When I was about three, I watched “RoboCop” with my dad and his friends. My mom was pissed about it. I think she still is. For about 15 years after, I couldn’t figure out why.
RoboCop was a shining example of justice in an unjust world. How did I know this? Because he was shiny. Because he arrested crooks with his laser gun in the animated series. Because I had fun playing with the cap-gun like action figures that posed a fire hazard to the carpet in my bedroom. So imagine my surprise when I watched Paul Verhoeven‘s original 1987 “RoboCop” and it’s sequel, 1990’s “RoboCop 2” (directed by Irvin ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘ Kershner) when I was 18 and found that they are definitely adult-oriented blood baths. Seriously. If you’re of my generation and remember “RoboCop” as a kid but haven’t seen it since, check it out. There’s death and dismemberment all over the place. And don’t forget the profanity and nudity. No wonder my mom was so mad.
The thing is, I actually remember sitting in my high chair in the living room, eating a bowl of either macaroni and cheese or SpaghettiOs, and watching the robotic hero save the day and stop the bad guys. What I didn’t remember was watching Peter Weller getting his arm blown off before being gunned down, leading to him becoming RoboCop. I didn’t remember Miguel Ferrer getting his legs shot up and strapped to a bomb. I didn’t remember Paul McCrane‘s skin being melted by toxic waste before the remains of his body exploded on the hood of a car. And I definitely didn’t remember Kurtwood Smith (That ’70s Show‘s Red Foreman) being stabbed in the neck by RoboCop’s USB port. And that’s just the ‘R‘-rated version that I saw as a child. The movie had apparently been rated ‘X‘ 11 times before Verhoeven cut it back enough to get an ‘R‘ from the MPAA. Why did I even know this movie existed?
And as I think about it now, I knew about it the same way I knew about John Rambo, the Toxic Avenger, the Terminator, the gang from “Police Academy”, and the characters from the “Aliens” franchise:
Toys and cartoons.
Each of these had action figures geared at children between the ages of 5 and 12. And all but the “Terminator” and “Alien” franchises had animated spin-offs. But who made the decision to market these towards kids?
(I would now like to point out that I have no problem with any of these films. The first two movies in the “Alien” and “Terminator” franchises are among my favorite films of all time, the first “Police Academy” is comedic gold, and the first “RoboCop” and the first Rambo flick, “First Blood”, are not only great action flicks, but have a bit more soul to them if you really give them a chance. “The Toxic Avenger” even has its merits, though I’ve admittedly never taken the time to really get into it.)
The thing of it is, is that I can’t argue that I wasn’t too young to see movies like “RoboCop” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” at the young age that I did. They were both rated ‘R‘ by the Motion Picture Association of America.
For those of you that are unfamiliar, the MPAA’s rating system as of 1990 is as follows:
G – General Audiences
All ages admitted. This movie contains nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children.Such films may contain only mild fantasy violence or crude humor. Such films have no nudity, sex or drugs of any kind. Alcohol and tobacco may be used in small amounts by adults in the movie, but not by minors, especially in older G rated films. The violence must be cartoonish in nature and/or minimal in quantity.
PG – Parental Guidance Suggested
Some material may not be suitable for children. Parents are urged to give parental guidance as the motion picture contains some material that parents might not like for younger children.Such films may contain only mild violence, language, drug references, brief nudity and/or implied or inferred sexual activity.
PG-13 – Parents Strongly Cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents are urged to be cautious and contain some material that parents might not like for their pre-teenagers.Such films may contain moderate violence, some suggestive material and nudity, some sexual situations, brief strong language and/or soft drug use.
R – Restricted
Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian. This movie contains some adult material and parents are urged to learn more about this film before taking their young children with them to see it.Such films may contain rough and/or persistent violence and suggestive material, hard language and horror, crude sexual content, sexually-oriented nudity, and/or hard drug use.Admittance to these films is prohibited for anyone under the age of seventeen unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Children under 17 or those who do not have ID (including state IDs and drivers’ licenses) are not allowed to attend R-rated movies unaccompanied by an adult.
NC-17 – No One 17 & Under Admitted
This film is patently adult and children are not admitted. Such films may contain brutality/pervasive strong graphic violence, explicit sexual content, sexual assault, extreme horror and/or crude indecent language, swearing and drug use.
So when I saw “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (MPAA: “Rated R for strong sci-fi action and violence, and for language.“) in the summer of 1992 (when I was 8), I had no adult supervision with me. I watch that flick now and, while I love it and think it’s an incredible visual accomplishment that raised the bar for compelling action movies, I wonder what in the world my grandmother was thinking when she saw that it was coming on HBO next, figured I’d like it, and left the room to do chores. Robert Patrick’s T-1000 is fond of sticking sharp objects through people’s heads, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor can hardly make it through a sentence without lacing it with some form of profanity, and there’s a nuclear holocaust dream sequence that shows kids on a playground being reduced to skeletal remains before turning into ash. According to the MPAA, Tipper Gore, and my mother, I had no business seeing this film. And today, knowing several young children personally, I’m inclined to agree with them.
Yet I can’t. Because, in spite of everything that I saw and heard that was beyond my maturity level, I don’t think it had a negative effect on me. For one thing, I didn’t exactly have nightmares about it. I will admit that I found the nuke scene and Xander Berkeley with a bloody blade protruding from his mouth and sticking through his milk carton hard to watch. But in all honesty, I find them hard to watch now. And I don’t think it’s so much that they’re “scary” images, but that I recognized then, as I do now, that they were horrible acts that no one should have to endure, let alone witness. And though there is an abundance of profanity (thank you, Edward Furlong, for introducing me to “dickwad“), my mother never had to worry about me repeating any of it. (Bart Simpson and my uncle are a different story and she threatened me accordingly.) And regardless of the fact that I knew I was watching something that I wasn’t old enough to watch, I was fully capable of not watching it. At eight-years-old, I was well aware that I could do anything from changing the channel to leaving the room if I was watching something that made me uncomfortable. So it’s not like I was tied up with toothpicks holding my eyelids open. So what did my eight-year-old self take away from “Terminator 2”?
1) Nukes suck.
2) Women cussing is kind of off-putting.
3) If you have the option to stop someone without killing them, you should exercise restraint.
4) It is noble to take responsibility for your actions.
5) Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good.
6) You can get guns in Mexico.
Can I reiterate that I was eight-years-old?
I have seen many things that I was probably too young to see at the age that I saw it. I was a little too young to see stuff like “True Lies” (eleven-years-old) and “Braveheart” (twelve-years-old) when I saw them. And I recognized that all the violence was nearly, but not quite, too much for me. (The sex stuff was completely over my head. Jamie Lee Curtis’ striptease was silly and what was supposed to look like simulated fellatio on Bill Paxton didn’t even register.) But nothing about these adult oriented films scarred my pre-adolescent psyche. They were entertaining and, in the case of “Braveheart”, emotionally powerful and intellectually stimulating.
So I know what you’re thinking. If you were desensitized to ‘grown-up’ movies like these when you were that young, then what could have possibly frightened you?
Well. A lot.
The things that I remember horrifying me the most when I was a kid weren’t blood-and-guts action movies. They were things like Large Marge’s “ghost face” in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (rated ‘PG‘). The nightmare sequence with all the stop-animation monster frogs in “The Bear” (also ‘PG‘). The cute, fluffy, cuddly rabbit protagonists being ripped apart by dogs, hawks, farmer’s rifles, and each other in the animated “Watership Down” (also ‘PG‘). The old lady at the docks that tries to coerce Jane and Michael into going with her in “Mary Poppins” (rated ‘G‘). Atreyu’s faithful steed, Artax, drowning in the swamp in “The NeverEnding Story” (rated ‘PG‘). Melting Nazi faces in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (rated ‘PG‘). Cindel’s dream of attacking Marauders in “Ewoks: The Battle for Endor” (not rated, but a made-for-TV movie that aired as the ABC family movie of the week). Antie the ant getting murdered by a scorpion in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (rated ‘PG‘). And I’m sure I don’t need to bring it up, but let’s just go ahead and include the boat ride from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (rated ‘G‘).
All these things were, at the very least, unnerving. But the tie for the flicks that screwed me up the most as a kid goes to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (rated ‘PG‘), in which Judge Doom disintegrates a poor, defenseless ‘toon shoe in a drum of ‘Dip’, and “My Girl” (rated ‘PG‘), in which we’re treated not only to the death of a ten-year-old Macaulay Culkin but also his subsequent open-casket funeral. The emotional toll that these took on my youth is still prevalent. Twenty years later and I’ve never seen “My Girl” again, even though I can see the DVD sitting on the shelf from where I’m sitting. And though I love “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and have seen it dozens of times, I almost always find a reason to avoid looking at the screen when that poor little shoe meets its demise.
I don’t know what any of this says about me. Or how it compares to your movie viewing experience growing up. But I think that when I have kids, particularly when they’re in their first decade of existence, I’m gonna make sure to investigate what they’re viewing before they view it. I remember reading a piece by Stephen King in high school (it may have been the forward to Danse Macabre, but I’m not entirely sure) and it talking about how he decided on what films to let his young children have access to. He had a shelf full of videos and his rule was that if they could reach it, they could watch it. The stuff he didn’t think they could handle was on the top shelf. This is where Walt Disney’s ‘G‘-rated 1937 animated classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” resided. Several rows above what is commonly referred to as the scariest movie of all time, William Friedkin’s ‘R‘-rated 1973 Academy Award for Best Picture nominee, “The Exorcist”. I guess he figured the witch would have more of an impact on his kids than a possessed child. He was probably right.