Let’s Get Down to Business

Let’s Get Down to Business:

Understanding the Negative Effects of Adult Content Inserted into Children’s Movies and How to Prevent It

By Elizabeth Shea Bolger, Contributing Writer

Edited by Dr. Ted Baehr

Imagine an 8-year-old you sitting on the couch in your favorite snuggly pajamas surrounded by your five closest friends, popcorn in hand, and a movie anticipating to be watched. You triumphantly choose TOY STORY 2, your favorite go-to movie. Popular among your friends, TOY STORY 2 is the pinnacle of classic children comedies. You laugh when Buzz tries to fly, cry when Woody finally makes it back home to Andy, and you relate to the adventure of their journey; however, what you did not realize but your subconscious 8-year-old mind did was that the 118 minutes of TOY STORY 2 was salted with sexual innuendos, crude humor and a dash of violence.

“Alright, nobody look until I get my cork back in.” “Next time you gamble, bet your own life.” “The sixties weren’t good to you, were they?” “Red, can you move over? I want to get a look at that sexy hot rod.” “Yeah, we caught this one sticking his bumper where it didn’t belong.” Each sentence was a different quote from the movies TOY STORY 2, THE INCREDIBLES, CARS, and CARS 2. While all of these movies are packed with humor and entertainment, they also include adult content, situations, and humor. From Legs in TOY STORY 2, a toy fishing rod with Barbie legs that is supposed to be a hooker, to Mike one of the main characters in MONSTERS, INC., who “accidentally” flips off his friend Scully, adult humor encapsulates children’s animation films.

The development of animated films can be traced back to 1906 with the release of the first surviving motion picture, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces by newspaper cartoonist J. Stuart Blackton, and preceded by multiple breakthrough inventions such as the Theatre Optique (earlier attempts have not survived). Created by French scientist Charles-Emile Reynaud, the Theatre Optique was a large-scale system that utilized strips of drawings and “project[ed] them onto a screen” The projection consisted of a collection of drawings that “transformed or fluidly morphed from one image into another” (Dirks, “Animated Films”).

During this same era, a cartoonist by the name of William McCay revolutionized animated films by creating a collection of comic strips drawn in over 10,000 slides. The artist “created the interactive illusion of walking into the animation by first disappearing behind the screen, reappearing on screen.” This was also “the earliest example of combined ‘live action’ and animation, and the first “interactive” animated cartoon” (Dirks, “Animated Films”). With seemingly hundreds of films over the next two decades, McCay entertained viewers with his black and white works of art. Color cartoon films emerged in the 20’s. Alongside producer John Randolph Bray, McCay created the first cartoon filmed with Brewster Natural Color Press by using a two-colored camera that only emitted a small range of color (Dirks, “Animated Films”).

Along with others, animation film producer Max Feisher also proved his success in creating repeated classics. As the producer of Inkwell Studios, Max created “two feature-length animations with whimsical characters and advanced animation techniques.” In 1939, he created GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN (Dirks, “Animated Films”). In 1973, “computer-generated images [were] used for the very first time in a brief shot [in the movie] WESTWORLD” (Nusair, “Animated Film Timeline”). Producer Don Kushner then decided to also insert large portions of computer-generated animations into his 1982 film TRON and was the first to use these images “extensively within film” (Nusair, “Animated Film Timeline”). Just over ten years later, Walt Disney’s company created the first fully computer-animated film called TOY STORY. Finally, in 2004, “THE POLAR EXPRESS bec[ame] the first fully-animated film to use motion capture technology to render all of its characters” (Nusair, “Animated Film Timeline”).

Once films became more popular, the entertainment industry felt it necessary to begin implementing a rating system based off content within a particular movie. In 1922, William Hayes was hired by the Motion Pictures Distributors Association of America (MPDAA), which later evolved into the MPAA rating system. Hayes was a corrupt politician, who was involved in the famous Teapot Dome Scandal. The MPAA used Hayes to lobby against city and state movie classification systems. To replace local classification, the major studios drafted the Motion Picture Production Code of moral guidelines through which they sought to appease parents by deeming a movie “moral according to an exhaustive list of rules.” The Code worked to confuse the public since it could not be enforced by the police power of the civil government, which is prior restraint or censorship, like the local classifications, but appeared to have some deterrent properties, although in reality it was the Hollywood movie industry itself promulgating the rules, or the “fox guarding the henhouse.”

The Motion Picture Production Code that applied to all Hollywood studio movies played in theaters, the studios not only prevented competition among themselves on salacious or controversial subjects – a “race to the bottom,” in the words of one Paramount executive – but they also headed off the possibility of foreign or independent competitors distributing such fare to American theaters. The Entertainment Industry used this trade organization to lobby the government to sanction the contrivances they employed to maintain their control over the entire industry. The practices the Code of Fair Competition for the Motion Picture Industry legitimized under the rubric of “fair competition” in fact eliminated any possibility of competition.

This form of production was also referred to as the Hayes Code by the academic community who did not understand the system or who wanted to undermine the Entertainment Industry. In a 1952, a Supreme Court case contained the dictum that “motion pictures are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment,” which hastened the demise of the system and encouraged a race to the moral bottom in 1966 when the Code was finally dropped by the Entertainment Industry, to be replaced three years later by the MPAA Ratings system. Another corrupt politician became the head of the MPAA in 1968, when Jack Valenti was appointed and attempted to create a new way of labeling the categories of movies compared to others before him. To completely undermine morality and deceive the public, his solution was the following rating system: G, M, R, or X. These ratings later evolved into the modern day G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 to be more specific to the parental need for knowledge of various forms of content. It wasn’t until 1990 as a result of the complaints of MOVIEGUIDE® when rating descriptors [were] added, giving parents more information about the elements of the movie.

Now, with motion capture technology, animated films have become a huge source of entertainment for children and families in America.

I am arguing that the insertion of violence, sexual behavior, and crude humor into children’s movies has been proven to be psychologically detrimental to children due to their desensitization to and imitation of these behavioral patterns. The young audience viewing these movies is not able to properly discern and maturely process the adult content inserted. Instead, such exposure triggers the recognition memory, sensory memory, and mirror neuron system, resulting in both the acceptance and imitation of such behavior. To prevent this from happening, the industry needs to reevaluate the MPAA rating system by providing a greater awareness to the public of the content through a more explicit and detailed commentary in addition to the rating descriptor and return to a code of ethics to replace the ratings sham.

One of the most present elements of adult content in animated children’s films is crude humor. The dirty jokes, words, and actions of certain characters in these films make children more aware and comfortable with such humor and later mirror this type of behavior at school and at home. techmedia.org says, “What I find interesting is that these shows are popular and that lends support to the use of crude humor.” This tends to appear more frequently within these films, because it provides humor and, therefore, makes it more enjoyable for the viewer; however, this also leads to the child’s imitation of these behavioral patterns whether it be simply repeating a line from a movie or going as far as embodying a character or a character’s language or behavior.

Additional aspects incorporated into children’s films are violence and aggression. Within almost every animated film, there is a fight scene or a scene where violence is used as a means of solving conflict. 90% of movies, including children’s films, contain violence (cnn.com), and “52 percent of kids have trouble sleeping or eating after watching a frightening film or TV program” (national.deseretnews.com). Aggression is constantly in the media, and children are being exposed to this at an increasing rate. Apediatrics.aapublications.org states that “researchers believe that repeated exposure to mediated violence can lead to anxiety and fear, acceptance of violence as an appropriate means of solving conflict, and desensitization, with resulting increases in aggression and decreases in altruism.” In addition, “a child’s main cartoon character was 2.5 times more likely to die than a main character in an adult horror flick” (medicaldaily.com). Not only is a child exposed to this content daily through animated films, but he or she also recognizes violence as normal and tends to use it as a way to solve conflict.

Finally, the most profound of the three is the insertion of sexual content and innuendos. From alluding to sexual behavior to performing certain sexual acts, virtually every movie post 2010 has used such content as a main source of entertainment. As the “discrete” behavior in children’s films is becoming more and more evident, it is creating a ripple effect on children. Through a gradual process of desensitization, they are requiring the inclusion of more and more sexual content in order to be entertained or engaged. Ultimately, this will cause older children to become curious to engage in conversations about or experimentation with sex at a younger age (communitycounselingservices.org). Fox News states that “researchers found that 68 percent of G, 82 percent of PG, and 85 percent of PG-13 rated movies of the 684 movies included in [their] study contained sexual situations” (foxnews.com). They also go on to say that “according to a new study conducted by psychological scientists at Dartmouth University, children who watch feature films with sexual content have a tendency to start having sex at a younger age, have more casual sexual partners, and engage in unsafe sexual practices” (foxnews.com). This is becoming more prevalent in today’s society, and the media is encouraging children to sense, recognize, and mirror this behavior when, in fact, it is extremely detrimental.

What the film producers fail to understand is that despite the children’s limitations fully comprehending the adult content, they still are subconsciously identifying and translating it literally in their brains. The subconscious identification located in the brain, more specifically in the cerebellum, is responsible for memory. To pertain to my argument, I will focus most significantly on the recognition memory and sensory memory. Recognition memory is a subcategory of declarative memory regarding “something you learned previously and is therefore stored in some manner in memory” (alleydog.com), while sensory memory allows you “the ability to retain impressions of sensory information after the original stimuli have ended” (human-memory.net). When watching a movie or TV program, the sensory memory is triggered in the brain and stores the information. When the stimuli is presented again, it activates the recognition memory causing the brain to recall the aforementioned information and translate it. This is caused by the mirror neuron system, which is triggered when an action or behavior appeals to the viewer. Essentially, “mirror neurons appear to mirror the behavior of another by a kind of motor simulation” (nonsite.org). These mirror neurons are triggered along with the sensory and recognition memories, allowing the child to process, remember, and finally mirror the actions he or she has witnessed. With the increased amount of crude humor, violence, and sexual content inserted in these films, the mirror neuron system is triggered, and likewise causing a correlated increase in the imitation of behavior of the same nature.

To prevent this, the public must be made more aware of the content inserted in children’s animation films. Therefore, the MPAA rating system should provide a more thorough rating that includes a subtext detailing adult content inserted or even better adhere to a code of ethics. The current rating system is producing skewed advertising as they are not fulfilling their purpose of sufficiently rating the movies in a way that provides parents with adequate information about the mature content included. However, this is only half the case.

This system also attempts to “advance those members’ commercial interests within the film industry” according to Jason Albosta in his scholarly journal article “How I Learned that the MPAA Film Rating System Constitutes False Advertising.” This film rating system creates an economic benefit for the industry by giving a rating of PG or PG-13 in order to attract a larger audience and generate more revenue. These ratings currently enable leniency. A parental guidance website states that “historical trends were found for terms indicating stronger depictions of violence and language and more mature thematic material in PG movie phrases. . . across the sampled years, a pattern termed ‘ratings creep’” (Potts, “Parental Guidance”). This saying deems fitting as movies have become increasingly more adult in their plot, content, and innuendos, including those of children’s films.

On the other hand, many people believe that the content shown in animated children’s films have been successful in having hundreds of millions of viewers and should continue to be inserted. There are three reasons for this: 1) the content creates profit and circulation for the filmmakers; 2) it makes adults more inclined to pay; and, 2) it finally gives an incentive for the public to continue to participate in watching these movies. BBC News says, “Shrek was seized upon as a turning point in that it had very definitely one kind of text for kids and definitely a subtext for adults.” This same “subtext” has appeared in virtually every animated children’s film that has been released post 2010. While the evident purpose to entertain parents and make them more inclined to attend these films has been successful, people have failed to realize that such subtext is not simply going over a child’s head, but in fact is being retained in his developing brain. A pediatrics website declares the inclusion of adult content such as violence does in fact maintain a child’s attention, however, they then internalize such images and concepts and ultimately tend to mimic such behavioral patterns at school or at home. This is a clear physical response in children proving that their developing brains are more acutely aware of adult content show to them than many ever considered or have been willing to admit.

While some might find problems with the adult content inserted in children’s films, it is impossible to ignore that it amplifies revenue and profit. From the words of BBC news, “If the adults think there is something in it for them, they may even be more sympathetic to the shameless wave of merchandising aimed at their pestering offspring.” This strategic placement is intended to increase revenue and spark interest in the parents, so they are willing to watch these movies with their children; however, the responsibility of parents to protect their children from somewhat explicit content should take precedent over their own enjoyment. While entertainment is important to a well-written film, the implementation of censorship is necessary to protect children from indecent exposure of humor, violence, and sexual behavior. It is also crucial for parents to become aware of the psychological effects such adult content has on children’s brains and behavior. To aid in this, the MPAA rating system should not simply inform parents of content in a film through a simple letter rating or brief descriptor, but rather should also include a section outlining the adult content and subtext in more detail. Obviously, the MPAA rating systems cannot perfectly inform parents of every little bit of adult content, but they can take the appropriate measures to clearly and concisely inform parents about subtext plots and references in a movie through rating that is universally advertised and easily accessible. Discreet adult content does in fact affect a child’s brain, and therefore requires us to take appropriate measures to respond. The addition of this detailed commentary to the public rating will provide parents with breathing room:  breathing room to be provided with enough empirical data decide whether their child should view a particular movie, breathing room to be the driver of introducing mature content to their children through meaningful discussions rather than scrambling to explain confusing material they saw on the screen, breathing room to make sound judgments to protect their children.

Going back to that 8 year old you, sitting on the couch watching TOY STORY 2, surrounded by your friends and aspiring to be like Woody, you reflect on the talk you had with Mom earlier in the day before watching it. You are thankful to have a mom who watches out for you and loves you enough to talk with you about difficult topics like violence and crude humor instead of being blind sighted by the media.

Editor’s Note:  Elizabeth Bolger has a deep interest in film and hope to pursue a career in acting. Currently, she is enrolled at Baylor University as a business major with a minor in psychology.



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Our small team works tirelessly to provide resources to protect families from harmful media, reviewing 415 movies/shows and writing 3,626 uplifting articles this year. We believe that the gospel can transform entertainment. That’s why we emphasize positive and faith-filled articles and entertainment news, and release hundreds of Christian movie reviews to the public, for free. No paywalls, just trusted, biblically sound content to bless you and your family. Online, Movieguide is the closest thing to a biblical entertainment expert at your fingertips. As a reader-funded operation, we welcome any and all contributions – so if you can, please give something. It won’t take more than 52 seconds (we timed it for you). Thank you.

4000+ Faith Based Articles and Movie Reviews – Will you Support Us?

Our small team works tirelessly to provide resources to protect families from harmful media, reviewing 415 movies/shows and writing 3,626 uplifting articles this year. We believe that the gospel can transform entertainment. That’s why we emphasize positive and faith-filled articles and entertainment news, and release hundreds of Christian movie reviews to the public, for free. No paywalls, just trusted, biblically sound content to bless you and your family. Online, Movieguide is the closest thing to a biblical entertainment expert at your fingertips. As a reader-funded operation, we welcome any and all contributions – so if you can, please give something. It won’t take more than 52 seconds (we timed it for you). Thank you.