Mamma mia, here they go again

Why does Hollywood think that smoking is awful, but promiscuity and open sexuality are harmless pastimes? 
Daniel Proussalidis | Jan 17 2009 | comment  

Warning: This article contains arguments that challenge conventional North American thinking (or lack thereof) regarding media, culture, and youth behaviour. Some paragraphs may offend (politically correct) readers.

Whether you're watching a television program or a movie, often even when you're playing a video game, you will see warnings about content. Those warnings exist to help you make an informed decision about whether you or your children should take in whatever is about to pop onto the screen. But now the warnings at the beginning of a production are increasingly being followed by disclaimers and warnings at the end as well. My wife and I noticed this as we were watching the credits roll at the end of the DVD version of Mamma Mia

Taken at face value, Mamma Mia is an entertaining musical that features the songs of Swedish pop group ABBA, of which I admit I'm a fan. To summarize the story, it's about a young woman named Sophie who grew up with her single mum on a Greek island and wants to finally learn who her father is so he can walk her down the aisle when she gets married. So Sophie invites the three men who could conceivably be her father to her wedding in hopes of learning the truth.

But there's more to this movie that just what's on the surface. As the credits roll at the end of the production there's a fascinating disclaimer that makes sure all viewers understand that smoking is a dangerously unhealthy habit and that nothing was meant to encourage young people to smoke. Was there a lot of smoking in Mamma Mia? Hardly. The only tobacco product was one scene of Sophie's fiancé chomping on an unlit cigar. And it came during the musical number, Lay All Your Love on Me that featured the fiancé singing the familiar lyrics, "You've heard me saying that smoking was my only vice." That's it. But in the new age of responsible movie production, that's enough to warrant a disclaimer. 

The disclaimer is the result of a major policy at Universal Pictures which "discourages depictions of tobacco smoking in all youth-rated films and will exert its influence, where possible, to minimize the occurrence of smoking incidents in them". Universal even has a "Tobacco Depictions Committee" to ensure compliance. Other Hollywood production companies have similar policies. Their logic is simple. According to the American Legacy Foundation more than half of youth-rated (G, PG, PG-13) movies contain smoking and research indicates those images can influence 200,000 new youth smokers per year. Universal may be on to something here. This is one of the few times that any movie production house has explicitly admitted that content can influence behaviour for good or ill.

But if that's the case, what about the rest of Mamma Mia? It can leave you wondering where Universal's disclaimer is for the other images in what is considered a youth-rated movie. I caution you, though, that the following my spoil the movie for you if you haven't seen it. Here's a sampling of some of the content teenagers would take in. One character refers to her repeated marriages, breast enhancements, and skimpy underwear. Later in the movie a young man hits on a woman about three times his age and she responds by flirting with him. The choreography of the movie during several songs features sexually charged images of shaking bottoms, spread out legs, crotch grabs, pelvic thrusts, and a woman's cleavage. As well, two women are shown severely hung over. Two gay man are shown exchanging lustful glances and hugging.

Perhaps more powerful than even those images are key plot elements in Mamma Mia. The main character, Sophie, starts off planning to get married and trying to learn about herself by finding out who her father is. Yet she comes to the jaded realization she doesn't need marriage, so she runs off and lives with her fiancé, and is happy meeting her three possible dads without ever knowing which man is really her father. Moreover, Sophie's mum overcomes her regrets for living promiscuously in her youth and leaving her daughter essentially fatherless by dismissing her concerns as "Catholic guilt". The concept of consequences for poor moral choices seems lost on the producers of this film (and the original stage musical). 

Strangely, given Universal's concern for influence on youth, there is no disclaimer encouraging young viewers to ignore what they'd just seen. It seems ironic that a young man chomping an unlit cigar calls for a disclaimer, but all the other images get nary a mention. The only clue you have about the content before viewing the movie is a PG-13 rating that "strongly cautions" parents about "some sex-related comments." Still, if we accept the premise that movies (and other media) influence youth behaviour, there is good reason to consider what other types of content Universal and other companies may wish to limit in youth-rated films. Is it not plausible that the normalization of promiscuity and open sexuality on screen will influence the behaviour of teenagers and young adults? If so, that has some major implications.

The choices young people make could be life-changing, for better or for worse. Doctors Joe S. McIlhaney and Freda McKissic Bush have reviewed some of the latest neuro-scientific research on the effect of sex on teenagers. In their book Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting our Children they outline how sexual activity releases chemicals in the brain that create emotional bonds between the people involved. Breaking those bonds is not only painful, it makes it more difficult for someone to form a new bond in the future. But at the same time, the rush of dopamine experienced during sex is especially addictive in the young brain. And Doctors McIlhaney and McKissic Bush note that such an addiction can lead young people to adopt riskier sexual behaviour more frequently. And Wendy Shalit notes in her book Girls Gone Mild that many young women, find that living on the sexual wild side has left them unable to trust men, fearful of disease and emotional pain, and depressingly dissatisfied.

In the case of an addictive substance such as tobacco, which is a notable cause of lung cancer, emphysema, and other deadly ailments, movie producers have decided to take action for films young people are likely to see. I applaud them for that. But why do they not do the same when it comes to casual sex, which can also be addictive and cause serious mental and physical health problems? In fact, they could go a step further and not simply avoid what might cause negative behaviour, but deliberately show what could influence positive behaviour in young people. Then again, this is Hollywood we're talking about. I won't hold my breath.

Daniel Proussalidis is a journalist and broadcaster in Ottawa, Canada.

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