He-Man, Simpsons and things the church banned

He-man.

He-man.

When it was announced last week that McG would direct a film adaptation of the beloved ’80s cartoon “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” my reaction was fairly muted.

Part of the reason for that is that I’m almost 40; I’d be worried if I was overly excited about yet another cartoon from my childhood being resurrected. My 4-year-old son has recently discovered the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — which I was obsessed with as a kid — and I often find myself laughing about how stupid that whole concept is when I look at it with grownup eyes. Ditto with Transformers, GI Joe and the constant rumors about a Thundercats movie.

But the more relevant reason is that He-Man isn’t from my childhood. I was aware of him — my friends had a Castle of Greyskull playset and He-Man action figures — but I never saw more than a fleeting glimpse of the cartoon. We attended a strict Baptist church. While my parents were never overly stringent, from time to time they would get on kicks — probably stirred up by whatever fear-mongering book or pamphlet was being passed around the congregation. And there was one solid theological fact my parents kept bringing up whenever I would ask if I could watch “He-Man”:

“Only God is the master of the universe.”

That was it. One concern about the title of the show, and I was unable to participate in one of the touchstones of an ’80s childhood. And like I said, while I’d never look at my parents as overly strict (one of my first movie memories is watching “The Blues Brothers” on TV with my dad), they had some weird rules. “He-Man” was out but “Back to the Future” and “E.T.” were okay, despite their language  (and, in hindsight, BTTF’s weird theme of incest). “Ghostbusters” was okay; “The Witches” and “Labyrinth” were not. As I got older, R-rated movies like “Braveheart” and “Die Hard” became acceptable, but “Forrest Gump” was forbidden because one scene showed the side of a woman’s breast. My dad served as a deacon at our church for a year or two, and during that time, he had to sign a form saying we wouldn’t go to movies, listen to rock and roll, or dance (you could, however, rent an R-rated movie in the comfort of your own home). In middle school, a friend asked me to play Dungeons and Dragons; my parents called the youth pastor for an intervention. Then again, there was the bizarre weekend where my mom was on a trip and my dad, wanting to have a scary movie night, brought home “The Wolfman” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (!!). I still have no explanation for that (thankfully we fell asleep before it really got going).

We had weird rules, but as a parent I can understand my parents’ positions and inconsistencies a bit more. Navigating culture with young children is tough, and I’ve had my own concerns about what is right and wrong for my kids and what will help them on their faith journeys. I shooed my son out of the room for watching “Rocky” because of violence but let him sit on my lap while I watched old “Simpsons” episodes. Just the other night I had a conversation with my wife about why I don’t want our son to play with toy guns but I was okay with her buying him a “Star Wars” NERF blaster for his birthday. In years to come, we’ll laugh at our inconsistencies and the weird positions we took, just like I’m laughing at some of my parents’ odder rules today. And over time, I’m sure those rules will in some way influence my kids’ personalities, just as the ban on movies somehow instilled a love of them in me.

I don’t look back on those rules with anger or regret. I look them as silly. My parents were afraid about a certain influence and, rather than teach me to watch discerningly, they prohibited what they saw as the biggest dangers, probably often swayed by vocal parents in the church community. What’s funny is how many of those rules had the opposite effect on my life. I didn’t run from pop culture, film or television. I embraced it and found ways in which these things spoke to me and actually contributed to my faith. Perhaps the prohibition piqued my interest and then, by God’s grace, I learned that there was something wonderful, even edifying about this art form. Looking back now, I chuckle. It was a silly thing, but in some way, it made me who I am today.

Next week, I want to further unpack that. But before I do, it occurred to me that my parents were fairly lenient compared to other people we knew. A family at our church couldn’t watch any Disney fairy tales or “The Wizard of Oz” because they dealt with witches (they were, I believe, allowed to read the Narnia books). Others weren’t allowed to listen to any music other than CCM (that’s actually a rule we had, too). And while I was an adult by the time the whole “Harry Potter” craze happened, I’m sure there were many kids prohibited from following him to Hogwarts. And if you really want to go down the rabbit hole about Christian prohibition in the ’80s, birth.movies.death had a fantastic article a few years back about “Turmoil in the Toybox,” along with a video.

So I thought it would be fun to throw the question out to my readers: If you grew up in evangelical culture, did you have anything you were prohibited from watching/doing/listening to? They didn’t disappoint. Below are just a few of the answers. And if you have your own, post them in the comments or tweet them to @cdubbs727.

Here are just a few of the responses I received:

The Simpsons.

The Simpsons.

Wasn’t allowed to watch the Simpsons. Didn’t watch my first episode until after I was 20. — Ted W. [NOTE: “The Simpsons” was probably the most common answer; and, same. It’s also a core part of my identity now.]. 

We were not allowed to watch “Beauty and the Beast” because it promoted bestiality. I watched all other Disney movies but did not watch that one until my brother stood up to my dad and explained it was a fairy tale like Snow White and it was an illogical reasoning. — Amanda M.

Our neighbors who had kids our age were not allowed to come over when we had our family party because “there would be beer and wine around.” That was so weird to us as kids. They couldn’t dance or be around alcohol, but their parents let them watch “Scary Movie”… couldn’t quite reconcile that one in my head. — Elizabeth K. 

In the 60s and early 70s, anything related to gambling was forbidden – playing cards, pinball machines, etc. But you could play games with Rook cards. And going to a movie on a Sunday would be “breaking the Sabbath”. And my cassette tape of George Carlin’s “Toledo Windowbox” disappeared overnight without any discussion. These kind of things just eventually were recognized as ridiculous by everyone and we just went about our business without discussing it. — Bob Y. 

When I was young, anything magical or supernatural was frowned on: Smurfs, Scooby-Doo, Voltron, ET, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Beauty. There was even a problem with Star Trek II (I think) because human beings terraform a planet, which is exclusively God’s domain. I think my parents gradually realized that this entertainment was not doing anyone any harm. — Jason W. (NOTE: This was the only mention of “Star Trek II,” but I received a lot of remarks about “Captain Planet,” who told kids “YOU have the power”…but, of course, only God does)

Oh man, where do I start? We were not allowed to go to any movies early on, but that changed in Middle School even though there were tight restrictions on what we could see. No alcohol in the house whatsoever. We were only allowed to watch certain TV shows but as I grew older I saw some inconsistencies there. We weren’t allowed to watch Simpsons, or Benny Hill or Archie Bunker (to name a few) but were able to watch all Disney movies, Smurfs and even Dukes of Hazard. For us, it was more about foul language. My dad would count the number of curse words and when it got to three we had to change the show. Mostly related to using the Lords name in vain. Anything with sexual content was forbidden (Daisy Duke??). I shunned all of this as a teen and was pretty rebellious. But I have been able to have freedom with moderation and listen to my conscience as an adult. We also grew up in a culture where women were not allowed to wear pants or shorts. So all the girls wore culottes at summer camp. Really long, really baggy shorts. The school I attended in elementary had the same dress code and the guys were not allowed to have hair touching their ears or collar. — John R. 

Stryper -- the only safe rock is heavenly metal.

Stryper — the only safe rock is heavenly metal.

Even though our church condemned rock music, the ban on Christian Rock/Praise music in college was the final straw. As a music Ed major, listening to only sacred and classical music (they obviously didn’t know their music history) was a breaking point. I even wrote my research paper on the harmful effects of rock music to “purge” myself and fit in better. Worst grade I’ve ever received on a paper. Probably because I knew I was lying to myself. — James M. 

From the Catholic girl… My parents owned a bar when I was in elementary school. I had a friend tell me that we were all going to hell because of it. I remember being very worried and coming home from school asking my mom what we needed to do so that we could still get to heaven. — Rachel F. 

I don’t know that any of these count as “odd”, but we weren’t allowed to listen to any music that wasn’t either Christian or classical, and only the “soft” Christian stuff; we could get away with listening to Michael W. Smith’s big guitar solos only if we kept it quiet and away from mom and dad. I also remember that my folks *really* didn’t want to let me attend a youth group swimming party *that was going to be held in our own backyard* because there would be girls there in (one-piece) swimsuits. — Chris H. (NOTE: I once asked my dad for a rap CD and he bought me GLAD’s “Symphony Project.” I was 13, so I totally get it).

A lady at our church wouldn’t pronounce the name of Jean Claude Van Damme because she didn’t want to swear. — Amanda S. (Amanda also talked about a friend who couldn’t listen to Rebecca St. James because her friends found the way she sang the song “God” disrespectful). 

So my parents (and probably some of yours) read a book called “Like Lambs to the Slaughter” which detailed how satanic powers and the Occult were specifically targeting children via cartoons. I very remember both Smurfs and Masters of the Universe were included. (I found this book in an obscure small town used bookshop a few years ago and wish I had bought it.) The funny thing is that my parents basically took the route of sitting me down and telling me that my favorite show (She-Ra!) was satanic, but the choice was up to me about whether to watch it or not. So I wasn’t banned from watching it, I just felt REALLY GUILTY every time I did. — Michaela F. 

The Land Before Time, because evolution. — Scott G. 

 My younger brother once took a pen and tried to black out all of the curse words in the Tom Clancy paperback I was reading. It was one of Clancy’s 1000-page books, so he didn’t get very far. But he tried! — Chris H. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Chris Williams

Blogger and critic Chris Williams has been writing about film and faith for more than a decade. A former member of the Detroit Film Critics Society, his work has appeared in the Advisor and Source Newspapers, "Local Celebs Magazine," and at Christ and Pop Culture. He also co-hosts the podcasts "It's My Favorite" and "Far From Hollywood." Chris lives in the Detroit area with his wife and two children.