January 24, 2010

Is This Censorship?

A recent article in the New York Times discusses Avatar in the context of the Smoke-Free Movies campaign. The Smoke-Free Movies campaign is an initiative to reduce or eliminate depictions of smoking in movies. Avatar, although overwhelmingly popular among family audiences, contains a character, Grace, who is a chronic smoker. In fact, one scene depicts Grace exiting her avatar and immediately stating: "Where's my damn cigarette?" This has the Smoke-Free Movies campaign up in arms.

The logic behind the campaign is that impressionable individuals, such as teenagers and children, are influenced to smoke because they see characters smoking in movies. In order to reduce the number of new smokers, the Smoke-Free Movies campaign wants to eliminate smoking in movies, or have moviegoers only see the negative side-effects of smoking when smoking is depicted in movies, or have movies that contain smoking take a higher rating. For instance, an R-rating as opposed to a PG-13 rating. Most can probably agree that this is a noble effort, but is it a subtle form of censorship? How's that for a rhetorical question?

I completed research about censorship during my MLIS. Throughout my research I ran a focus group with children and discussed censorship with them in order to collect their viewpoints. One of the most interesting findings was that the children appeared to know their own boundaries. It seemed like they understood their own boundaries and could choose for themselves what they were comfortable with and what was inappropriate. Isn't the same true for smoking?

I am an ex-smoker. I began smoking when I was old enough to know better, but have since quit. I didn't start smoking because I saw some character in a movie smoking. I started smoking because I wanted to. I also quit smoking because I wanted to and not because fewer characters in movies are smoking now. When I was a smoker and my non-smoking friends told me how disgusting it was and how I was killing myself, it only made me want to smoke more. Not because I wanted to die or be disgusting, but because I didn't need to hear it. Like I said, I already knew how bad it was for me and I still decided to smoke. Therefore, I predict that the Smoke-Free Movies Campaign will be a failure. Even though it is a nobel effort to stop people from making harmful judgments it will fail because you can't save people from themselves.

In my humble opinion, directors and writers should be free to make art without compriomising aspects of films in order to appease special interest groups. I know this happens anyway because of the many instances of product placement in films, but that's a different story. Can you imagine Mad Men without cigarettes? Here's the thing: The purpose of film is not to depict an idealized world in which everyone makes perfect decisions. If this was true there would be nothing challenging or conflicting in movies and then there would be no point. I'm just saying.

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