Censorship vs. Gratuity. What a long, dragged-out affair that battle has become. Gah! Which is better? To live in a world that has been nerfed to the point of not possibly offending anyone (which I find to be in and of itself offensive), or to be inundated day and night with death, violence, gore, sex, and profanity until we are made numb to the din?
Neither. We cannot say anything of meaning if we are too worried about causing offense. Remember the scene in MouseHunt where the two brothers are stuck in a corner of the kitchen? They are surrounded by so many mousetraps that they cover every last inch of the floor. I posit that it would be easier to navigate that mousetrap minefield than it would be to avoid offending everyone. Aesop himself said similar in his fable about a miller, his son, and their donkey.
People are fundamentally uncomfortable with truth. Don’t ask me why, it’s just an observation that has remained proven through the years. Tell the truth and offense is caused. However, it is just as possible to offend with falsehood.
On the other hand, gratuity is the knee-jerk reaction to censorship. Fit enough depravity into something and it’ll sell, right? Not necessarily. More often than not, gratuity buries and even annihilates a plot or point to a story. I don’t know about you, but after a certain amount of muck and grime, I no longer want to see where a story is going.
Take the unrated cut of The Change-Up. Wonderful story. Will never watch it again. I get that in certain circles cursing is more frequent than others. Fine. But not one person on Earth drops that many f-bombs in the course of normal conversation in an entire day as they did in ten seconds of film.
Like it or not, there is always a place for sex, violence, and profanity in any story. They exist even in the Bible. But they should never feel forced.
Independent director and webcartoonist Brian Carroll has summed up the point nicely in his strip Genrevous Point (which appears to no longer be online). Genrevous Point is a neo-olympian fable. Instead of Mount Olympus, there is Genrevous point. Playing the part of the greco-roman people are the theatergoers in the village of Cinema. And in place of the pantheon, the living embodiments of every possible type of story. Their interactions are used to lay bare Carroll’s interpretation of the events in the film industry. One storyline in particular stands out. The Seven Plagues of Cinema. In this tale, seven plagues descend upon the Genres of the mountain. Each plague represents something that Carroll feels is wrong with the industry.
While plague number two (gratuity) is introduced in strip #53 we see in strips # 62 and #63 that the third plague (censorship) attacks the second just as much as it does the genres. Of course, the second plague strikes back. We could go into a whole chicken-and-egg debate as to which came first, but that would be a complete waste of time. The point is that censorship and gratuity are deadlocked in a war and storytelling is the casualty.
Stories, no matter how far-fetched, must relate to the human condition. They are written by humans and for humans, are they not? When we censor, we wind up with a shallow mockery of life. When we throw in gratuitous amounts of anything, we create a bitter pill with no medicinal value. It becomes impossible to tell any worthwhile story under either condition.
Let us examine the Comics Code of 1954 as presented on Wikipedia (many histories on the comics industry include the same text).
Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals. – Obvious well-meaning here. Many superhero comics turned their characters into “duly deputized officers of the law”. Problem is, with the way Batman and others behaved in code-approved issues, had any real officers of the law imitated these characters they would be under investigation by Internal Affairs. Let’s face it, superheroes are just vigilantes. And just how could one tell the tales of Robin Hood, Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and others?
If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity. – Again, well-meant. But there is often a short-term pleasure criminals derive from their deeds. How could one tell a cautionary tale about the allure of crime effectively without first highlighting this short-term pleasure before displaying the consequences?
Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority. – Uh huh, let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the USA founding fathers wrote the First Amendment specifically with the ability to criticize authority. No stories about corruption or historical events like the LA riots? It is healthy from time to time to question authority. It is a necessary check to prevent problems.
In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds. – I’m just going to take well-meant as granted from this point on. How are we to teach the healthy ways of dealing with failure and moving on in spite of it if we never see our heroes defeated? You certainly would have to leave many of the Sherlock Holmes stories out. How many times did Moriarty escape?
Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated. – Can’t even publish the Bible under that restriction. Also, who determines what is excessive and unnecessary? No story of Samson, Immortals would be out, and bye-bye Matrix.
No comic magazine shall use the words “horror” or “terror” in its title. – It is believed that this was to single out the publisher EC Comics. Pretty ridiculous. This one is an exception to the well-meant rule.
All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted. – This effectively eliminates all war, crime, and horror comics, the three most popular comic genres at the time. One should also keep in mind that this code was put into place when the adult readership of comics skyrocketed. Between those who started reading comics as kids in the late 1930s to the WWII soldiers who started reading the comic books often sent in care packages during the war. When the soldiers returned home, many kept reading. Everyone else saw comics as a kids-only affair. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t now.
All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated. – see above.
Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader. – If we do not display the allure of evil, the resistance of temptation grows weak. People do evil in the first place because of that allure.
Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with the walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited. – Again, an exception to the rule of good intentions as this rule was leveled at EC Comics. Incidentally, as Image Comics published without the code (as all publishers do now), they printed a series called The Walking Dead which has gone on to become a very popular tv series on AMC.
Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden. – So no using the Nazis as comic villains, then?
Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure. – Note the “in any form”. This would include a back view above the waist.
Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable. – “Suggestive posture” is too open to interpretation.
Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities. – While this would have saved us much of Rob Liefeld’s work, this debate rages on. Realistic can and does mean different things. I have known someone who thinks that a 300 pound Batgirl is realistic. Really? She runs across rooftops, performs acrobatic maneuvers, and gets into fistfights. Also, it only applies to females. Do men walk around with flawless pecs, washboard abs, sharp jawlines, and large bulges in their pants? You be the judge.
Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Rape scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable. – If the rest didn’t forbid Watchmen, this does. Did I mention it won a Hugo award?
Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested. – See above.
Sex perversion or any inference to the same is strictly forbidden. – Wait, they’re banning inferences now? Inferences are made on the part of the reader. Given the guttered minds out there, this could ban all stories.
Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted in the advertising of any product; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste or morals. – Brought to you by the Department of the Redundancy Bureau. Didn’t they already ban ALL nudity?
Take all of the above. Examine your favorite story through this lens. If you think that it passes, get out of denial. Now. The code was created under the false impression that any one media can be only for children. Any media can reach any audience.
Also, the problem exists that censors will block any material that they don’t like, with or without a rule to enforce. Take an example from David Hadju’s The Ten-₵ent Plague. EC Comics tried working with the code to created an anti-racism story. It was banned. Why? The main character was of African descent. When confronted about that, the Comics Code Association told him to remove the sweat off the character’s forehead. Frustrated, EC Comics took the risk of publishing without the code seal.
Watch the documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated. In it is a quote from MPAA leader Jack Valenti. To summarize, Valenti states that no rating can save a bad movie and no rating will hurt a good movie. He is only half right. No rating can save a bad movie. But as This Film Is Not Yet Rated goes on to state, some rating really do harm good movies.
Ratings have become marketing tools. If you do a really good live action movie, and it gets a G rating, no one will go to see it. To the general public, the only good G movies are children’s animated stories. In such an instance, the MPAA unwittingly aids gratuity. Additional material is usually added to gain a PG or a PG-13 to guarantee an audience. Create a deep and meaningful film for adults? Just hope it doesn’t get slapped with the MPAA’s kiss of death, NC-17. Most theaters will not carry a NC-17 movie regardless of quality, content, or any other possible consideration. Also, most studios will give NC-17 movies no advertising support. Who will go to see a movie that they don’t know exists? Wal-Mart, Target, and many other such stores will not carry an NC-17 movie, period. Sometimes essential material must be cut to ensure any sort of audience.
I have spent much more time attacking censorship than I have gratuity, but that is because the dangers of gratuity are generally more obvious. We can become desensitized as a society if gratuity runs rampant. Constantly shock a person’s sensibilities, and they can become inured to anything.
So how do we solve the battle betwixt the two? It is impossible to equivocate. The answer is self restraint.
How is self restraint different from censorship? Scott Kurtz had the answer. In the blog below his webcomic, PVP, he once talked of the difference being that censorship comes from an external source whereas self restraint comes from the content creator. This blog post is buried so deep within his archives by now, I doubt I’d ever find it again. His point is solid. Given the one thing that I credit Jack Valenti as being correct about, no rating saves a bad movie, there is absolutely no reason for censorship. If censorship were to die, gratuity would soon follow as it’s rebellious raison d’etre would cease to exist. Self restraint of the content creator, when combined with personal tastes within an audience, is sufficient.