Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Of "Hounddog," Ideologues and Ethics Tunnel Vision

The film “Hounddog,” in which juvenile actress Dakota Fanning appears in a scene depicting the rape of a child, is one of the independent movies being exhibited at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film festival. Controversy has surrounded the film for months, much of it generated by the passionate objections of child performer advocate Paul Petersen and his organization “A Minor Consideration.” Petersen argues persuasively that no child, no matter how talented, precocious or willing, should be subjected to the experience that Fanning had to endure in order to film the scene and, reportedly, a mutual masturbation scene with an adult actor that was left on the cutting room floor.

His position would seem to be unassailable, supported as it is by law (the film meets the statutory description of child porn), ethics, decency, and common sense. But though Petersen has been given many opportunities in the media to make his case against the film and has done so eloquently, as usual, his message has been diluted and distorted by the obsessions of the ideological Right and Left. The result? The public is missing the point. The film may win an award at Sundance, find a major distributor and achieve financial success. And Fanning, as her parents and agent hoped when they decided to allow a twelve year-old girl act in an extended simulated rape for the camera, may win some acting awards. If all of these things occur, the culture’s verdict will be that art and commerce have justified the abuse of a child. Neither the Right nor the Left would ever endorse such a principle, yet their twin compulsions to turn every controversy into a culture war battlefield will have allowed it to become a cultural norm.

This is how our values rot.

Film is more than entertainment. It is a powerful cultural force almost from its inception. Ideologues on the Right and Left understand this well, and thus have well-worn battle plans that go into effect the second a particular film signals a potential tipping point in our societal attitudes and standards. The problem is that both sides squeeze and twist every issue to conform to those battle plans, sometimes to the point of misrepresentation.

To the Left, every film controversy is inevitably about artistic freedom, censorship and the First Amendment. This approach has carried the day consistently for almost a century, so it is not surprising that it persists. But the legitimate and important objections to “Hounddog” are not about the First Amendment, or even about what the audience sees on the screen. If the exact same images appeared on the screen but were computer generated, would “A Minor Consideration” be objecting? No, of course not. If Fanning’s character were played by an adult stand-in during the rape scene, as Linda Blair’s stand-in performed the infamous crucifix masturbation scene in “The Exorcist,” would anyone be complaining about child abuse? Again, no…because no child would have been involved in the shooting of the scene. Similarly, defenders of the film obtusely keep arguing that what appears in the film is “tastefully edited,” as if what appears in the finished film somehow alters what occurred in the filming. It is as if the presence of sex in the discussion prevents liberals from even processing what the real problem is. A loud recorded announcement seems to be echoing in their skulls, drowning out any other information. “Fight censorship!” it says. “Protect artistic expression!” The announcement is a non sequitur.

Similarly, the Right cannot discuss the core issue in "Hounddog" without grafting on its own familiar agenda. When conservative talk show host Sean Hannity began a discussion of “Hounddog” on his cable TV show with Alan Colmes, he couldn’t resist lumping it together with other sexually-themed films being presented at Sundance. This immediately turned the segment into just another conservative attack on Hollywood morals and depraved mass entertainment, leaving in the shadows the real outrage of a young girl being asked, permitted, encouraged, or pressured to endure a sexually disturbing ordeal that has profoundly upset adult actresses. The same thing occurred on other radio and television programs, until most headlines and broadcast news teasers about the controversy referred to “Christian Conservative” objections to “Hounddog.” This is an absurd framing of the argument. If Christian Conservatives are truly the only Americans who object to their pre-teen daughters simulating violent sexual assault with male adults, Pat Robertson here I come!

So thanks to the self-absorbed tunnel-vision of the nation’s ideological warriors, a small girl’s outrageous mistreatment in the service of a film maker’s pursuit of fame and fortune has barely provoked a ripple of public outrage. Simon Cowell’s acid rebukes to tone-deaf misfits have caused more upset; Rosie O’Donnell’s boorish rants have inspired more indignation. The public is so confused by the off-topic agendas and too familiar rhetoric that it doesn’t realize it is about to passively endorse the practice of submitting minors to simulated rape so that a “tasteful” and provocative sequence will lead a film to awards and accolades.

The last time this occurred was fifteen years ago, when the public shrugged at 16 year-old Drew Barrymore being ravished by a middle aged actor in “Poison Ivy.” Drew was “old beyond her years,” you see, and of course, censorship is a bad thing. Now it’s a pre-teen Dakota Fanning whose subjection to conduct on a set that would be illegal anywhere else is being accepted as “free expression.” And next? A precocious nine year-old? A film veteran toddler? Don’t bet against it, if our opinion-makers and social commentators continue to be so focused on ideology that they can’t join in non-partisan condemnation of child abuse.

Through all the posturing, Paul Petersen remains a model of clarity. “No one has the right to permit…or employ…a child to engage in sexual conduct, even simulated, for commercial purposes,” he writes on his website Could anything be more ethically obvious? If the ideologues on the Right and Left understand this, they need to have the courage to stop muddying the issue and unite to do the thing that terrifies them most of all.


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