The Magazine

Puritans in Hollywood

R-rated smoking, X-rated trans-fats.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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"Astonishing," said a friend of mine--like me, a former smoker who holds only fond memories of our old habit, along with the occasional tug of nostalgic yearning. He had just seen the news last week that movies featuring characters who smoke will risk a more restrictive rating, from PG-13 to R, for example. Now, Voyager, the 1942 movie in which Paul Henreid lights two Camels and passes one to Bette Davis, would today earn an NC-17, along with the revulsion of the motion picture community. My friend could scarcely believe it.

But it's not astonishing at all, I said. Clearly he hadn't been reading, as I have for several years now, the "family friendly" film reviewers in the local paper and on various websites.

These tightly wound would-be critics aim to provide a unique public service, a kind of moralizing Consumer Reports for movies. They patrol the latest releases to warn parents away from shows that might not be suitable for the kids, and the moral universe they inhabit astonished me at first, too. It doesn't any longer.

It shows itself like this, in a review of, say, the runner-up from the Sundance Film Festival:

. . . at last, in the tender denouement to this fable about the fragility of love, Chuck and Jim celebrate their newfound, if tragically temporary, union with a sweaty, semi-explicit tryst in a Chicago Park District men's room. Some partial nudity, and thematically a bit rough for preteens. Some of the language (repeated use of the 'f-word' during the 'water sports' sequences and when Darlene celebrates the onset of menses) may offend some parents, while tweeners and above will find their horizons expanded to encompass a world with which many may be unfamiliar. Yet this otherwise eye-opening film is seriously flawed in ways that will force most parents to think twice before making it a family film outing: Sterno is consumed to excess in one scene, and both Chuck and Jim puff cheroots without any suggestion of the dangers of tobacco smoke--to themselves and to others.

The family film reviewers are prime examples of the Church Ladies of our still-young century, purse-lipped and wrinkle-nosed, and the moral universe they inhabit is identical to that of the movie business itself--the same universe, in fact, that the moralistic trans-fat-banning Mayor Bloomberg lives in, and the plate-sniffers of the Center for Science in the Public Interest who egged him on, and the contemporary historians who find the tawdry truth of America in the genocide of the Indians and the trial of the Scottsboro Boys.

Some conservatives complain that we live in an immoral age, or an age that's at best indifferent to moral judgment. But this isn't really true. Among a very large majority of people, the need to moralize, to be censorious, to alert our neighbors to the failings of others, is undying and ineradicable--as vital as the human need for food or warmth. And the new moralizers, like the old, can't shut up.

It's certainly true, as traditionalists say, that the objects of the old censoriousness--promiscuity, divorce, abortion, infidelity--have been removed from moral categories altogether and elevated to the status of "lifestyle choices," where no one but the chooser himself is allowed to render a moral verdict (and then only on himself. And the verdict, by the way, is pretty much always "not guilty."). But keep looking. An acquaintance a few years ago urged me to read the New York Times Magazine Ethicist column, describing it as unintentionally comic because the writer could never bring himself to cast a strict moral judgment. "A weak-kneed relativist," is what the columnist was, my acquaintance said. So I started reading the column and was surprised to find that my friend was wrong: This columnist was moralizing to beat the band. And on Sunday morning! Times readers must be disgusted, I thought, until I noticed what it was he was getting moralistic about. One morning someone wrote in with the eternal yuppie dilemma: Should she buy an SUV?

"There's no way to justify endangering others just so you can play cowboy," the columnist thundered. Anyone who bought an SUV, he said, would be "driving straight to hell." And so on, week after week, I became alert to the ways in which our pop culture is shot through with moralism: sulfurous condemnations of homophobia, smoking, guns, junk food, fur, big cars, and--this is the big one--judgmentalism. The new Church Ladies simply will not tolerate intolerance.

There's hypocrisy in this new moralism, needless to say, just as there was in the old. Movie stars who complain about global warming will once in a while be caught driving their Hummer up the Pacific Coast Highway, just as preachers, back in the olden days, were occasionally found in the choir loft with the church organist. But in the new morality, as in the old, hypocrisy is merely the tribute that vice is paying to virtue. The encouraging thing is that people like Hollywood producers and even Mayor Bloomberg can still get huffy about something--even if it's something as trivial (and wonderful) as smoking. It's a start, isn't it? They can begin with smoking and SUVs and junk food, and pretty soon maybe they can work their way up to things that really matter.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.