After porn and advertising, movies rank high among the most corrosive forces influencing young Americans’ ideas of sexuality today, which makes Darryl Roberts’ latest social-outrage essay, “America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth,” a clever tool with which to fight back. While Roberts doesn’t have either the marketing budget or the filmmaking resources to launch a full-blown counter-attack, he has shrewdly chosen a mass-media format to reach parents and mature young viewers. The unwieldy result serves as a contemplative yet frustratingly superficial critique of a toxic situation in which audiences are being treated as sexual objects at increasingly early ages.
A racy counterpart to Roberts’ 2008 docu, which dealt with how mass media are shaping a generation’s ideas of body image and self-esteem, this latest film seems destined for home viewing, where people renting it for the wrong reasons might actually stand to learn something amid the pic’s flashy stream of explicit advertisements, Miley Cyrus musicvideos and teasing glimpses of online porn. (The latter prevents the otherwise discussion-ready docu from being appropriate for most classrooms, although Roberts will likely re-edit for a PG-13 rating, as he did the original film, which controversially earned an R for its relatively innocuous Eve Ensler interview.)
The paradox here is that you can’t discuss the problem, readily available to kids lacking parental guidance, without stepping into “mature” territory. Engaging directly with the taboo, Roberts raises the alarm that the negative effects of our hyper-sexualized culture extend beyond suicide and eating disorders (the subject of 2001 sequel “America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments”) to teen pregnancy, venereal disease and rape — all real concerns, although Roberts leads with a fuddy-duddy regret that the country has become so darn immodest. Back in his day (meaning the years before America’s sexual liberation movement), there were dirty magazines targeted at adults, Roberts admits, but the pinup imagery of the time depicted tastefully nude women standing in cornfields, not the “gonzo porn” 11-year-olds can easily find online today — much less phone apps that allow people to hook up without leaving the house.
At the risk of sounding patronizing, there’s something almost cute about Roberts’ crusade, like watching a little old grandma earnestly ask the frat boys next door to turn that devil music down. In his usual meandering way, Roberts pokes around wherever his curiosity leads, offering an almost touristic guide to American pop culture, ranging from backstage at child beauty pageants (where he’s reminded of a slaughterhouse) to the floor of the Adult Video News Convention in Las Vegas (“This is definitely a place I did not want to be,” he opines, while his cameraman gets a shot of his “pee-yew” expression).
Again, the guy’s got a point, but he’s engaging with the subject in the most superficial way, offering school-project-caliber interviews with far more eloquent speakers, including cultural critic Jean Kilbourne, anti-porn activist Gail Dines and model-turned-media-literacy advocate Nicole Clark.
Roberts rightly recognizes that inspiring youth to push back is the best solution to what he perceives as an “epidemic.” To that end, he invites two teenage interns, Kaitlyn Custer and Cali Linstrom, to join the project. One resigns after being sexually harassed by the pic’s producer, while the other struggles with suicide, but goes on to wage an anti-bullying crusade against Abercrombie & Fitch, the poster org for “the sexualization of our youth.”
Roberts also interviews other teens about their attitudes and behavior, contrasting their thoughtful remarks with more judgmental looks at other young people — including wannabe celebrity Sydney Spies, a sexually liberated young woman whose skin-baring yearbook photos caused a scandal at her high school, but attracted a Playboy modeling opportunity.
The subject of America’s sex-obsessed culture — and the fact that this imagery is increasingly being directed at, as well as incorporating, minors — is far too complex to be adequately handled in a single documentary. Although Roberts doesn’t demonstrate a particularly sophisticated understanding of where we should start in terms of trying to address the situation, at least he’s given American another provocative conversation starter.