who were still really, really rigid about nudity and language, but they were watching all the violent films. Their thought was that “nudity and sexuality, those things will influence me and harm my spirituality. But violence, it doesn’t affect anybody.”
Do you think it’s a good option for Latter-day Saints to watch heavily edited versions of these films?
I have an ethical concern about revising copyrighted material without the consent of the people who created it. The artists, people [who] created it the way they did for a reason. …The things that are now missing from the film, does that undermine the story or the message of the film?.…That’s a rules-based approach, but it ignores the fact the film, taken as a whole, might actually have some really valuable elements that include, you know, violence or the portrayal of things that are inconsistent with Latter-day Saint beliefs. I guess it boils down to this notion that people think that if they are exposed to certain ideas or beliefs it will undermine their spirituality.
Why might it be unwise for adult Latter-day Saints to limit their viewing to what they consider family fare?
For one thing, we need to be culturally literate in order to express our own beliefs, our own ways of seeing and thinking to people who may disagree with us or may have other ways of viewing the world. If we shut ourselves off from too much of what’s really out there, especially based on the assumption that mere exposure to ideas or messages will somehow be harmful to one’s soul, or eternal life, it seems to undermine our ability then to participate in the broader discourse with others around us.
What would you advise Latter-day Saint families today about how to make movie and TV choices to balance between being open to realistic depictions of important ideas versus avoiding things that are harmful?
The best way to approach contemporary media, given the streaming and all the things that are out there now that are hard to follow, is to seek feedback…look up the parental guide, talk to other people who watch the movies. The thing that troubles me the most is when people assume that the content is inherently harmful to them, and yet have no exposure to the content or don’t even know fully what it’s about…. We should be less afraid of exposing ourselves to different ideas and talk to other people about why these programs might get certain ratings.
Do you have some recommendations for R-rated movies that you think Latter-day Saints not only can watch but maybe should watch?
“Schindler’s List” is at the top of my list. I think that’s the most important film that was ever produced. ... The value of “Schindler’s List” is not just that it tells us something about the Holocaust, but it shows us that there’s a human, Schindler, who is very imperfect. He’s an adulterer, a philanderer and greedy. And yet, through his interaction with the Jewish people and what was happening in the Holocaust, became a savior, became a hero....That’s a message that all people of faith should see.
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