One Critic's War 'Hollywood vs. America'

December 06, 1992

The following is the first of two excerpts from "Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values," by film critic Michael Medved.

No notion has been more aggressively and ubiquitously promoted in films, popular music, and television than the idea the children know best -- that parents are corrupt, hypocritical clowns who must learn decency and integrity from their enlightened offspring.

Teen-agers in particular are portrayed as the ultimate source of all wisdom, sanity and sensitivity and our one hope for redeeming the world from the terrible mistakes of the benighted generations that preceded them. With Bart Simpson regularly turning up on lists of the most admired Americans, we've come a long way from the model of the hugely popular Andy Hardy movies of the 1930s, with young Mickey Rooney learning life lessons from his father (Lewis Stone), a stern but kindly small-town judge. If they remade those films today, it would be Andy who taught the old man a thing or two -- about tolerance, or environmentalism, or the joy of spontaneous sexuality, or new styles in hair or clothes, or the horrors of sexism or homophobia. The movies would end up with the newly sensitized judge smiling with gratitude as he claps his hands, kicks up his feet underneath his robe, and boogies energetically along with the high-stepping local kids in a huge production number choreographed to an infectious rap beat.

In today's climate, a television series called "Father Knows Best" would be absolutely unthinkable -- it would be deemed too judgmental, authoritarian, patriarchal and perhaps even sexist. A program entitled "Father Knows Nothing" would stand a far better chance.

Hollywood's emphasis on super kids and superfluous adults has become so pervasive that it turns up even in some of our era's most beloved and beautifully crafted family films. The top-grossing feature in movie history offers a classic expression of the kids-know-best theme: in "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), adults are all insensitive or cruel to the visitor from outer space, and the children must band together to rescue the peacefully emissary from the Great Beyond. . . .

"The Little Mermaid" (1990) won well-deserved praise for its glorious animation and irresistible music, but the story line effectively encouraged children to disregard the values and opinions of their parents. The blustery, tempestuous King Triton of the watery deep tries to stop his pubescent mermaid daughter, Ariel, from pursuing the earthbound Prince Eric. The heroic lass stubbornly defies his commands in order to follow her heart, and in the end, of course, pure, powerful adolescent love triumphs over all stuffy parental reservations about human-mermaid intermarriage.

These prominent and popular examples indicate that fine family films do not always convey fitting family messages. In selecting appropriate movie fare for children, parents may count the number of curse words or worry over the incidents of violence, but they rarely consider the underlying images and values that the stories convey. If they did, they could hardly be so enthusiastic over entertaining but adult-bashing fare like "Honey Shrunk the Kids" or "The Little Mermaid" -- or that other recent blockbuster, "Home Alone" (1990).

The phenomenal popularity of this mildly diverting comedy (it is now third on the list of the all-time top-grossing motion pictures) testifies to the public's powerful hunger for movies that portray reasonably well-adjusted, happy middle-class families. Despite their embarrassing ineptitude in departing for a Paris vacation while accidentally leaving behind their eight-year-old son, these preoccupied parents (John Heard and Catherine O'Hara) clearly love their children. The mother overcomes numerous difficulties to fly back to Chicago to rescue the stranded Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), but the irony is that he's doing far better without his parents around than he ever did in their disapproving presence. After their departure, he courageously comes into his own, brilliantly defending his home from two bumbling, slap-happy, middle-aged burglars and helping an old man from the neighborhood reconcile with his estranged children and grandchildren. The young moviegoers who so eagerly consumed this appealingly packaged concoction inevitably admired Kevin and learned from his self-reliant example that kids need adults for only one purpose: comic relief.

Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins, publisher of "Hollywood vs. America."

Monday in Today and Accent: Hollywood's unflattering portrayal organized religion.

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