Gun for the Whole Family

Mindlessly permissive parents are subjecting their kids to movies they're not ready for -- and don't want to see.

Published June 27, 1997 5:47PM (EDT)

'60s culture is down but not out, as anyone who's noticed what's considered suitable entertainment for children these days can see. The biggest fear of the "When Am I Gonna Start Feeling Like a Grown-Up?" generation was always seeming like a square. This is a problem now that this generation has children of its own. Because parents, ipso facto, are squares -- never more so than when forbidding some whined-for, unsuitable treat. (Children's taste is actually often extremely square -- witness the appeal of the new gorilla-in-the-house movie "Buddy." But more about that in a minute.)

Factor in the baby boomers' notorious reluctance to deny themselves anything (least of all going to the movies when a baby sitter isn't available), and we have the following commonplace spectacles: 9-year-olds, predictably attracted by the Barbie-dollish ads for the R-rated "Romy and Michele's High
School Reunion," being taken to see same; 8-year-olds staying up late on a school night to watch the grisly "X-Files"; 7-year-olds hanging out, at 3 a.m., in Nevada casinos while their parents gamble.

The fear of questioning any of this is displayed regularly in Hollywood's hometown paper of record, the dutifully PC Los Angeles Times. Thus the remarkable coverage of the murder of a 7-year-old girl in Primm, Nev., a popular destination for those who find Las Vegas too classy. After
wandering around unsupervised for hours at a casino last Memorial Day weekend, the girl was raped and strangled in the ladies room. "It might not seem to be the kind of place ... where you think your child will be in mortal danger," burbled the second paragraph of the Times story, after brightly describing the casino's "fun for the kids too" game arcade below the gambling area. It might not?

I probably would have dismissed this as just another example of clichid newspaperese -- the hack's reflexive, nutty reach for some kind of "who'd have thunk it?" paradox. But then came the follow-up story, which reported that parents were now taking turns supervising their children between shoving
quarters in the slots. Nowhere did the Times question whether casinos are a wholesome atmosphere for children in the first place. Finally, in paragraph 27, on the jump, came the voice of reason ... not from my
favorite newspaper, but from an interview subject.

"This will never be a place for kids," said Mary Wilson of Long Beach, who left her teenagers (supervised) at home. "You wanna take your kids somewhere? Take 'em to Disneyland or Sea World." Why, what an ... interesting ... point of view. The Times continued past Mary Wilson and her eccentric ideas without comment, although not before making sure her language ("wanna," "take 'em"), was represented, alone among the half-dozen people interviewed, as sloppy and downscale.

Here in Hollywoodland, I am generally considered equally eccentric for the restrictions I place on my 8-year-old daughter. No game arcades, no "Romy and Michele," no hideously updated Disney offerings like "Goof Troop," an insult to the hallowed memory of the real Goofy. I realize I'm fighting a
losing battle, surrounded as I am by parents who tote their children to anything.

My favorite example: A friend of mine found himself seated next to an infant at a screening of "Alive," the cannibalism-in-the-Andes film released by Hollywood Pictures a few years ago. "How sweet," he said to the child's mother. "Baby's first Disney movie." Even more grotesque: the movie outing planned
by the screenwriter father of one of my daughter's friends, who last year thought that the Barbra Streisand ego-fest "The Mirror Has Two Faces" would be suitable for first-graders. Yes, there's nothing more enchanting to small children than the sexual problems of a 50-year-old woman who still lives with her mother, but whose life is turned around by dieting and eye shadow.

The industry party line is that children are unaffected by pop culture. However, when it comes to their own children, some parents do worry. At the progressive preschool in my neighborhood, one faction
wanted to ban Power Rangers toys for being too macho and aggressive; another, for whom permissiveness remains the most important commandment, thought this would be "fascist." Across town, I have a TV writer friend who, like pretty much everyone in Hollywood, is resolutely against the V-chip. But he found
himself obliged to cancel HBO, denying himself and his wife the pleasure of "Larry Sanders" because he couldn't keep their children from watching the channel's uncut, R-rated movies.

I admit that now and then I slack off. I desperately wanted to see "Austin Powers," which looked harmless and was only rated PG-13, so I took my daughter. But of course she didn't understand any of the James Bond or '60s references, and was disturbed by the scene in which guns pop out of a trio of female
robots' bras. OK, I'm allowed one mistake. And it wasn't as bad as the legendary one my mother made, when she went to a matinee of "8 1/2" accompanied by my sister, then aged 3, who half-way through
announced, "I don't like these grown-up movies" and threw up.

The conventional wisdom about children's movies is that the good ones can be enjoyed by the whole family. Not always true, alas. I only understood what a sacrifice my mother made by taking me to see "The Ugly Dachshund" three times when I saw it again as an adult. I could tell that "Buddy" would be
every bit as insufferable as soon as I saw Rene Russo ululating in the trailer. So I explained to my daughter that Daddy would be very disappointed if she saw this movie without him, because there's nothing he enjoys more than stories about apes who wear clothes and interact cutely with yodeling
humans. Conveniently, he's already my ex-husband.

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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