TV’s not a black-and-white issue

Arts & Culture
Sister Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul who directs the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, talks about television being more than just a boob tube but a moral laboratory.

It's a safe bet that Sister Rose Pacatte watches more TV and movies than you do. She even has TiVo, which only seriously addicted TV watchers will admit to. If you asked her about this, she would say, "Hey, it's all part of my job!" And you might nod and say indulgently, "Of course it is, Sister."

But she would be telling the truth. Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, directs the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. She went to the University of London in the 1990s to get a master's degree in media studies, because no such degree was offered in the U.S. Along with her work connecting media and faith, Pacatte co-founded the National Film Retreat and has served on the juries of the Venice and Berlin Film Festivals. She also co-authored Lights, Camera, Faith! A Movie Lover's Guide to the Scripture (Pauline Rooks and Media).

Pacatte says TV is more than just the boob tube–it's a moral laboratory. She encourages parents to watch TV with their kids and to help them understand what they're watching, and then measure it against the values of the gospel. Helping children become media-savvy, she says, is giving them a gift they'll use for life. Even if they do end up watching too much crummy TV.

Many parents today are at their wits' end about what their kids see on TV. What do you suggest?

Face it, the kids are watching TV. We adults need to be watching, too, so we can talk about the very sensitive issues that often do conflict with our faiths teachings and our beliefs and our moral life. You can't just not watch it. That's not an answer.


Adults need to articulate their values. I work with groups of teachers and parents all the time, and I always ask of them, "Articulate the three most important values in your life that guide you individually or as a family." You'd think I was inviting them to have their teeth pulled at the dentist. For some people it's very difficult. They don't know what I mean by a value, which is an overriding, transcendent ideal that guides our lives. If you can't articulate your values, how do you communicate them to your kids? Do you just say, "Not in my house you don't"?

What's wrong with saying that?

Because you're not giving any reasons for the choices you're making regarding media. You're just using power because you feel defenseless against this onslaught of popular culture. That doesn't help. Your children will just go out the back door to someone else's house, without any skills, saying, "My dad doesn't let me watch South Park" (Actually it's,"My mom doesn't let me watch South Park. My dad is home watching it.")

If the parents would sit down with the kids and watch South Park, first of all they would find out it's pretty funny, because it makes fun of adults' inconsistencies in their beliefs. It's pure toilet humor and worse sometimes-crass-but do you think anyone's going to be sent to hell for using toilet humor?

When I talk to parents' groups, I bring a clip of South Park and say, "Some of you are going to be offended by this, but let's watch it because your kids are watching this."


"No, mine aren't," some of them will say. And I say, "Yes, they are." There's a huge underground of sharing tapes and recording shows. Then we watch the clip, and at the first bathroom joke that comes on, the women all roll their eyes, and the men are on the floor laughing. Don't ask me why.

Probably because it's funny.

It is funny, but it's not immoral.

Don't you think parents with children of a certain age should set limits on what is appropriate for their kids to watch?

I don't disagree with that at all. What I'm saying is explain your reasons. The only way you can do that is if you know what your values are and how your values are not being reflected in this particular program. In other words, why is it that 6-year-old Johnny should not be watching South Park?

What should a parent say?

"Johnny, there are things in this show that you'll be able to understand better when you're older. Right now let's watch Dora the Explorer. I'll sit and watch it with you."

Don't you think kids watch too much TV in general?

When my sister was pregnant with her first child, she swore to me that she wasn't going to use TV and computers with her kids. Now she has a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. They have a DVD player in the car. The 3-year-old has his own computer in his bedroom. Every person in the house except the youngest has their own TV.

I asked my sister, "What happened to all your ideals?" She said, "Life."

Last time I was there babysitting, the boys said, "Let's put on Pirates of the Caribbean." And I said, "No, I'm in charge of the television." So we played dominoes for a while and made a big mess, and then I started flipping channels and came to the World Championships of Ice Skating. I love to watch ice skating.

I said, "Hey guys, go put your socks on, and we'll ice skate." And for the next hour they "ice skated" on the wooden floor in the living room. Now that was work, but I'm the aunt-I can visit every couple of months and do that. To ask my sister to do that on a daily basis is probably beyond reason.

I do think parents and children ought to take stock of what activities they believe are most important for the whole family, and then figure out how much time each week they actually spend doing certain things: watching TV, talking to each other, school, sports, e-mail, going to church, etc.

When you look at how much time you're spending on media and so forth, it's a wake-up call that family members may be spending too much time on individual activities rather than family activities. Once we ask ourselves what we are doing with the rest of our lives, we see how much media is too much.

Right now, by the way, studies show that adults are spending five hours a day watching TV, and kids are watching seven to eight hours a day on average.

Are we all just hopelessly addicted to television?

No, I think we lead really busy, compressed lives at high tension, and TV is a way to decompress. Is that good or bad? It depends on how you use it.

And just because it's Disney doesn't mean it's fine for kids to watch. Disney is the most commercially driven entity possible-tying in to Happy Meals at McDonald's for example. People think, well, at least there's no sex. Wrong-there are plenty of highly sexualized figures in Disney's children's movies. The Little Mermaid, Mulan, Pocahontas, to name a few.

Why would Disney sexualize children's movie heroines?

Well, the people buying the tickets are the parents. So there's a level for parents and a level for children. The humor and the images keep the adult eyes interested; meanwhile the kids start wanting to dress like the Little Mermaid.

Do you think parents worry too much or too little about what their kids are watching?

Some don't worry at all. Some worry and don't do anything. Some worry a great deal and are really involved in their kids' media lives. Then there's a fourth kind who are so obsessed about it that they completely do away with any media.

I was once on a call-in show, and a dad called in and said, "When our oldest was 6 years old, we took the TV and threw it away. They've been raised without television, and they're these great kids."

Then he said, "I think every family in America should take their TV out in the front yard and make a public display of destroying it with a sledgehammer."

Can you imagine the whole street doing that? It would make a great Simpsons episode.Seriously, though, while I might not agree with that, obviously he and his wife had been so involved in the upbringing of their children that, yes, their kids have done well. Good for them.

But you'd say their kids were probably watching TV at someone else's house, right?

Of course. So many parents are in denial. They don't think their kids are watching this stuff. They don't think they're being influenced by it, but it's in the air we breathe and the water we drink. We live in a mediated culture. Everything is mediated visually or through sound in one v way or another.{C}

What are some principles parents can use to help kids understand what the media is sending at them?

Let's start with the parents themselves, with their own self-awareness. Look at your own house. What media is around you? How do you get your own entertainment and information from the media?

Then start asking questions about the media you consume. Start with asking, whose interest is at stake here-who made this program?

Actually kids are pretty cynical about advertising. They know by the age of 10 that they're being bought and sold. It's just a matter of talking about it, bringing it up in a casual, nonpreachy way. As soon as you get preachy, kids go out the door.

Everybody's interested in money. They're also interested in sex and in who's got the power. Poverty, chastity, and obedience come right from what Jesus taught in the gospels. That's why we religious take those vows; they hit the main issues of money, sex, and power. The idea of being media-savvy is pretty relevant to our faith life.

What are some of the main values that come through in popular media?

Let's take Seinfeld. The problem with Seinfeld was that everything was the same. Whether you go out and have an abortion or whether you order a pepperoni pizza-same difference. Life is just a bunch of choices.

You could see the same thing on Dawson's Creek, where the value is: "It's not what you know, it's what you feel. As long as you feel it's the right thing to do, it's fine." What is that? That's not about conscience. That's not about looking at the fact that my rights end where yours begin. It's not about freedom and responsibility.

Dawson's Creek was the mouthpiece for every popular philosophy out there: realism, relativism, subjectivism, anything. It was a marketplace of pop philosophy, and you could actually find it in any five-minute segment of that show. It was amazing. There were hardly any parents in that show at all who were actually involved in their kids' lives. Very interesting.

I sometimes use a great clip from the end of the first Survivor show, where Susan inverts the Beatitudes. Remember? "If I see you lying by the side of the road hungry and dying, I will not give you food," she says to the woman she's angry at. "I will not give you water. I will walk on by." Parents can make a joke of it and say, "Oh boy, that sounds just like Jesus." Or more seriously, "Boy, I wonder what Jesus would have said at that moment." Maybe the kid will say, "Oh, don't be so corny." But it stays with them.

You can also start asking children, "Who's missing from this picture?" In Barney's Great Adventure, for example, the only adults in the show are grandparents. Parents were missing. It's good to talk about that. Ask your kids, "So where do you think the parents are?"

You can also look at whether the characters face consequences for their actions. In Too Fast and Too Furious you see guys bouncing out of these fast-moving cars and getting up and walking away. It's funny to adults. We know it's not real, but to kids who don't understand cause and effect at that age, it can be a problem.

Are there any good messages in the media?

A movie like Titanic actually had some values in it, along with some nonvalues. It had a whole metaphor for freedom. Remember when the mother is tying the girl into her corset? "You've got to marry that jerk," she's saying in effect. "We need the money." The girl is being made to do what she doesn't want to do. Then you have the immigrants down in the hold who are all dancing and singing.

One of our nuns saw that movie and said, "Oh, just another love story." And our novice director said, "Oh really? Well, who was a free person? Who was spiritually free?" Jack was the one with freedom, who could make choices. He wasn't encumbered by all the cultural things that Rose was encumbered by. But that's a perfect place to start talking about human freedom or the lack of it.

What about parents who wouldn't let their kids see a movie like that because of the sex scenes?

I do think there are dangers with doing strictly content analysis, where all you ask is, how many bad words are there, how much sexuality is portrayed, how much liquor is portrayed, how much smoking is there. Now, these are issues especially for young children, because the media normalizes this kind of behavior. But for older children what you need is critical engagement.

Everwood, which I loved until this season, was a great family show. This season the father starts sleeping with a woman. They don't show it, but it was obvious. The son confronts the father. Meanwhile the son is having sex with his girlfriend. He's only 16 and the girlfriend is 20 and she gets pregnant.

Now, stuff like this really happens. So how do you deal with it? You can talk about it by saying to kids, "This can happen, and the father isn't even giving a good example here to his children."

You can also say, "Is this a show we want to keep watching? It's not really making us grow and giving us the things to talk about the way it used to. It's moved into total soap opera zone right now." So then you make a decision and try to find something else.

What exactly is critical engagement?

Critical engagement means to be aware of our media world, to reflect on it, to inquire about the world views and values it presents, the techniques used to construct it and why. Media literacy-that is, critical engagement with our media culture-is about inquiry and helping us live mindfully and choose wisely.

The point is, what is the context? You need to look at the whole story. Look at the movie Erin Brockovich. Some parents didn't want their teenage girls watching that film because Erin used her body to get what she wanted: she leans over the counter with a low-cut blouse on.

But the movie showed her as a spiritually poor woman, a materially poor woman with no support system, no skills. Yet she became a person who virtually laid down her life for other people and caused great good to happen out of her poverty. She's a Christ figure. She's a Good Shepherd figure.

So yes, you can talk to your kids and say, "We don't use our bodies to get what we want. I hope if you ever get to that point in your life, if you ever feel you don't have support, you come to me. I will always be here for you. I hope you don't make choices that get you in that situation, but I will be here for you."

What about a dad who says, for example, that critical thinking about the media is all well and good, but it can't really counteract the pervasive lure of sex and violence aimed at his teenage boys?

There's no way sex will ever not be attractive to a teenager-it's just part of the human condition. That dad has to remember back to when he was a teenager.

Does the dad just want to counteract what's on TV or does he want to give his boys the skills to deal with it? The answer is to provide the skills and values. If kids know your values, they may go off and do some things you object to, but when they're 20 or 30 with kids of their own, those values are going to kick in.{C}

What about parents who are afraid of what media is doing to their kids?

A lot of parents will stop being afraid of the media world if they're more aware of their own media world and their own practices and values. Then they will have some control over it, because they can say why they don't like something and why it's inappropriate for a child.

A lot of it is being aware of what your child is watching. "Well, Johnny, we don't watch that show because it demeans women." Or,"We don't accept that kind of language. It shows a great lack of inspiration, and besides, people are offended by those words. Don't you think people have a more creative way to talk about their frustrations and their anger than just defaulting to the same old words?"

Do kids eventually begin to critically engage the media on their own?

Yes, they do. There's a parish in Massachusetts that has a monthly movie and pizza party for teenagers. They showed Family Man, in which Nicholas Cage shows up in his briefs two or three times. Finally the third time one of the 13-year-old boys says, "Why do they have to keep showing him in his underwear?"

Later when they were having their snacks and talking about the movie, a girl brings it up: "Do you remember what you said about him in his underwear? Now you know how girls feel when they're watching a movie with boys and they see women in their underwear."

Sometimes it's best to have the patience to let the kids talk it out and encourage that conversation. Kids will have something to say about what they've seen if parents know how to ask without passing judgment, by drawing the kid out rather than trying to break the kid's head open and put something in it.

But if they think their parents will disapprove, kids will not talk about it. They won't talk about their music, for example, because music is sacred to a teenager-it has an emotional connection. They don't want to hear their music trashed.

So even if parents don't like a kid's media choices, they should be respectful of what the child is watching or listening to?

You're never going to be able to have an open conversation with your child if you don't let him or her know that they can come to you and talk about something.

I know a woman with a daughter who's a senior in high school. Last year the daughter, who's a pretty responsible kid, wanted to go to R-rated movies. The mother was leery; she hadn't even liked some of the PG-13 movies her daughter went to see. Finally she told her daughter, "I'll make a deal with you. You need to ask my permission for each of these R-rated movies, because some I will not give you permission to see. After you see a movie, I want you to come home and tell me if you saw God in it or not, and we can have a conversation about it. If you promise to do that, then you can go."

It has worked very well for them. If you don't respect the other person's interpretation or choices, you're not going to be able to share your values. The only way is to respect and to be willing to listen.

So if my kid wants to listen to the most outlandish of hip-hop artists, I shouldn't say right off the bat, that's forbidden?

I would ask, "Why do you like that?" I think you have to then motivate them to choose something else.

Do you wear your habit when you go to R-rated movies at the theater?

Oh, no. Are you kidding? Everybody would get whiplash. It would distract people. Also, there's a general misunderstanding about R-rated films. R-rated means the content and sometimes other issues have been determined to be for grownups, not that they are "bad" movies.

So no one realizes they're watching an R-rated movie with a nun?

Well, I went to see The Missing back in December, and there were five or six people in the theater. I'm coming down the steps during the credits, and there's this young woman sitting there. I said, "Did you like it?" She said, "I'm from North Dakota. I did Indian Studies. I don't think I like the way the Indians were treated."

She asked, "Why are you so interested?" I told her I was a nun who did film reviews. It turns out that she had come to the movies that day because she thought her boyfriend was going to propose to her and she didn't know if she was ready.

She said, "I came here to figure out my life. I've seen three movies. This is where I come when I have to think about my life."

I said, "Here you are really needing a retreat and you came to the movies." So we went to a coffee shop and spent an hour talking about discernment, spiritual direction, going to worship. Her boyfriend, interestingly enough, was Catholic. I just said to her, "You have to be free. If you don't feel free in making your decision, then you have to wait. You've got to take time to pray and discern about it."

You see, people use the movies for all different purposes. I wonder how much the church is aware of this.

What do you think of the fact that Catholics seem to especially take offense at certain movies?

A lot of people made a fuss about Kevin Smith's movie Dogma a few years back. I wrote a chapter on him in a book I wrote on Catholic directors. He grew up without understanding the faith that was around him. Nobody explained it to him. That movie wasn't teaching us to be disrespectful-it was asking questions. He was giving back to us what he understood about Catholicism, and it was a mess. Hello, wake-up call. These people are not our enemies; they're our mission field.

Do you believe in boycotts?

I think they're totally useless. They might work in the short term, but they don't work for the long term. I think there's a place for them in America, but that's not where I choose to put my energies. When I see something good on TV, I do write a letter and make a phone call.

How can we move the quality of TV and movies up a notch?

You have the next generation of filmmakers in your home and in your pews and in your schools; that's how you move it up a notch. There is no law you can pass to improve quality.

Don't you ever get down about the quality of our media?

You can't end up in total negativity, so much so that all hope is gone. What the faith community brings to this is the fact that there is hope because we can keep talking, we can keep bringing a conscience to productions that are there, and to the audience. We can generate a groundswell among us, but it's like evangelization: It's one person at a time.

Despair is not acceptable to me. I always believe there is something proactive we can do. We can always act by choosing, by engaging, by mining the media that's out there for the good that is present. So long as we have the freedom to act, we can make a difference. And even if it's a small difference, it's worth it.