Taking aim at pop culture's effect on kids

Just after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, screenwriter Robin Swicord scolded Hollywood for making too many violent movies that influence adolescents.

In a powerful essay in a Los Angeles newspaper, she called on the entertainment industry to shed its duplicity. Hollywood claims the "ability to sway young consumers but paradoxically claims the content of our programs has no other power over the human mind," she wrote.

As the mother of two adolescent daughters, Ms. Swicord believes movies are the high-octane engine that helps drive a consumer culture that negatively shapes the habits of many young people.

What she hopes is that a few bold producers and directors will make films that respect strong values and human dignity.

Swicord has many screenplays to her credit, including "Little Women," the critically acclaimed 1994 film of the classic Louisa May Alcott book, which earned $70 million at the box office in spite of being surrounded by blockbuster action films.

Hollywood insiders who want their daughters to be independent thinkers, Swicord and her husband, screenwriter Nick Kazan, are careful nurturers of close family ties. They eat dinner just about every night with their daughters, ages 16 and 12.

Recently, in a telephone interview from her home in Santa Monica, Calif., Swicord talked about parenting, movies, and pressures on kids.

What do you and your husband do to monitor or guide your daughters in watching TV and movies?

We decide in conjunction with both of them. This is not something we just started. We have been doing this since they were very young, and because my husband and I never had TV habits, the TV is rarely on.

Have your children seen any R-rated films?

Yes, a few times we have taken our older daughter to R-rated films that we have already seen. We took her to see "Election," which was R-rated mostly for the profanity. But it is a wonderful film and should be required viewing in big public high schools. After seeing the film we had a great discussion with her about electoral politics [because the film dealt with a high school election]. I just wish there were more real choices for kids, and that parents were aware of the need to protect kids and not let them watch stuff repetitively and unattended.

How would you change the movie rating system?

When the rating system was set up, we could not imagine a world in which certain kinds of films would be made routinely. [I would] change the rating system to provide more categories between ages 9 and 12. If the rating system was modified, [it might begin] with G, and then something [for age] 11 or 12 ... and then an older category. I think people would make movies for [these groupings]. Now they want to reach that lucrative older audience.

Aren't adolescents simply participating in our culture these days? What's the the problem with that?

It's interesting to me that people spend a lot of time worrying about young children - check out the preschool thoroughly, give all kinds of training to detect child molesters, and say, 'Do the [kids] eat too many pesticides [on their food]?' And yet when they hit 12, [seem to say], 'OK, you're on your own.' [Teens] don't get the things they really need so they can do the thing that is in them ... rather than having a commercial culture tell them what they should be thinking, doing, wearing, being.

How did it happen that we have a culture that treats kids with contempt?

I puzzle over this, and I don't have a good answer. But I know that in [the past], kids ... had more time "to become," without schedules and pressure. Add in all the different electronic possibilities, and maybe all this stuff came at us too quickly and we haven't integrated how we want to live with all the changes.

Hollywood hasn't changed, though. The bottom line is still money?

I think it largely is money, although a lot of people make daily choices that are not about money. In the end it's very hard to get movies made unless you can reach a mass audience. So there is constant discussion and testing and going through marketing people, trying to reach the largest number of people. And as culture-makers - and that is what I think we are - there has to be more balance in what we do, in what we are saying, what we are contributing, and what kind of a world we are helping to shape by the work we put out.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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