I woke up to a headline about anti-smoking organizations being unhappy about Sigourney Weaver "lovingly" smoking a cigarette in Avatar. I haven't seen the movie, but here's James Cameron's response:
In a statement sent by e-mail over the weekend, Mr. Cameron said he had never intended Ms. Weaver's character, Grace Augustine, to be "an aspirational role model" for teenagers.
"She's rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes," wrote Mr. Cameron. "Also, from a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn't care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games."
Speaking as an artist, Mr. Cameron said: "I don't believe in the dogmatic idea that no one in a movie should smoke. Movies should reflect reality. If it's O.K. for people to lie, cheat, steal and kill in PG-13 movies, why impose an inconsistent morality when it comes to smoking? I do agree that young role-model characters should not smoke in movies, especially in a way which suggests that it makes them cooler or more accepted by their peers."
Smoking, Mr. Cameron concluded, "is a filthy habit which I don't support, and neither, I believe, does 'Avatar.' "
I am not in favor of smoking, either, for the record (though I do occasionally wish I was, when the weather is very, very cold outside). But it struck me that the anti-smoking lobby might be compared to certain factions of the Christian movie-going audience who argue against, for instance, realistically written dialogue for characters who would, in real life, use a lot of obscenities. Or, those who argue that it is bad to watch a movie in which extramarital sex is even implied, lest we come to believe that is a legitimate lifestyle choice.
Don't get me wrong: I fully accept the idea that people—especially parents—feel that is the wrong thing for them or their children to watch, and who therefore don't. But to condemn a movie out of hand because it contains behavior you don't want your children—or yourself—to emulate is like condemning the cigarette in the movie without looking at who's smoking it. It's like closing your eyes to context. And for some of us, that context is what we need (within the space of our convictions and acknowledgments of our own weaknesses).
Marvin Olasky wrote an excellent piece on the HBO drama The Wire (very likely the best television series of the last decade, if not all time) that pointed out these same truths. Real people in the actual world around us do things that we believe we should not do—but does that mean their stories are not worth telling? Does that mean we must sanitize the often-ugly truth?