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In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King

Appendix Six: The evils of picture shows

page 241

Appendix Six: The evils of picture shows

At the 1920 conference of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children in Wellington, Truby King stage-managed a discussion on his latest 'pet' subject. It went like this:

Mrs Johnstone (Gisborne): I move the following remit from the Gisborne Branch:

1)That moving pictures as at present shown are injurious to children and young persons
2)That censorship of pictures should be stricter
3)That pictures for children should be controlled by Government, through the Education Department. That picture programmes should be classified into:
a)Adult programmes
b)Schoolchildren's programmes
page 242

Mrs Comyns (Wanganui): I second the motion, and I am quite in sympathy with the desire for controlling moving pictures. I am a member of a school committee, and I know that the results are very injurious to children. It is about time something was done to prevent certain pictures being shown to the children. The educational pictures that we used to have some years ago seem to have completely gone out of use.

Dr Truby King: I should like to speak on this subject, because I think some of the picture shows are the most degrading things of our age, and have the most damaging influence imaginable. They require to be absolutely censored with regard to children. Children ought not to be allowed to see degrading pictures. There is no question about it that children have evil things indelibly printed on their minds, and they will never get them eradicated. I cannot understand why it is permitted. Of course, I know the difficulties of censorship. I was asked recently by a branch of the Educational Institute what my opinion was, because the Institute was going into the matter, and it was desired to know my views on the subject. This is what I wrote: —

Dear Sir,

Re your request for my opinion as to the Influence of Moving Pictures on Children.

I am in entire sympathy with the New Zealand Educational Institute to safeguard and protect children from the pernicious influence of the prevailing type of moving pictures.

Of course, these shows may prove almost as degrading to adolescents, beyond the ordinary school age, and even to young adults; but the protection of minors by special enactments, referring only to young persons under a certain age, would present comparatively little difficulty to the legislature, whereas there is always a strong feeling against interference in the case of adults.

Furthermore, even if the picture shows were purged of all the indecency of suggestion, innuendo and conduct which makes up a page 243 large proportion of the average programme, the exhibition, which would be suitable for adults, would often be quite unsuitable for children. Therefore, I am in entire accord with the idea of a stricter regulation of the attendance of children at picture shows — regulation as to the nature and quality of the pictures that may be presented to them, and regulation of the hours within which they may be allowed to attend.

No one questions that the cinematograph affords a most valuable means of education, instruction and recreation, if used fairly and rationally. The presentation of films illustrating travel, scenery, science, industry, animal and vegetable life, sports, games and every kind of show and pageant may be made suitable and attractive for all ages, but the depiction of a play or even what goes by the name of history, may be utterly unfit for children.

It should always be borne in mind that sexual precocity and sexual irregularity present the greatest difficulties of any civilisation which regards self-control and continence as essential in early life. Every conscientious master or mistress of a school — especially of a boarding school — recognises this as the greatest of their cares and responsibilities. Every physician burdened with the charge of a mental hospital has before him every day the disastrous results of sexual precocity and sexual irregularities. Speaking of the studious boy or girl and the risks they run of shipwreck before fully entering on life, Dr Savage, the leading authority on Insanity in London, said many years ago, that every such boy or girl is dangling between Eros and Psyche. It was the knowledge of this fact that lead our foremost teachers -men who were broad-minded humanitarians, and more than mere pedagogues — men such as Arnold of Rugby, and Almond of Loretto — to found and establish institutions where the trend of thought and feeling would be diverted from undesirable channels by the full measure of healthy outdoor recreation — bathing, swimming, games, and interesting occupations provided.

The special tendencies and risks of puberty and adolescence are too well-known to need insisting on; but, outside the medical profession page 244 few people realise that long before puberty thoughts, feelings, tendencies and habits may be formed which will disturb more or less seriously the proper balance and control of the organism, and impair future growth and development — physical, mental and moral. Nothing tends to sap, undermine and stunt individual and racial development and progress more than precocious sexuality and sensual irregularities and perversions . . .

King's letter continued for seven more pages, confronting the issues of sex education, venereal disease, moral training and character-building, and the wonderfully delicate phrasing of 'the universally-recognised delicacy, intimacy and sacredness of the functions and feelings concerned in the handing of the lamp of life from generation to generation', and the 'golden age of happiness and pleasure in life as a normal attitude in the matters of sex: the worries and doubts and broodings imposed on boys and girls of the adolescent period'.

To illustrate he was a man of the world, he gave instances of visits to the movies that had aroused his indignation. He spoke of observing 'well-dressed boys of good class' watching 'sensual, half-drunken looking blackguards', 'gilded scoundrels', 'flashy, attractive villains', and perhaps worst of all, he noted: 'The piano was played by a negro who had an extraordinary long tumbler beside him which was repeatedly filled with stout.' What a contemporary psychiatrist would make of that, we will not speculate. Truby appeared convinced that every moving picture repeatedly portrayed criminals, prostitutes, blackguards and negroes.

He concluded: 'The only way to protect the children is to keep them away from picture theatres as long as possible, or to have stringent regulations and special censorship so as to ensure that no child shall be allowed to attend picture shows which are undesirable and unfit for their age, and that they will be prevented from attending at unsuitable times.'

Predictably, the meeting endorsed Truby King's views and passed the following:

page 245
1.That moving pictures at present shown are injurious to children and young persons.
2.That this Conference represent to the Government its very strong feeling as to the utter inadequacy of the present provision in the way of regulation by censorship to safeguard the children of the Dominion.
3.That attendance of children at picture shows and the nature of the pictures allowed to be shown to children should be regulated through the Education Department.
4.That the nature of the programmes should be classified into (a) adult programmes: (b) children's programmes.
5.That this Conference unreservedly endorses and heartily supports everything read by Dr Truby King in his letter to the Educational Institute, copy of which is forwarded herewith.

Plunket published the booklet Picture Shows — their Evil Effects on Children and the Need for Reform, Regulation and Control in 1921. Of the fifteen pages, more than half were devoted to Truby King.

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