Reel Parents…Unreal Babies

This post was written by the guest blogger – Simon Western. Thank you Simon for your thoughtful contribution!

Reel Parents…… unreal babies 

Parent baby cinema groups – what they tell us about societies view of babies

Reel parents is one of the names given to the parent and baby screenings now showing at cinemas. This is an interesting idea, parents can take babies under 1 year, and watch a movie together with other parents and babies. A good business idea for the cinema and a good for parents who often can’t get out in the evenings. However, I was shocked to see 12 Years A Slave as a Parent And Baby Screening, and realised other films with loud and violent scenes were being shown. I wondered what this says about our social attitude towards babies? What it says to me is that babies are considered as some sort of pre-human object, rather than being treated as human subjects in their own right.
I have seen no social comment on this practice, except something in Poland which I will return to. Do we imagine babies are unable to engage with the sounds of screaming men and women being whipped, or affected by brutal images on large screens in front of them, or too the emotions stirred in the mothers and fathers watching? The IMD film company warns parents of older children that this film shows “A naked woman is shown being savagely whipped. At one point, 12 Years A Slave is a very brutal, cruel film. It is extremely emotional and some viewers may find it hard to watch. Lots of torture, violence and abuse is shown realistically.

 Some people may be disturbed by the sexual abuse of one of the female slaves. A mother is also sold and separated from her children.” And they mark it 9/10 for being disturbing.
I don’t claim to be an expert on what babies can see on big screens, but I do know that my 9 month year old converses with me on Skype when I am working away from home, and enjoys watching the Jungle Book on You Tube. I therefore imagine young babies can see something of what is happening on huge screens and I am certain babies take in the sounds of screams and violence. One thing is for certain, that babies are completely in touch and sensitive to a parents emotional reactions (hence attachment theory). So parents watching images or rape and whippings, and reacting to disturbing narratives on screen will be passed onto the infant is some form.
The question this raises for me is are babies emotionally neutral objects who are numb to the emotional lives of their parents and their environment, or are they human subjects from birth, with deeply sensitive emotional lives? One place where there was protests against such films being shown was in Poland where I heard that the Catholic conservative right, prevented a showing Nymphomaniac at a parent and baby screening. Of course this fits with their conservative political agenda (sex is sinful, films like this destroy family values etc etc). What I found interesting is that ‘progressive mothers’ argued that it was their cultural right to see any film they chose, and they shouldn’t be prevented from this liberty. This so-called progressive voice is in fact the opposite. It was the Victorians who treated children as emotionally neutral objects ‘who should be seen and not heard’ and packed them off to prep-boarding schools and outsourced them to nannies as quick as possible (not unlike the Royal family today). Zizek speaking to radical protesters said “Don’t be afraid of words like work, discipline, community and so on. We should take all this from the right wingers. Don’t allow enemy to take from you to determine the terrain of the struggle.” (Zizek 2011) This is true of progressive parents who should not take a self-righteous narcissistic view ‘I have the right to see the film whatever it is’ as this is a reactionary and conservative position. The progressive position is to stand up to social norms that demean the humanity of a baby.

The issue of parent and baby screenings of violent films, highlights two disturbing social trends. Firstly, it’s the parents that matter not the babies, reflecting our increasingly narcissistic society. Secondly how babies are increasingly becoming commodities, passive objects of desire, a nice thing to have a push around in a designer pushchair.
Both trends seem to forget that babies are deeply emotional human subjects and need to be engaged with as such, by parents and by wider society.



4 thoughts on “Reel Parents…Unreal Babies

  1. Ewa G. says:

    Here I am sitting on the couch one Wednesday, going “brainlessly” through Fb announcements and to my surprise I have just found out that because I had strongly opposed the events in Cracow I may already have a label – ‘a progressive mother’ :)) And also that there is a whole category like that – ‘progressive mothers’ 😀 Wow! Are there other categories of mothers too? Or fathers? Cause I saw fathers go to this screenings, at least in Cracow they do… dunno about the UK ;). And that most probably, which scared me really, I might be treating my son Janek as “a commodity, passive objects of desire, a nice thing to have a push around in a designer pushchair” – I don’t have a designer pushchair though!.. Uff…
    But seriously now: what you write about Cracow is a huge simplification. To my knowledge, it wasn’t about the “right to see the movie with a baby” (at least not among the “progressive mothers” I know) – it was about the precedent, where one organisation with religious roots influences what is being put on screen by a private cinema. And does so by threatning the cinema with anonymous phone calls announcing violent action towards mothers leaving the cinema (to protect babies from seeing violence or sex on the screen, by making them experience violence when they leave…). The real issue here, instead of frustration after “deprivation” of Nimphomaniac ;), was: what will be violently protested against – and eventually banned – next? – gay films? antireligious films? religious films? whichever films someone might not like? I do not disagree with your point on social change you describe – it made me think. I just do not agree that backing it up with this example might be 100% adequate.


  2. Hi Ewa, the aim of this blog was to provoke dialogue so thanks for your comments which I address below:
    Your comments seem to confuse the freedom of adults with the role of parenting and how we think about babies; and you don’t address the three key points I am making:

    1) Why is it that any child who is not an infant is banned by law from seeing violent rape and torture scenes, yet infants are considered somehow different, numb to the emotions that are triggered by the screams, visual effects and parental emotions these scenes evoke?

    2) Why does society finds this so normative that the media or general public does not question it, and the only people who protest is the religious right? Why are we blind to these issues ?

    3) What does this say about social trends around parenting, and how we think about babies? I see a connection between this issue and how adults put themselves first “I want to see the movie so its ok” (following well documented narcissistic trends in society) , and also how consumer society creates a whole objectification of babies, turning them into objects or commodities that pressure parents into buying designer clothes, designer prams, special diets and baby treatments etc

    A few other comments:

    I clearly mentioned in the blog that I was aware of the religious right using this to further their agenda, and I referred to Zizek’s quote to say we shouldn’t allow them to steal the ethical terrain.

    You argue that the real issue is preventing a bigoted religious rightwing from being repressive and banning violent, sexual or gay movies ….
    I argue that taking infants to violent sexual torture movies is not permissible just because we disagree with a rightwing religious agenda. I am liberal about most things that consenting adults do, but this doesn’t means that infants/children should also partake in these activities. There is a difference between parenting and what adults are free to do… don’t you agree?

    Note: Sorry you don’t like the label progressive- but it’s a common term used to differentiate those of us opposed to the reactionary conservative right. I heard that Cracow mothers complained about their rights to see these movies complaining it reflected societies attitudes towards women’s rights, hence my reference to progressive mothers, if men were complaining too, I am happy to expand the term to progressive parents…

    Hope this clarifies the points I was making, the aim is to critic society not to make it personal to any person or group= best Simon


  3. Ewa G. says:

    Thank you! As I said before, it is not my point to disagree with you.
    “Your comments seem to confuse the freedom of adults with the role of parenting and how we think about babies”. My point is that the example you use in the PL context from the very start was more about the freedom of adults – it was used in this context and replied to in this context. That is the only point I am making. I understood and still understand the point you make.


  4. Ewa G. says:

    Or simply speaking: considering who, why and in what socio-political discours in PL opposed to Nimphomaniac during those screenings I would not say, that it was the well-being of my baby that was the key-issue all along.


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