May 14, 2007

Psychological trauma lurks in the strangest places

When I was in 8th grade, one of the most frequent things out of my mouth was, "Can I get a hall pass?" You know, a hall pass - one of those things that lets you walk out of a classroom?

Apparently, Jessica Turner of Chicago wasn't familiar with the concept. That must be why she's suing the Chicago Board of Education for, among other things, false imprisonment for having to sit in class and watch a movie. According to the lawsuit, the girl was "confined to her seat and felt she could not leave the room" while the movie was playing.

Oh - wait - I've forgotten something. The movie was "Brokeback Mountain," and in addition to false imprisonment, Turner's grandparents are suing for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Apparently, a substitute teacher played the film without informing the parents, and as a result, Miss Turner required "psychological treatment and counseling."

Now, before I start tearing into the poor kid's family - and you know it's coming - I've got to say, there are some real issues here. First, while participation in the MPAA's film-rating system is voluntary for both producers and movie-theater owners; while there are some legitimate criticisms of what content gets which rating; and while, surprisingly, the Chicago Public Schools Policy Handbook seems to contain no requirement that parents be notified before their children are shown R-rated media ( section 102.4 of the Handbook, available here in .pdf, does give parents the right to " inspect ... instructional materials used in the Chicago Public Schools," which couldbe construed to apply in this case) - I think we can all probably agree that it's a dumb idea to show 12-year-olds R-rated movies with no apparent connection to the curriculum, and it's even dumber to expect there to be no fallout. (I assume it's unrelated to the curriculum because: a - if there had been any mention of The Gay in this classroom before, I imagine the family would already have objected, and b - this was a substitute teacher showing a movie, and in my experience subs do that when they haven't been left a lesson plan.)

I mean, really - Brokeback Mountain? Couldn't she have picked something that wasn't so emotionally intense, like - I don't know - Saving Private Ryan or Crash? I'm 23, and I had to spend some quiet time alone after I saw it, and then talk it through, before I could really process it. It's a hard, hard movie.

But that, I suppose, is the underlying point: I talked about it. I processed it. (Oh, dear, I'm talking about "processing" and listening to Melissa Etheridge. When did I become a lesbian?) Perhaps this is another assumption on my part, but I'm guessing that a family which had previously filed a complaint with the district over the use of "curse words" in a piece of class reading is probably not the best environment in which to verbalize and hash out responses to a very complex and troubling movie about adultery, frustrated sexual passion, struggles with identity and duty, and homophobic violence. If the very mention of these subjects is enough to spark legal action, it's not very conducive to extended discussion. (I mean, heck, even Family Media Guide's Ask the Expert - who has gone on the record against the harmful use of "slang" such as "oh, snap" on television - agrees that judicious exposure to LGBT themes and characters, combined with parental input and discussion, is important for kids.)

And, come on - this family had already filed complaints about "curse words". Did the school not think they'd have difficulties showing a movie that had (according to Family Media Guide):

- 25 instances of "fuck"
- 7 of "ass"
- 2 of "asshole"
- 1 of "balls"
- 1 of "bastard"
- 1 of "balls"
- 1 of "bastard"
- 6 of "bitch"
- 1 of "crap"
- 10 of "damn"
- 1 of "dick"
- 13 of "goddamn"
- 19 of "Hell"
- 1 of "piss" ["piss" is profane??]
- 2 of "pussy" [or, I suppose, "pissy" - the vowel is bleeped out]
- 14 of "shit"

and, of course,

- 1 instance of "Christ," 4 of "God," and 3 of "Jesus."

This had the makings of p*ssed-off parents all over it. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do, and I'm beyond upset that CPS may have to take $500,000 away from its students in order to clean up this sub's ill-thought-out mess.

But this suit isn't about the profanity in Brokeback Mountain. "Curse words," whatever they may be and however they're defined by Miss Turner's family, did not necessitate professional pscychological intervention. After all, she was untraumatized when they showed up in her reading, even if she was partially corrupted.

Nor is it about emotional intensity. People don't say things like "It is very important to me that my children not be exposed to this," when they're talking about things that could make them sad or pensive. They don't say things like "This was the last straw ... it was against our faith." After all, Chicago's entirely uncontroversial Mayor Daley Book Club includes on this year's reading list (.pdf) books about parental suicide, racial tensions in 1959 Florida, life in a Nazi concentration camp, car theft, the Cultural Revolution, and autism. Heck, I read My Brother Sam Is Dead in 5th grade, and just narrowly escaped the harrowing experience that was Where the Red Fern Grows. In fact, parents generally expect their kids to be introduced to tough and gruesome things in school; the only controversy is which tough and gruesome things. Yeah, the point of this lawsuit was not that the movie tackled an important topic in an upsetting way.

No, no - Young Miss Turner had to go to therapy because the movie was queer, end of story. The trauma she was recovering from wasn't the trauma of seeing death on film, or coming to terms with societal violence, or having to ask hard questions about honesty and happiness - it was seeing two men fuck despite the fact that her grandparents said that sort of thing was morally wrong. If she was actually traumatized, it was by the cognitive dissonance of seeing a movie which depicted two men in love as real, imperfect, complicated, conflicted people - rather than the venom-coated archetypes of decadence and sin she's apparently been taught to believe they must be.

And I guess I understand. That kind of maybe-my-family-doesn't-speak-for-everyone confusion would have screwed with my mind, too.

But if I'd been that upset, I'd probably have just asked for a hall pass.

Read more:
USA Today (the basic AP story that's making the rounds everywhere)
(a site dedicated to "Exposing Liberal Media Bias," but also the only place I've seen the allegations of false imprisonment, so that's why I'm including it) reviews "Brokeback Mountain."
The MPAA explains its ratings. snarks.
So does

1 comment:

emily2 said...

wait a minute... methinks the parents see dollar signs. why else would you bring a civil suit? they're ecstatic that the school screwed up, so now they have a chance of getting paid. back in high school we had a few activist conservative parents, and they did things like pester the principal and school board, complain to reporters, pass around fliers, and generally bang on pots and pans.

the brokeback parents here just want money.

with that being said, wtf is up with the teacher showing an r rated movie to a bunch of kids?