Saturday, January 08, 2005

Fiddler and the City, or was it Sex on the Roof?

Pogroms and Manolos, shtetl life and simulated orgasms, are all one and the same. Or so thinks Julie Salamon, in this painfully dumb NYT piece on movie ratings.

Before my son turned 8, he had watched "The Matrix" numerous times on videocassette before he moved on to "The Lord of the Rings." The former is rated R (restricted, under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian), the latter PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned, some material not appropriate for children under 13).

So it didn't occur to me that the unassailable, G-rated choice I took home for a family movie night would terrorize him. The culprit? "Fiddler on the Roof." As the Cossacks rode into town to torment the Jews celebrating Tevye's daughter's wedding, my son ran from the room yelling, "What kind of parents would show a scary movie like this to a little kid?"

What kind of parents indeed? The kind whose 14-year-old daughter and her girlfriends were found in front of our television giggling happily at "Sex and the City" in its unexpurgated form on HBO.

Um, what? Sorry, but Cossacks really did ride into town to torment Jews, and if this particular eight-year-old can't handle "Fiddler on the Roof" then why ever even try to tell him about the Holocaust? Or the U.S. history of slavery? (Both of these, incidentally, are things I certainly had an understanding of by age eight, as I'd imagine is the case for many eight-year-olds.) How can allowing 14-year-olds to waste time watching a show in which 30-ish women buy expensive shoes and sleep around be put in the same parental-laxity category as allowing an eight-year-old to gain some small sense that mankind has had its share of tragedies?

Personally, I would have no problem with an eight-year-old seeing "Fiddler" or with 14-year-olds seeing "Sex and the City," (and would personally rather spend an afternoon watching the latter) provided their parents had given them some explanation of what's being depicted, not right before watching, but in general: eight-year-olds should know something about, if not pogroms, then at least war, oppression, and conflict in general, and 14-year-olds should know something about sex, if only so that they know what it is that they shouldn't be doing yet. But the potential problems with "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Sex and the City" are not remotely comparable.

The problem with "Sex and the City" is that it's mindless entertainment, with bits of clever dialogue, but mostly (in the eyes of all but feminist or post-feminist critics, who read far more into it) a show about pretty people in pretty clothing doing fun things like going out and, of course, having sex. No 14-year-old is likely to be upset by it. A single 35-year-old with no Manolos and no sex life, now that sort of person might be upset by the show, but 14-year-olds, who discuss more graphic things amongst themselves than are mentioned on the show, are unlikely to be anything but bored by Carrie's dating woes. The problem with "Fiddler," on the other hand, is that it forces the viewer to confront certain historical realities (well, a fictional interpretation of certain historical realities) that would, like all upsetting facts of history, be especially disturbing to a child with no prior knowledge of them. A parent whose eight-year-old loses it while watching "Fiddler" should take the opportunity to give the kid some age-appropriate (but not sugar-coated) explanation of how things actually went down in the shtetl. A parent whose kid laughs while watching "Sex and the City" should sit tight, but then after a while, urge the kid to shut the TV and go do her homework.


john_m_burt said...

I'm reminded of when one of my kids, a ravenous consumer of violent movies and video games, came home from seeing _Titanic_ looking sober and subdued, saying softly, "That really happened."

Well, of course he knew the difference: by the age of four, he'd seen war and pestilence destroy, respectively, his village and his birth family.

Amber said...

Especially egregious was the assistant school principal quoted later in the article who won't let her ten year old watch the news or the Simpsons (too scary and salty, respectively). Because the real world is bad, mmkay?