The Sieve or the Scalpel: The Family Movie Act of 2004, Infantile Citizenship, and the Rhetoric of Censorship

Article excerpt

On June 17, 2004, Penny Young Nance, President of the Kids First Coalition, a nonprofit conservative action group, delivered testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property. Introducing herself as neither a legal expert nor a participant in cinema production, but rather as a "typical suburban mom" who drives her kids to soccer practice, she advocated for the ability of parents to censor films within the home. Nance's testimony directly followed that of Jack Valenti, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Motion Picture Association of America. The issue that placed these two figures in dialogue was the place of a DVD player known as ClearPlay, which allows spectators to alter/remove film content for their individual consumption. Nance's testimony focused primarily upon the danger that unaltered films presented to her children, but more revealingly, she also suggested that media poses a threat to all citizens, not simply children.

Even as adults it's important to be cognizant of what we feed our minds. There are certainly DVDs I'll feel more comfortable buying or renting for my husband and I with the use of ClearPlay. There's a Biblical proverb that says: As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. And the secular version is: garbage in, garbage out. So, it's good for all of us. (Nance, Committee Testimony 2004)

ClearPlay purports to protect both children and adults alike by providing consumers with a series of downloadable presets determined by the company for each individual film release. The categories for filtration include Violence (including "fantasy violence"), Sex and Nudity (including "highly suggestive situation and dialogue"), Language (including "vain reference to deity" as well as "ethnic and social slurs"), and Drug Use. As ClearPlay describes the process on their website, "[f]ilters are handcrafted by at team of Filter Developers who watch the movie and masterfully select where the player will remove content." (1) Consumers are able to select which filters they wish to engage (yes to removing "Ethnic and Social Slurs" but no to "Fantasy Violence," for instance), and the technology either skips over the objectionable content or removes the film's soundtrack in the case of profanity.

The debate before the House subcommittee concerned the expansion of the Copyright Act to allow for the private consumer to "make limited portions of audio or video content of the motion picture imperceptible" (United States Derivative 2), (2) as long as no physical alterations to the DVD are made. Following the testimony before the House subcommittee in 2004, the Family Movie Act was combined with the Artist's Rights and Theft Prevention Act (ART Act), thus creating the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005. The combination of these two legislative acts effectively undermined the opposition to the Family Movie Act, as their interests were intimately tied to the passage of the ART Act which increased penalties for in-theater recording of films and the early release of film content, largely through file-sharing websites.

My interest in this subject stems from a long-standing concern with the use of children's bodies for adult subjects--in particular the manner in which the specter of damage to child innocence is used to curtail adult sexuality. Often this brings me to issues of censorship, which is how I first began research on this technology and the subsequent debates around its use. This piece began as a comparative textual analysis that examined films before and after intervention by the ClearPlay technology, examining how the filters managed more difficult parameters like subtext, innuendo, and slang. I also wanted to examine how meaning was maintained or disrupted by the technology, as is the critique offered by director Taylor Hackford's testimony on behalf of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) in the Family Movie Act of 2004. …