One of the most controversial movies to be premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival was Hounddog, which tells the story of a young girl from a broken home in the 1950s rural South who, in an early scene, is brutally raped by an older boy who tempts her with tickets to an Elvis concert.
The actress essaying that difficult role is Dakota Fanning, the 12-year-old who's already become a household name for her above-the-title appearances in 2005's War of the Worlds (opposite Tom Cruise) and Hide and Seek (opposite Robert DiNiro), and 2004's Man On Fire (opposite Denzel Washington). Holding her own against that kind of high-power talent requires a massive amount of intestinal fortitude ... and raises a number of questions about the extent to which intelligent minors must be shielded from exposure to nudity and non-hardcore sexual situations.
First, some perspective. Fanning is hardly the first minor female (no one seems to worry about males) to be featured in a sexual role in a mainstream movie. Perhaps the most famous are 14-year-old Jodie Foster as the young prostitute in Taxi Driver; 13-year-old Brooke Shields as the titular virgin-for-sale in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby; and 17-year-old Thora Birch's topless scene in the Academy Award-winning American Beauty ... but those hardly exhaust the list.
And then there's the movie itself. Though this author has not yet seen the film, director Deborah Kampmeier has said that the "rape" is pretty much all in the editing.
"You have a child yelling 'Stop it!' and only when you put that next to an image of a boy unzipping his pants do you see that it's rape," Kampmeier said, adding that contrary to reports, there is no graphic nudity, but there are several scenes, carefully shot, where child actors with bare shoulders and legs are presumed to be naked.
Moreover, "The scene was never run through from start to finish; it was shot in increments, over and over, never in a single take," Kampmeier told Premiere magazine. "The construction creates the impression of the violence but doesn't represent the feeling on the set or something that might have traumatized Dakota, especially since there had been so much rehearsal."
However, there's no denying that Hounddog is a sexually-oriented movie. Several news stories have noted that Fanning's character is "sexually promiscuous," and there are scenes of the girl seductively gyrating her hips while singing Elvis Presley songs – not the usual American depiction of a 12-year-old.
But there are plenty of people out there who believe there's something magic about the number "18" – as in, "You have to be at least 18 years of age to enter this website." After all, it's The Law, no matter how unrealistic that imaginary line of demarcation is. For instance, a New Yorker poll of 100 NYC high school students found that 55 had had sex already, and other, more scientific polls have come up with similar figures. And it turns out that 88% of those pledging abstinence until marriage have sex anyway; many of them minors as well. The point is, people don't magically acquire sexual urges and sexual knowledge on their 18th birthdays.
Still, it's not surprising that there have been several calls for those involved in making the film to be investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice.
"The filmmakers as well as theatres that show the film, Hounddog, are subject to federal prosecution under child pornography laws," wrote Patrick A. Trueman, a former Justice Department prosecutor who's worked for several pro-censorship groups. "Federal child pornography laws state that a film or image depicting a minor, defined, as 'under the age of eighteen years,' engaged in 'sexually explicit conduct,' may be the subject of a prosecution. 'Sexually explicit conduct' is defined to include actual or simulated sexual acts... 'Sexually explicit conduct' is further defined in [18 U.S.C.] Section 2256 to include a variety of 'actual or simulated' sex acts. Thus, under-the-covers activity that is meant to look as though a sex act is taking place, is subject to prosecution."
Without having seen the film – as Trueman also apparently hasn't – it's impossible to judge just how explicit the alleged "sexually explicit conduct" is portrayed ... but that doesn't matter to Catholic League president William Donahue.
"It is unclear whether federal child pornography statutes have been broken in the course of filming this movie," Donohue said. "It matters not a whit whether Fanning's mother, along with Fanning's teacher/child welfare worker, gave their consent. What matters is whether they are an accessory to a crime."
"For the past five years, there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism aimed at the Catholic Church for allowing sexual abuse of minors to continue with impunity," Donahue continued. "Much of that criticism was right on target. Let's see now whether Hollywood will be held to the same level of scrutiny for promoting simulated child rape movies."
That Catholic priests actually sexually molested children whereas Dakota Fanning was playing a well-rehearsed part in a fictional drama is a distinction that seems to have been lost on Donahue, who's called for Andrew Oosterbaan, chief of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, to investigate the matter.
Torie Bosch, columnist for Slate.com, has obtained opinions from attorneys that nothing in the movie violates the child porn laws.
"[F]or the film to run afoul of the law, an average viewer would have to think that Dakota Fanning really did engage in sexual intercourse on the set during production," Bosch wrote. "A prosecutor hunting for a kiddie porn conviction would have to make this argument despite the fact that most people know that sex acts in mainstream movies are almost always mimed. Furthermore, the controversial 'rape' in Hounddog takes place off-screen."
Bosch also notes that Fanning never appears nude in the movie; she's always wearing a flesh-colored body-stocking.
But what's been almost entirely left out of many stories about this controversy is what Fanning herself has had to say.
"I'm going to be a freshman in high school in September, and I think it would be irresponsible of my parents not to let me know of things that happen and to try not to get yourself in uncomfortable situations," Fanning explained. "It's educational."
"You know," she added, "I'm an actress. It's what I want to do. It's what I've been so lucky to have done for almost seven years now. And I am getting older. February 23 is my birthday, and I'll be 13 years old. And I will be playing different kinds of roles."
The controversy is an important one, and one that's bound to have a spill-over effect for the adult industry. It pits one self-assured, intelligent 12-year-old who seems to know exactly what she's done and is fine with it against an army of "older, wiser heads" even including former child star Paul Petersen (he played the son on "The Donna Reed Show") who seem to be suggesting that despite everything Fanning has said, she simply can't have agreed to play this role because she's under 18, and no one under 18 can or should be allowed to make such decisions.
In a sense, even the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with them, having said in New York v. Ferber, the seminal child porn case, that in portrayals of adolescent sexuality are necessary, a young-looking adult could be used. But the decision left open such depictions which were of "serious social value" – as Hounddog very well may be.
However, early reports from Sundance are that Kampmeier is having trouble finding a distributor for Hounddog, and that several legislators around the country have warned that if the film opens in their neighborhoods, that prosecutions are possible. Even worse, a state senator in North Carolina, where Hounddog was filmed, wants his state's film office to review all scripts to be shot in his state and to reject permits and state-sponsored "incentives" for any that contain sexually explicit scenes.
But as Dr. Marty Klein has pointed out in his seminal work America's War on Sex, "Every culture has to deal with the sexuality of its young people ... For over a century, America's approach to youthful sexuality has been to minimize, distort, and control sexual knowledge, sexual health, sexual rights, and sexual activity of minors and unmarried young adults."
Klein thinks that's a bad, even dangerous, idea. If the Fanning film does nothing other than open a dialog about the sexual life of adolescents, it will have served a far greater purpose than its makers intended.