50.50: Opinion

11 films and TV shows that scare ultra-conservatives

US Christian right critics call the film ‘Cuties’ their ‘worst fears realised’. But they’ve been spooked – and at war with Hollywood – for years.

Screenshot 2020-08-28 at 12.00.11.png Claire Provost author pic
Inge Snip Claire Provost
2 October 2020, 12.01am
Photos by: Sarah Hyland, Sharon Graphics, Dominick D, Karl Byrnison, kekkoz, JW Jensen, World Economic Forum, Naomi Lipowski, Paul Boxsley
Illustration by: Inge Snip.

The recently released French film Cuties has been all over the news – for the controversy and backlash it has provoked, stoked by Christian right ‘culture warriors’, conspiracy theorists and right-wing politicians from the US to Brazil. One US Christian right film review website called it “our worst fears realised”.

But it’s not the first time these critics and other US Christian right activists have been spooked by mainstream entertainment – and they were already at war with Hollywood. The ultra-conservative Movieguide website has been rating films based on their ‘traditional’ values since the 1990s.

Here is a list of eleven of the scariest films and TV shows, according to ‘culture warriors’ who are afraid of single mothers (and step-parents!) – and of women with autonomy over their bodies and lives. How many have you seen? And what other ‘spooky’ films have we missed from this list.

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1. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

Warning: Cultural terrorism from Mexico

This coming-of-age story about two teenage boys who go on a road trip with a woman in her late twenties, set new box office records in Mexico. Shortly afterwards, it was also released in the US and nominated for numerous awards. It was controversial from the start because of its depictions of sex and drug use, leading to its director, Alfonso Cuarón, suing the Mexican ratings agency for an 18+ rating which he considered political censorship.

The Christian conservative website Movieguide sums up its condemnation of the film as: “Cultural terrorism from Mexico”. It called it “one of the most pornographic, obnoxious foreign movies ever released in mainstream theaters”, denouncing its depiction of “underage drinking and smoking marijuana” and its “very strong politically correct, homosexual sensibility.”

2. Modern Family (2009–20)

The creators and cast of ‘Modern Family’ in 2017
The creators and cast of ‘Modern Family’ in 2017
Frank Micelotta/Fox/PictureGroup/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Warning: TV destroying the ‘traditional family’

This widely popular US television series is about a loving family who do almost everything together. They are the main characters in each other’s lives. At the centre are several married couples and their children. But (avert your eyes): one couple is gay and has an adopted child, and another is a second marriage, following divorces.

In a rousing speech at the ultra-conservative World Congress of Families summit in Budapest, Hungary in 2017, openDemocracy heard a former Fox News producer denounce ‘Modern Family’ in front of hundreds of anti-abortion and anti-LGBT activists and some of their political allies. He presented it as the epitome of “TV’s role in the destruction of the traditional family”.

3. The Brady Bunch (1969–74)

Mom, pop, housekeeper and six kids: ‘The Brady Bunch’
Mom, pop, housekeeper and six kids: ‘The Brady Bunch’
Creative Commons

Warning: A father remarries – and loses control

Another TV show, which many consider a classic, old-style, family-centred sitcom, it aired for five seasons in the 1970s. Its focus is on a large ‘blended family’ with a married man and woman, and their six children – three from each of their previous marriages. It’s usually considered a pretty wholesome series and, although it aired during the Vietnam War, political commentary was noticeably absent from its storylines.

But the former Fox News producer in Budapest in 2017 certainly didn’t like it. He presented it as the beginning of TV’s moral downfall – away from a 1950s golden age in which “the father was the central figure” and “the mother stayed at home”. In ‘The Brady Bunch’ (hold on to your seats) the father’s power is diminished in a “blended family” because he only has authority over half of the children. A more recent film-length follow-up to the series was blasted by Movieguide for an “anti-biblical worldview” that “taints the family purity”.

4. Jesus Camp (2006)

Warning: Portrays evangelical Christians as dangerous

Children rolling on the floor in a religious fervour, and blessing a life-size cardboard cut-out of then US president George W Bush: these were among the scenes ‘Jesus Camp’ documentary makers found at an evangelical Christian youth camp in the States.

Ultra-conservative criticism of this film seems to fall into two contrasting camps of its own. One says the pastor the documentary follows should be celebrated – while the other cringes and believes the pastor and the film misrepresent their faith and portray Christians as “lunatics”. Movieguide’s review condemns ‘Jesus Camp’ as “sarcastic” and for portraying conservative Christians as “very shrill, warlike, and dangerous”.

5. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Hilary Swank after winning the best actress Oscar for ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, 2000
Hilary Swank after winning the best actress Oscar for ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, 2000
MCT/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Warning: ‘Redneck’ film depicts hate crime

This Academy Award-winning film might be a more obvious scary movie for ultra-conservatives: its main character is Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old Nebraskan trans man who was raped and murdered in 1993. While some trans rights activists have also objected to the film because a cisgendered woman (Hilary Swank) plays Brandon, it is a sympathetic portrayal of his experience and has raised awareness of anti-trans hate crime in the US.

But ultra-conservative critics condemned it for depicting “dirty and disheveled lives”. They take issue with both the film’s depiction of the main trans character (“a loner, outrunning the law, lying to everyone about her true sexual identity”) and its portrayal of cisgendered men (as “aggressive criminals, bent on destroying spirits and life itself”). “God or even religion is far from these people’s lives,” said the Movieguide website, which also called it a “redneck” film with a “homosexual worldview” and “pagan elements”.

6. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Warning: At least 506 strong obscenities

Based on the true story of penny-stock trader, fraudster and convicted felon Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and directed by Martin Scorsese, this R-rated film was “one of the worst movies of the year”, according to Movieguide (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disagreed, nominating it for five awards and giving DiCaprio the Oscar for best actor). The film was also banned in Kenya for its “explicit” content.

“Fornication, adultery and orgies” were not Movieguide’s only problems with the film: it also counted “at least 506 strong obscenities and 40 profanities”. It called it an “overstuffed display of debauchery and greed” with a “pagan tone that’s made worse morally by its humorous approach” to “immoral characters and their outrageous behavior” – while the “FBI agent is seen as merely the protagonist’s antagonist”. (Suggesting they might have preferred the story told from the law-and-order, federal agent’s perspective?)

7. Frida (2002)

Salma Hayek, star of ‘Frida’, 2003
Salma Hayek, star of ‘Frida’, 2003
SCHROEWIG/CS/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Warning: Lesbian sex and an overweight communist

This US film starring Salma Hayek as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo has been celebrated by numerous feminist film lists and festivals. Movieguide calls it “beautifully filmed” but condemns it as “abhorrent for moral audiences” and a movie that “rubs our noses in the political and immoral values of the extreme political left”. The numerous problems it identifies include depictions of “lesbian sex” and the “dishonoring of parents” and “rebelliousness”.

The Christian right website describes painter Diego Rivera, with whom Kahlo had a long relationship, as “an overweight communist” (as if that were a terrifying thing?). It decries the lives of Kahlo and other characters as being “void of biblical absolutes” and displaying “a spirit of perversion” – but, it can’t deny that the “acting is superb”. Movieguide also praised the film’s “outstanding cinematography, authentic sets and costumes”.

8. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

Monty Python’s Terry Jones (left) and Terry Gilliam, 2001
Monty Python’s Terry Jones (left) and Terry Gilliam, 2001
Tom Maelsa/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Warning: Makes jokes about Christ and crucifixion

This might be an obvious choice for an ultra-conservative backlash: it is, after all, a comedy about a man in the Roman empire who is mistakenly identified as the Christian messiah and subsequently crucified. But did you know the collective fight against the “sinful” movie actually led to the foundation of organised Christian conservative lobby groups such as the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family?

At the time of its release, more than 40 years ago, the film was banned in several western European countries for its “blasphemy”. In New York, picketers outside movie theaters warned that Python = Serpent = Satan. Ironically, this backlash may have tripled the number of screens it was shown on in the US. To this day, the movie’s “satanic” elements are discussed and denounced on Christian online forums including how the film “deliberately exploits much that is sacred to Christian and Jewish religious tradition. Especially offensive is the mocking parody of the crucifixion scene.”

9. Rafiki (2018)

Warning: A forbidden love story – between two women

The first Kenyan movie to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, ‘Rafiki’ is based on a prize-winning story about two young women who fall in love in Kenya. Soon after its release, and amid international praise, it was banned in Kenya for being “immoral”. The film’s director lamented that “no adult Kenyans will be able to see this film” and that the ban “will intimidate other filmmakers who might want to talk about different issues.”

The Kenya Film Classification Board said ‘Rafiki’’s “homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya is contrary to the law." The ban came amid statements from Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, that issues of LGBTIQ rights are "of no importance to Kenyans" – and as rights groups appeared in the country’s high court challenging (unsuccessfully) the criminalisation of homosexual activity as unconstitutional.

10. And Then We Danced (2019)

Warning: Gay ballet dancers

Swedish-based Georgian filmmaker Levan Akin would have expected a backlash when he decided to tell the coming-of-age story of a gay ballet dancer in his socially conservative homeland, where the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church openly opposes the LGBTIQ community’s very existence. It is the country’s first explicitly queer feature film, and was Sweden’s official Oscar entry for best international feature film.

After receiving death threats, the production company – which filmed in Georgia – had to hire bodyguards. Several far-right and ultra-conservative groups in Georgia protested at the movie’s premiere, vowing to disrupt “propaganda of homosexuality” in the country. Thousands took to the streets. Some pro-LGBTIQ rights activists were even violently attacked.

11. The Eternals (2021)

A visitor takes photos at Marvel Avengers movie character figures at Disney's Marvel Studio booth during the Ani-Com & Games event in Hong Kong.
A visitor takes photos at Marvel Avengers movie character figures at Disney's Marvel Studio booth during the Ani-Com & Games event in Hong Kong.
Photo by Budrul Chukrut / SOPA Images/Sipa USA/PA Images

Warning: LGBT superheroes!

This superheroes film hasn’t even come out yet and already it’s been the target of a Christian conservative backlash. Last year, a petition on the LifeSiteNews website (which publishes anti-abortion and other socially conservative news) blared: “Children and teens aren't ready! And, parents of children and teens aren't ready!” It was addressed to Marvel Studios executives, objecting to the inclusion of an “LGBT superhero” in the film. It warned that “LGBT propaganda” put children at risk of losing their innocence.

The film is scheduled for release in the US in November 2021. Earlier this year, entertainment news sites reported that it will indeed feature Marvel’s “first onscreen LGBTQ kiss” – between the first openly gay superhero in a Marvel movie and his husband (with whom the character also has a child).

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