Editor’s Note: Plugged In movie reviews are split into content sections, and sometimes Plugged In is asked, Why? This series of blogs seeks to answer that and many other questions. We’ll unpack each content section in turn and explain why we believe each is important. We’ll give you a peek at how we think and talk about movies—and in so doing, perhaps you’ll learn something about us, the movies we watch and maybe even how can you watch them with a discerning eye, too.
Our third post in this series is about Sexual Content. (See previous post on Spiritual Elements here.)
Sexual Content is the most “popular” section in our movie reviews … but not in the way that word might imply.
We know from decades of interactions with our readers that this section, along with our Crude and Profane Language section, is the category of content that parents are most concerned with. And for obvious reasons: Explicit sexual images can have a deep impact on our hearts and souls, shaping and influencing this profoundly important aspect of being created in God’s image.
That’s true for all of us, of course. But for tweens and teens, explicit sexual imagery during their growth and development toward adulthood can be especially damaging. Yet many movies feature exactly that kind of content. And even if they avoid explicit imagery, many PG-13 films still include innuendo, sex-focused plotlines and sexually immoral worldviews. So content concerns in this area are hardly relegated to R-rated fare alone.
Given how important this area of content is, Plugged In strives to walk a delicate line in describing the sorts of images and ideas that fall into this category. We want to give you enough information to know, generally, what to expect in a film; but we don’t want to describe it in such a way that our summary is, in and of itself, problematic for those who struggle in this area. In short, we want to give you enough, but not too much, information for you and your family to make the wisest decision possible.
We walk that line in a couple of very specific ways.
Good writing depends on active verbs (think run or jump or stab) that bring readers into the action. In this section, however, we intentionally violate that rule of good writing. Here’s what I mean. Instead of using active and evocative verbs that paint a picture, we try to use passive ones (is, are, was, etc.) that communicate what’s happening without unnecessarily inviting a reader to picture the scene. So instead of a sentence like, “The two people slowly peel off each other’s clothes,” we’ll say something like, “Clothes are removed, and there’s frontal nudity.”
It’s tricky, of course, because even a pared-down description of sexual content can feel erotic to some. But for the most part, we try to keep these descriptions specific enough that you know something’s happening, but general enough that you’re not actively picturing it in your mind’s eye. Something like, “A sex scene involves explicit movements and female breast nudity.”
We certainly want to protect those who have weaknesses in this area. But we also occasionally hear from people who are frustrated that we didn’t give enough information. A review might say, “We see two explicit love scenes,” but one person’s idea of what constitutes explicit may be very different from another person’s, which is why we’ll generally try to list what nudity takes place in a way that no one gets caught by surprise, either.
The more sexual content a film has, the more we’re able to generalize. And where we’re able to generalize yet still communicate clearly, that’s definitely the path we try to take.
Increasingly, our reviews also have to note same-gender sexual content. Over the last decade, homosexual relationships and content has gone from being relatively rare to being in nearly every movie and TV show in one form or another, including movies made for kids. For adult-focused movies that have a same-sex relationship at the core (say, Call Me By Your Name, for example), the issue is pretty straight forward. But when it comes to kids’ movies, it’s often more subtle. Onward, for instance, had a fleeting mention of a female police officer’s “girlfriend,” something that might be easily missed. We noted that mention, but we didn’t make that the primary lens through which we viewed the entire movie. The more a film emphasizes a pro-LGBT worldview, and the more that’s a core part of the plot, the more we will deal with that issue theologically and philosophically in our reviews.
And sometimes—again, especially in kids’ movies—it can be tricky to quantify what counts as sexual content or not. And in cases like that, we try to stick with what the movie is actually telling us, rather than trying into interpret what a movie’s maker might have been trying to say. Take Toy Story 4, for instance: The character Forky (a plastic fork) has a rainbow sticker on his foot, and some readers interpreted that as a sign that Forky was part of the LGBT community. It’s possible the makers were trying to say that, but rainbows are also just really popular subjects for preschoolers to draw and appreciate. And given that Forky really didn’t show any particular romantic inclinations, we didn’t automatically assume that this was a wink or nod to LGBT inclusivity.
Sexual expression—and the worldview behind a given film’s values—is obviously a huge area of contention culturally, and one that we strive to deal with in an accurate, matter-of-fact tone while staying true to our evangelical and biblical worldview in this area. Focus on the Family affirms that God has designed sexual intimacy to take place exclusively between a man and a woman, reflecting His image, in the context of a covenantal, marriage relationship. We will note where a film’s sexual content deflects from this biblical intention, both with extramarital intimacy between genders as well as any content related to LGBT relationships.
As you can probably see, dealing with this content area in our reviews requires a great deal of thought—perhaps more than you’d thought about before. We may not always get it 100% right, as evidenced by letters from readers who believe we said too much or not enough. But we work very hard to depict and describe sexual content in films in a way that’s accurate but not unnecessarily explicit, and we welcome your input on any review that you think misses the mark in this important area of entertainment and of our lives.
Next, we’ll tackle Violent Content in this space.