The title is probably misleading. It makes this sound like one of those Grizzly vs Shark or Sperm Whale vs Giant Squid books that my son keeps pointing out in the Scholastic Book catalogues he brings home every month. Maybe you’re envisioning the Ghostbusters, all geared up with their old-school vacuum backpacks, facing off against a group of raptors. Or maybe a T-Rex in a cage match with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Honestly, that would be pretty awesome. But actually this all started when my five year old went to a five year old friend’s house for dinner and ended up watching Jurassic Park.
When Jurassic Park showed in the theatre it was PG-13. The Common Sense Media rating today, based on a mix of votes by parents and kids themselves, is still 12 years old. I don’t always agree with the average ratings movies and shows get on the site – there are some things that other people think their kids are too young for which I’m fully willing to show him and talk about, and plenty of things that people seem to feel a-ok about showing their kids which I think have all kinds of questionable messages in them – but I suspect I’m pretty unlikely to feel like the rating is off by 7 years. That said, I might well make a decision to let him watch a movie aimed at older kids, but I definitely wouldn’t make that decision for someone else’s kid without asking. I believe that risk belongs to whoever will be woken up by the screaming at 3am.
As it happens, it went fine. He enjoyed it and claims he was “not even scared, papa!” He hasn’t had any nightmares about it, and in fact we wouldn’t even have known it happened if he hadn’t casually mentioned it a few days after the fact. And this is where Ghostbusters enters into the equation. This same friend has also seen Ghostbusters and consequently my son has been asking to watch it as well. Its rating in the theatre was only PG, Common Sense puts it at age 10, and I actually think he would find a bunch of it quite entertaining, but the answer at this point is still no. In a showdown between Jurassic Park and Ghostbusters for which movie I’d rather show my kindergarten kid, the dinos win. It’s a situation where I find that I am more comfortable showing him violence than sex, which is a thing I had to give some serious thought.
In general I feel like sex is something that should be normalized and violence is not. I remember how annoyed my parents were when I was about 11 and family friends with a daughter my age covered her eyes during the skinny dipping scene in the Merchant-Ivory period drama, A Room With a View, lest she see a real live penis innocently flopping around. What my parents were especially unimpressed with was that these same friends had no problem letting her watch levels of movie violence and questionable sex that I was required to have philosophical conversations about at the dinner table. The key for me in this dinos vs ghosts dilemma is that consensual sex should be normalized and human violence should not.
The reason Jurassic Park is okay with me (as long as he isn’t freaked out) is that it’s dinosaurs that are threatening people, and behaviors like hunting for food or defending territory are actually normal animal things to do. They’re a part of nature, and something that my son understands because he’s been watching nature and dinosaur documentaries pretty much his entire life. It’s not difficult or even necessary to explain to him why the T-Rex eats someone who’s sitting on the toilet in the outhouse, or why that’s funny as well as scary. He just gets it. Whereas explaining to him why somebody killed or beat another person is actually very complicated and is the kind of thing that leaves him lying awake for hours at bedtime, asking worried questions about why people do those kinds of things. That people do those kinds of things to one another is something that I have, on some level, come to understand and accept over the course of my life, but on another level I still have no good explanation for it. It’s something he’ll need to know, but it causes him a lot of anxiety, whereas animals or dinosaurs eating people in a clearly made up movie is not a problem.
Of course the element of fantasy is another critical piece of the puzzle. At Halloween I showed him videos of some of the songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas and he loved them, but I also made sure to show him a ‘making of’ video. I thought it would interest him and broaden his perspective on what can be done artistically (I wish I’d realized that stop motion animator was a possible career path!), but I also knew it would make it less scary if he could keep it in some small part of his brain while watching that they’re all puppets and models, scaled down, being moved and photographed. If his friend’s parents had shown him a movie about people being savaged by bears instead of dinosaurs, we might have had a hard time on our next trip to the Alberta Rockies when he realized that real live bears sometimes amble through my parents’ back yard. He might lie awake asking a ton of questions about that as well.
Ghostbusters is imaginary, and I have no problem with the ghosts (as long as he isn’t freaked out). I have no problem explaining those kinds of things to him, but when the woman possessed by the Gatekeeper is trying to force herself on Peter Venkman, he’s the kind of kid who would ask, ‘why is she doing that and what does she mean when she says “I want you inside me?”‘ He’s not going to understand demon possession. He’s not going to understand the sex, or the various permutations of shame, violence, force and the non-consensual elements that often go along with sex in movies and society. He’s not going to grasp the complexities of how women’s bodies and sexuality are portrayed or the stereotypes that are played out. We can’t really have any of those conversations with him yet, and that makes it problematic in a way that dinosaurs eating people just isn’t. Even though the joke, “I want you inside me.” “It sounds like you’ve got at least two or three people in there already” is actually quite a good one, he’s not going to get it, and he’s going to want to know why it’s funny. And even if he wasn’t the kind of kid who would ask those questions, who knows what children are taking out of things that appear to be going over their heads? Ask their therapists 20 years down the road.
All that said, as a kid I watched all kinds of things and most of it as far as I know pretty much did go over my head. I grew up to be someone who’s able to think about what I’m watching and ask questions. It seems like the important thing is whether we can talk to him about it or not, and I feel like he’s really just not equipped to understand anything we’re saying about that aspect of Ghostbusters at this point so I’m not comfortable with him seeing it. It’s not a movie that I would be really upset if someone showed him – I don’t think that he’s going to be traumatized by it – but I wouldn’t choose to show it to him until he’s older.
So in this particular battle, T-Rex sinks his teeth into the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s giant, puffy bicep and deflates him for the win!
alex MacFadyen invites you to share your version of how the Jurassic Park vs. Ghostbusters showdown would play out.