This week’s question comes from Lifehacker writer Nick Douglas, who originally posed the following question on Twitter:
What’s the funniest time your parents banned a piece of pop culture from you?
In 2001 it felt like the whole world was obsessed with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! I only knew the chorus, but many of my friends could recite every word of “Lady Marmalade” even before the film came out. It was a brilliantly effective way to drive the pre-teen, radio-listening crowd to the theaters, and when my friends started making plans to go, it never even crossed my mind my mom wouldn’t let me. This was the woman who let her kids watch The X-Files and handed me David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day when I was sent to speech therapy in elementary school. But Moulin Rouge! was not to be. My sister and I remember her reasoning with the clarity that comes with 12-year-old outrage: “No, because it’s about a woman who’s doomed to die.” It was baffling, and coming from someone who put virtually no boundaries around our pop culture consumption, we were pissed. And then, when “Lady Marmalade” went off the radio and the hype died down, we forgot all about it. My mom says she doesn’t really remember the episode, but would guess she knew the film centered on some overtly sexual plot and also involved someone dying of consumption. Which is a fair reason, I guess.
I executed a weird reverse religious rebellion when I was in the third grade, lamely defying my permissive, agnostic parents by loudly embracing Jesus Christ. (It didn’t hurt that an older friend had convincingly sold my 9-year-old brain on the absolute existence of hell.) My parents gamely put up with this, as they did all the nerdy affectations of my youth, but they did put their foot down in one area: No Christian music in the car. My church friends passed me DC Talk and Jars Of Clay tapes the way other kids got hooked on Dookie or Nevermind, and occasionally I’d wheedle one into the car stereo rotation. But the ban was absolute on my favorite Christian artist: Carman. Half novelty sketch performer, half overly-earnest Christian contemporary singer, Carman’s massive catalog is studded with ridiculous story-songs like “The Champion,” “A Witch’s Invitation,” and my personal favorite, the Western-themed “Satan Bite The Dust.” My mom hated every single one of them. (Maybe she just didn’t like the ways he rhymed “sin and crud” with “the words of my testimony, and the blood.”) My religious ardor eventually fell away, and my novelty song tastes moved on to the secular (and considerable) talents of “Weird Al” Yankovic; to my mom’s credit, she let me play those tapes as often as I’d like, possibly out of relief.
Hey, remember the movie A Fine Mess? Starring Ted Danson and Howie Mandel? Written and directed by Blake Edwards? Of course you don’t. It’s about two buddies who fall into a scheme to fix a horse race and get mixed up with some gangsters and other nonsense. It was dumped into theaters in August of 1986, where it ranked ninth its opening weekend, but I inexplicably watched it a bunch of times on cable. I don’t remember much, but one scene takes place in a strip club. A Fine Mess was PG, but this was in the permissive ’80s, so it’s possible there was a boob or two. (I don’t remember.) My mom happened to walk by during that part, and boy was there hell to pay. I was sternly lectured about “pornography” and forbidden from watching it, which I naturally fought like A Fine Mess was the air I breathed. She remained unmoved, but if that disturbed her, good thing she didn’t see all the shit my dad let me watch.
Not a lot of pop culture was banned in my house(s) growing up. My sisters and I watched MTV and Dirty Dancing at my mom’s after school, and Hitchcock and Scorsese and Kubrick at my dad’s on weekends. There was, however, one memorable instance in high school when my friends and I tried to rent Boogie Nights. We had heard the thing that one hears about Boogie Nights and wanted to see it—“it” being both the movie and, of course, it. But because we were all 16 or 17, the video store clerk said we would need adult approval. She’d have to call one of our parents. Feeling cocky, I gave the woman my home number. I can’t remember now if I heard my mother’s voice through the store’s phone or later in person, but she, in no uncertain terms, refused us Mark Wahlberg’s overpaid prosthetic wang and expressed disdain that I’d even ask. Who knows what my friends and I ended up watching that night, but there was, no doubt, a notable dearth of dicks. I’m happy to report that I’ve since seen the movie multiple times, along with a number of examples of its subject, which, thankfully, no one needs parental approval to enjoy.
I asked for Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction for my 10th birthday in 1988—the first “hard rock” band I’d ever shown any interest in, after years of my music tastes running largely toward INXS, Genesis, Tears For Fears, and the like. By then, of course, those singles had been all over MTV and radio, scandalizing the nation with their wanton talk of sexy girls, but the way my parents conferenced over the decision, you’d have thought I asked for a subscription to Hustler. Needless to say, I didn’t get it. Instead, I received the even better present of my dad saying this fucking hilarious thing: “I bought that Guns N’ Roses album for you and I listened to it, but it’s too hardcore for me. And if it’s too hardcore for me, it’s too hardcore for you.” (My dad’s idea of “hardcore,” by the way, was AC/DC and Molly Hatchet.) Anyway, while that little dialogue was truly the gift that keeps on giving—I’ve been chuckling about it for 30 years now!—the real gift was the knowledge my dad imparted to me, specifically that there was a copy of the record somewhere in my house. It didn’t take me long to find it, ingeniously hidden in his cassette shelf, or to start listening to it every day after school and simply putting it back before they got home. And naturally, the fact that it was forbidden made me like it even more.
My dad is a huge metalhead who played Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin when my siblings and I were babies and who insisted upon a family-wide sci-fi and fantasy obsession. And yet, for reasons I’m still not totally clear on, he and my mom totally bought the ’80s panic around Dungeons & Dragons, telling us on multiple occasions that, while not necessarily Satanic tomes themselves, they would still somehow “open the door” to, presumably, demonic possession. As a result of this, my friends that dabbled in the dice-rolling arts had the air of woebegone souls, dangerously flirting with a darkness that I knew might one day consume them. I’d jealously eye those massive dark-fantasy rulebooks at Borders, feeling their fell magicks seducing me to a life of godless transgression. Instead, I just spent dozens of hours playing through computer role-playing games—surely a better and more wholesome investment of my time than pretending to be an orc or whatever with some friends.
My parents were relatively strict about what I could and couldn’t watch as a kid, not that it made much of a difference in my tastes as an adult. (R-rated horror movies were banned in our household. A lot of good that did.) But the biggest taboo, the one TV show my mom was adamant I stay away from despite the fact that every other kid at my school seemed to be watching it, was Beavis And Butt-Head. My mom was skeptical of MTV in general, but the idea of two proudly stupid high-school slackers lighting things on fire and smacking each other in the head and teaching impressionable preteens like myself to go around saying things “sucked” was just too much. In retrospect, I think maybe she didn’t understand that the show was supposed to be satirical, as we watched The Simpsons, an equally subversive but more overtly clever show, on a regular basis. Or maybe my parents are just Matt Groening loyalists, who knows. Either way, I watched Beavis And Butt-Head at my neighbor’s house anyway—her older brother had a Cornholio poster on his bedroom door I can still see in my mind’s eye—and today consider myself a ’90s animation agnostic.
I think it’s pretty safe to say banning your kid from playing Grand Theft Auto is a perfectly sensible thing to do. But when my mother told me she didn’t want me playing that smut, what made it so funny was that this was the closest my parents ever came to forbidding me from consuming anything, and even then, this was less like an outright banning than a guilt-tripping suggestion. Making matters weirder, I never once expressed any interest in playing Grand Theft Auto—because I didn’t have any. I was too busy having fun with all kinds of other video games and movies and TV shows that were outside my age range because my parents put a TV in my bedroom at an early age and never once cared about what was on it. Hell, my mom used to play Mortal Kombat with me when I was 4 damn years old, and that was the Genesis version with all the blood and spine-ripping intact. That was fine, apparently. But Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for a 13-year-old? Nope.
There was very little pop culture that was off-limits to my father. He usually erred toward the other end of the spectrum of permissibility, occasionally to my detriment. When my mom was still alive, she enforced a much more conventional, and reasonable, set of rules over what I watched. For instance, there was nothing 10-year-old me wanted in the summer of 1987 than to see Robocop. He was part man, part machine—and all cop, for the love of god! My mom picked up on what my feverish, cyborg-addled mind could not, and understood that this wasn’t a movie for sensitive kids. Thwarted, I took advantage of my parents’ divorce and my father’s lack of pop culture savvy and asked him to take me when my mom wouldn’t. Sure enough, he did, and sure enough, that movie messed me up. I really was not ready to watch a movie where an innocent man had his limbs blown off by close-range shotgun blasts, or see disintegrating toxic waste men with the skin sloughing off their bones. I was so traumatized, I couldn’t even properly appreciate Paul Verhoeven’s black socio-political satire.
Despite being relatively liberal in her beliefs and permissive in her parenting, I never had a clue what random thing would set off my mom’s “restricted content” alarm bells, and over the years, any number of inexplicable pronouncements from her would intrude upon my happy consumption of pop culture. (Perhaps the weirdest one: Being 14 years old and turning on the radio to discover Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” playing, and when I turned to my mother behind the wheel to say, “Man, he was kind of a genius, huh,” Mom turned to me and exclaimed, “Alex! He. Did. Drugs.” And turned it off.) But in terms of the most comical, I have to go with the time 16-year-old me was looking for a new book to read. I had just finished Ken Follett’s A Dangerous Fortune, and was looking for something similarly full of adult intrigue. Thanks to Oprah Winfrey, I had heard good things about Terry McMillan’s Waiting To Exhale, and figured I’d pull it off the family bookshelves. I was maybe 20 pages in when my mom walked by, saw what I was reading, and literally ripped it out of my hands with a shriek. “That is not a book for kids!” she huffed, and stomped away. At the time, I thought about referencing some of the more disturbingly graphic sex/violence combinations from the Follett book I’d just finished, but given rationality had apparently vanished from this exchange, I bit my tongue.