At issue is the character of Jon Osterman, a physicist who, after a radioactive mishap, becomes a glowing omniscient demigod named Dr. Manhattan, who performs most of his business buck naked. As a result, many moviegoers have found themselves considering a fundamental philosophical question: Is a cinematic penis still obscene if it’s translucent and blue?
Dr. Ted Baehr, media critic at the Christian Film and Television Commission, has, perhaps not surprisingly, come out as anti-blue penis. On the site movieguide.org, Baehr says that the film deserves an X or an NC-17 rating, not the R that it received. “The motion picture industry keeps changing its standards,” he says. “No wonder the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system confuses parents.” And why should the rating be changed? Because, “throughout most of the whole picture, one male character walks around completely naked, with his private parts waving in the breeze.”
True enough, except that the parts in question don’t actually belong to Billy Cruddup, the actor playing the good doctor. Apparently the blue meanie was generated by a team of computer graphics engineers. This raises an even more complex issue for parents to wrestle with: Is a translucent glowing blue penis still obscene if it’s not real?
Opinion, as one might imagine, is split. There was a fission of enthusiasm in the nerd world last October when news of the CGI-penis became official. “Three cheers for atomic blue penises!” began an article over at comicbookmovie.come. Conservative cultural critic Debbie Schlussel, meanwhile, wrote in her blog, “If you see it yourself, you’re also probably a moron and a vapid, indecent human being.” She has a whole host of complaints, but chief among them is Dr. Manhattan’s “swinging computer generated penis frequently in your face on-screen.”
Clearly there hasn’t been this much excitement about a penis in film since Bart Simpson bared all in 2007’s Simpsons Movie.
According to the MPAA, an R-rated movie “contains some adult material,” and may “include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously.” An NC-17, meanwhile, “simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience. An NC-17 rating, meanwhile, can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.” The MPAA does note, however, that the rating “does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic.’”
By my reading, the key concept separating the two ratings is the concept of “aberrational.” By that measure, a giant translucent demigod’s penis may be many things, but one thing it is not is an aberration, at least not on Mars.
Before taking my children—ages 15 and 12—to the Watchmen last weekend, the only R-rated movie they’d ever seen was Slumdog Millionaire. We had a good talk in the car about the violence in Slumdog, both the physical kind done to the protagonists as well as the spiritual kind caused by the jaw-dropping poverty of Mumbai. My boys were moved, and entertained by Slumdog, not least because it gave them occasion to think about their own relationship as brothers, and exactly what sorts of risks and sacrifices they’d be willing to make for one another.
They’d been looking forward to Watchmen for a long time, and had read Alan Moore’s original novel a year or two ago. That novel is every bit as violent as the film, and yes, includes Dr. Manhattan’s penis. I warned them that the film was rumored to be, a-hem, “loyal” to the book in this regard, but this didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. (This was something of a surprise, coming from two young men who on one occasion refused to go to the Guggenheim several years ago because “there might be paintings of naked people.” Score: DC Comics 1, Picasso 0.)
After the film, my boys admitted that a lot of the images in Watchmen had been a little much for them. But it wasn’t Dr. Manhattan that made them uneasy—it was the scenes of heads being whacked with meat cleavers, guys arms being bisected with circular saws; and, oh yes, the obliteration of most of Manhattan by some sort of thermonuclear device. My older son, who claims to be a pacifist, found that deeply disturbing, “even if it is based on a cartoon.”
As for Dr. Manhattan? My sons said, “Well, he’s slowly becoming less and less human, so clothes have just become kind of strange for him. You can sympathize with that.” And the blue penis that has caused all the trouble? “Normally, it would bother me, but with Dr. Manhattan, you know, it just seems kind of natural.”
There was also some surprise—I have to put this delicately—that the Doctor’s unit itself was of a size somewhat less than cosmic. After all, this is a guy who can change the pigmentation of his skin, teleport himself to Mars, and see the future. Is Watchmen really trying to tell us that size doesn’t matter? One of my boys wondered whether in days to come we might see one of those “Natural Male Enhancement” commercials on television, except that instead of “Whistling Bob” we’ll see a very satisfied looking Dr. Manhattan.
They also liked the sound track of the film, which features lots of Bob Dylan. The use of “The Times They Are a Changin’” as background to the opening montage struck all of us as particularly moving.
Whether the times actually are changing, and we’re now about to enter a new era of translucent penises in movies remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’m hoping that any Watchmen sequel might consider, in addition to Dylan, adding the music of Miles Davis to the soundtrack. Starting with “Kind of Blue.”