Don’t Have a Cow, Man!

A reader raises interesting questions relating to chastity, modesty and raising children in a note about the movie Babies, now in theaters:

We went to see “Babies” with another family from our church ... everyone loved it. This is the best movie now playing (as far as I know ... not that I’ve seen everything in theatres, but from what I’ve read I’m not aware of anything now playing likely to displace “Babies” in my personal estimation).

One question about your review. You say that you “see no real reason” children shouldn’t see “Babies,” in spite of the “cultural and maternal nudity.” I don’t necessarily disagree, but I suspect that the bare-breasted Himba mothers [in Africa] may make some parents uncomfortable, particularly those with adolescent boys. From what you’ve written elsewhere, I’m pretty sure you agree that adolescent boys can be particularly at-risk in this regard. How would you respond to these concerns?

As a former adolescent boy, I’m well acquainted with the sensitivities of that particular demographic. Let’s begin by agreeing that near occasions of sin are not the same for everyone, and that sensitivity is always needed in this area, for some more than for others.

Lurking behind this question are issues connected with all sorts of larger moral, social and pedagogical issues. How do we foster and strengthen chastity? How do we deal with a world full of distorted images, false ideals and shameless fashions? How are social standards of propriety related to moral norms, and how are they separate? How do we deal with different personal or cultural attitudes or comfort levels regarding propriety?

How we answer these questions in turn impacts other questions. How, when and what do we tell our children about sex? What is appropriate for them to witness between Mom and Dad? More broadly, what about topics like the propriety of breastfeeding in public or in social situations? Should breastfeeding mothers be consigned to the ladies’ room or otherwise relegated behind closed doors, or is it enough to make a reasonable effort to be discreet?

Conscientious parents today know that far from providing appropriate social support, the larger culture actively hinders and opposes them, and that some level of counter-cultural resistance is necessary. Perhaps some level of counter-cultural resistance was always necessary, but in our media-saturated world, with naked supermodels and references to sex draped across billboards, banner ads and so forth, it’s become far more essential than ever.

Resistance is necessary, but there’s smart and healthy resistance, and then there’s wrongheaded resistance that becomes part of the problem. How so?

Let me tell you a story about Joseph Ignatius Breen—a name with which more movie-watching Catholics should be familiar. A Philadelphia Catholic of Irish stock, educated by Jesuits when that meant something, Breen was head of Hollywood’s Production Code Authority from 1934 to 1954.

The Production Code Authority was Hollywood’s self-censorship mechanism. It was created by the studios in response to boycott threats from the Legion of Decency and their constituency and also to stave off the threat of government censorship.

Breen’s job was largely to work with filmmakers during the development process to ensure that films were morally acceptable. Often maligned today as a censorious nabob of negativity, Breen was in fact a savvy film aficionado as well as a pious Catholic, and he could be as sensitive to the filmmakers’ creative interests as to moral concerns of viewers.

I say all of this by way of prefacing one of Breen’s foibles. Like many devout Catholics, Breen had a reverentially high regard for womanhood and motherhood. So sacred were these mysteries for Breen, and the resulting aura of taboo around the female body, that he actually wrote a memo directing that farm scenes were to suggest, rather than show, the udders of cows, and on no account should there be onscreen milking!

I have a lot of respect for Breen, and I’m the last person to sneer at the blush of modesty. That said, this is a memo from cloud-cuckoo land—an overwrought delicacy too many generations removed from the farm. Breen’s Philadelphia Catholic upbringing may have served him well in a hundred ways, but in this way it did him wrong. I could sympathize with someone so scandalized by the realities of urban life that he finds it necessary to flee to the farm. I’m much less sympathetic with someone so urbanized that he finds it necessary to flee the scandalous realities of farm life.

This is not proper concern for propriety, but a near-Manichaean abhorrence of biological reality. It is emphatically not the way to guard chastity. On the contrary, ratcheting up the taboo level so high can actually have the opposite effect, creating obsessive forbidden-fruit allure.

We all want to shield our children from harmful influences, but sometimes it’s really ourselves that we’re shielding—our own discomfort more than our children’s real good that guides our choices. Many well-meaning parents try to shield their children from realities of suffering and death that, once again, are part of everyday life for children on a farm. I remember a grown woman at an urban screening of Disneynature’s Earth (a woman who had probably seen any number of cinematic shoot-outs and car chases) almost hyperventilating with anxiety over footage of a wolf running down a caribou calf. Her excessive anxiety, I think, is not unlike Breen’s discomfort with cow udders, and, to a lesser extent, the discomfort some would feel over the cultural nudity of the Himba women in Babies.

Far from posing a likely occasion of sin, I think something like Babies is much more likely to be a healthy corrective for young men surrounded by distorted mass-media images of women presented solely as unreal objects of male desire. The mothers in this film are real women, not supermodel fantasies. False media images build up an illusory mystique of the abstract, hypersexualized female body. A certain earthy demystification of the body can be both compatible with propriety and an aid, rather than a hindrance, to chastity.

I’m not saying that once we get over our Victorian or Puritan hang-ups and learn to be frank and honest, everything will be lovely in the garden. Original sin is an intractable reality, and sexuality is a mystery calling for appropriate reverence and reticence. I am saying that reverence and reticence on the one hand, and frankness and honesty on the other, are complementary, not contradictory. A balanced Catholic pedagogy should include both.