By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
As I write this, I am wrapping up with a binge watching marathon of an old television sci-fi show (and, again, I will try to avoid names). Often politically motivated, one of the most groundbreaking episodes featured the first mixed race kiss ever aired on television.
How odd it is to think of how far we have come. Even in the episode, an evil alien species took over the two and forced them to kiss, which, since the script called for protests from those involved, helped cushion the shock a bit. Today, I doubt many people would even bat an eye, a tribute of how far we have come (thankfully), although clearly we have a long way to go (unfortunately).
Having passed this episode, it got me to thinking of censorship in television shows and movies, and at least a few interesting examples with which I am familiar. Shortly after completing graduate school, a well-known but coarsely written animation was introduced. In it, the two main characters, high school students, were crude, unintelligent, unmotivated and, originally, reckless and cruel. At the time, I was busy with research in my post-doctoral positions and, although I had heard of it, I never saw any episodes until after the first few years. The initial seasons brought about a great number of complaints, to which the writers and producers claimed the main characters were clearly (and they were) depicted as the kinds of people students should never want to emulate, but, unfortunately, there were some who did. As a result, the FCC imposed strict restrictions on the show.
These restrictions were in place when I first began watching the show. My ignorance made me wonder what the issue was, because the show, still crude, was at least entertaining, and frankly I thought it was quite funny. Eventually, I saw one of the earlier pre-restriction episodes, and noticed something fascinating. The early episodes were significantly less entertaining and humorous than the newer ones. I believe that what may have happened is that, prior to the restrictions, the writers could just put any dumb thing into the script that they wished, but, once the restrictions were in place, were forced to come up with more clever and coherent story lines. Just my personal hypothesis, of course, but it’s also the main premise of this post.
The reverse seems to have happened in movies, assuming, of course, that my hypothesis is correct, and, frankly, you may disagree with me and this part of the blog. That’s okay; how boring would the world be if we were all the same?
Restrictions on movies used to be extremely strict compared with today. Some of these restrictions are still in place (for example, even today you’ll not see an American commercial where the actor will drink beer, or movies where you actually see actors snort substances). In earlier movies, however, there were restrictions that even horror movies could not be too horrific. If you watch an old vampire movie (say circa 1930), you may see strange scenes that imply the vampire leaves a coffin, but you’ll never see it. The camera shows the vampire in the coffin, pans away, and when it pans back he is standing in the coffin. They would not show him actually standing up in the coffin because the censors felt it was just too scary for the sensitive audience to take. Neither will you see blood in the movies, although the theme of blood is significant.
Most new movies don’t really scare me. Too often, there is no character development, or suspense. The idea, too often in my opinion, seems to be to show as much gore as possible, but, if I don’t care about the characters, why would the spilling of their blood be frightening to me? Knives and guns don’t scare me, but a vampire (a truly evil vampire as opposed to the new emotionally unstable vampires) that can not only kill me, but turn me into what I hate is frightening. With restrictions on shock value scenes, old writers of movies had to find themes to frighten, develop characters for the audience to root for, and as a result developed movies that, personally, scare me more than most new movies. I must comment, thought, that nothing here is meant to be absolute. There were horrible old movies, and there are excellent new movies, but in the new ones, I mostly enjoy the psychological thrillers as I find them far more frightening than the gore fests.