A couple years ago I spoke with local Chicago documentary film maker Darryl Roberts about his film America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments, the second in his ongoing series about our modern culture’s ideas of and obsession with beauty and our sometimes warped self-images.
Roberts’ latest documentary is America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth. The film examines the effect Internet pornography and sexualized advertising and marketing, as well as things like changing standards of sexual content on television and the growing popularity of beauty pageants for the very young have on the still immature minds and psyches of the younger generation, including what Roberts sees as a rise in sexual assault, teen pregnancy, and depression and suicide.
I sat down with Roberts in Chicago last week to talk about America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth. I think his new film raises serious concerns and questions that we as a society should be thinking about. However, I have issues with some of his film’s connections and conclusions, several of which I brought up with him in our interview below. (One point I did not have time to ask him about was a segment of the film that examines and praises the work of the Parents Television Council.)
America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth is playing at select theaters across the country. Screening dates and details can be found at the film’s website.
Darryl Roberts: I talk to and listen to a lot of young people about what’s affecting them. Either I look and see or they tell me through a newsletter I send out to several thousands of high school and college students. They respond and I hear different issues.
This one was weird. It came from a different source. I was thinking about the celebrity culture, Rhianna, Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, and I thought it must be tough being a kid today in this sexualized world that’s so different from when I was growing up. And that got me thinking about my best friend from childhood, Saveen. So I searched for him on the Internet and found out he’s a registered sex offender.
That started the process and sent my mind in a certain direction. I found the American Psychological Association report “The Sexualization of Girls.” It talked about how the amount of sexualized advertising is creating a mental health crisis among young girls. From there, I knew this would be the topic of this film.
I’m fascinated by the effect, good or bad, that the Internet, social media, and increasing online interaction is having on us as a society, especially on the next generation. But when it comes to pornography, what do you feel is the difference for today’s younger generation? Is it amount, or the type, or its availability?
Roberts: I can speak from my own personal experience. When I was 15, I was strung out on pornography. Every two or three weeks I’d be fortunate enough to be home at the right time to sneak the Playboy out from under my father’s bed. You couldn’t buy Hustler, Penthouse, or Playboy in a store—they had wrappers around them.
When I was 16, I had a mustache and beard, so I could get into an X-rated movie theater at State and Lake, called the Shangri-la. But porn then was the equivalent of a Playboy movie now. I perceived it as loving and all it made me want to do is have sex with my girlfriend.
But today it’s not just the accessibility, but the “gonzo” porn. It makes you not respect women and look at them as if they’re not human. That’s the difference.
So you feel it’s an overload, a lack of self-imposed moderation in our culture today? Your film raises some very disturbing questions about the effect of pornography on an immature brain.
Roberts: When you talk about overload and all of it, what I’ve come to believe the answer is what we don’t have in America, which makes us different from Europe and Canada. You don’t see those stats with STDs and teen pregnancy, I think it’s because we’re based on this puritanical foundation. Adults and parents don’t have a clue as to what it means to have a healthy sexuality.
A teenager today is being overloaded, coming across those images with their hormones raging. They’re searching, and they don’t have a parent who can step in and lay a foundation as to what it means to have a healthy sexuality. When you search, you’re going to find something.
Imagine if, when you’re 11, you’re taught what it means to have a healthy sexuality. Then you have a personal filter with which to gage everything you see. Then some of this porn won’t be okay with you, it won’t fit into the construct of your values system. That’s how I think young kids could get through the overload and cope, but it’s not happening.
But even though the media, sexual, and pornographic landscape is so very, very different for teens today, couldn’t we also ask if today’s youth, having grown up on the Internet, are better at processing and putting it all in perspective?
Yes, some of the people in your film appear to be cautionary tales about warped perspectives, but those sorts of messed-up people have always been around. Young wanna-be starlets going to Hollywood to be movie stars and ending up doing porn isn’t a new tale. On the more positive side, some of the more-activism-minded young people you talk to in the film are incredibly aware and articulate for 12-year-olds.
Roberts: I felt exactly like you, but as I continued to think about it… and I thought what has gone wrong in our society where 12-year-old girls have to be worried about raising money for rape awareness. That shouldn’t even be in her mind.
But can’t that also be seen as positive and empowering, that young people today talk about these issues, address them, and work to fight them? I just feel like every single older generation in history has freaked out about the things the younger generation knows and has to cope with. Maybe this is a rare case of me being Pollyanna-ish, but I want to believe that the next generation is smarter and more socially enlightened about things like positive sexuality versus negative objectification and abuse. And I don’t think we can say just yet, after only 10-15 years of the Internet and social media if the negative effects are greater than the new positive effects.
Roberts: I see it so clearly now, the Internet is making them less communicative with each other. For them now, texting and Facebook is like when we were growing up and meeting at a coffee shop. Their definition of a friend is electronic now, which I think makes them emotionally more distant. And think about where that’s going to keep going over the next 30 years.
I absolutely agree that humans need real, in-person interaction, that things like reading body language and learning social skills are important. But I also feel that the next generations will slowly figure that out and adjust.
Roberts: I think we’re screwed. I’m around college students all the time, and I don’t see them doing any of this soul-searching. Because our culture devalues aging, they assume their way is how it should be and our way is just old.
Oh come on, we all felt that way about adults 30 years ago when we were in our teens and 20s.
Roberts: That’s true [laughs]
I always worry when I catch myself saying and thinking along the nostalgic lines of, “Well, when I was a kid, things were nicer” and your film does do a lot of that from your own personal perspective. I know any documentary needs personal angles, personal stories to entertain and engage the viewer emotionally, but there is always the danger of drawing broader cultural conclusions from a handful of individual, emotional cautionary tales.
But isn’t there a danger that we, being emotional beings, tend to believe things with our hearts instead of our heads? Emotional anecdotes feel more “true” to us than actual statistics, most of which tell us that our society, our civilization is actually improving with each generation.
Roberts: I look at statistics as being not devoid of reality, but devoid of what’s real. For example, there’s a statistic out now that teen pregnancies are on the decline. But what you haven’t heard is that statistic is going down because the age group 15 to 17 is becoming more abstinent, so on a weighted scale, they’re bringing it down. But what they don’t tell you is that from 11 to 14, that teen pregnancy statistic is rising. This is why I don’t really like statistics, I like to capture what’s really going on in a society.
My point is that as a society, I don’t think it’s wise to try to give the impression that what we’re doing, with safe sex, is working, when in reality, teen sex is rising in the youngest part of that demographic. That says something’s wrong. So the stat sounds positive, but when you look at reality, you see there’s a problem if the older people are doing it less, but the younger people are doing it more. That is a problem in our society.
But I always wonder if all the horrible things we see and hear about today on the Internet and 24-hour cable news, are they really worse than things were in the past or are we just hearing about it more, more aware of it, and maybe people are more open about talking about and reporting once “silent” issues like harassment, rape, abuse, depression, etc.?
Roberts: Let’s say you have 100 people who have the tendency to be a bully. Maybe in the past a third of them would actually have the balls to bully somebody. Now, thanks to the Internet, not 100 but 200 of them will just do it. Now you can be a coward and do it. Before you didn’t have a way to be a coward, you had to come out and do it. So cyber-bullying is really big now.
Maybe, but it seems as if in the past 5-10 years, everyone, including young people, have developed coping skills for dealing with online bullies, trolls, and assholes. Aren’t kids today learning and teaching and supporting each other more? Don’t many of them learn at a much younger age than we did to just shrug and ignore it?
Roberts: But some people kill themselves over it.
But depression and suicidal reactions to bullying existed before, we just didn’t hear about it all the time. People didn’t feel comfortable talking about their depression or their having been bullied.
I do think it’s amplified by the Internet—whether we’re talking about pornography or bullying–but I don’t know if that amplification is as great or as destructive as we folks in our 40s and 50s feel it is.
I know the Internet didn’t create any of this, it didn’t create bullying, or depression, or pornography. Maybe you’re right about the overload, maybe there will be long-term societal damage from that overload. But I feel like that alarm’s been raised by every older generation for eons.
And I think the next generation, the one growing up on the Internet from toddler-hood, is teaching itself to adapt to it and deal with it all in more perspective, talking about it, fighting it, and with more of a healthy dismissal of it, than maybe us middle-aged folks are.