After not-so-much luck making a pair of indie comedies in the late ’80s and early ’90s, writer-director Darryl Roberts turned to something that seemed to be his calling: documentaries about how we as Americans value looks, fame and celebrity more than we do our own health or even protecting our own children. (He casts a wide net, I’ll admit.) In his AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL series, Roberts has tackled the perils of female body image (the first film); crazy fad diets and eating disorders (AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL 2: THE THIN COMMANDMENTS); and now the way corporations and the media have found new ways to sexualize children at younger and younger ages (AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL 3: THE SEXUALIZATION OF OUR YOUTH).
Roberts’ documentaries have a tendency to stray from topic sometimes, but inevitably he finds subjects that truly drive home his points and make you genuinely concerned about the way Americans prioritize the place of fashion, weight and celebrities in our society. And he’s a doc filmmaker who doesn’t just point out the problems, but actually offers example of people seeking and/or enacting solutions. With that, please enjoy my talk with Darryl Roberts…
Capone: You treat the response that men and women have to being bombarded by these images in advertising, in media, pretty much everywhere, like it’s a mental health crisis. Why don’t we recognize it as such as a society? Why do you think that it’s just the way we do business, or the way the world is?
Darryl Roberts: To be honest with you, I think it’s because the sexualization and the frequency in which young people get it is so normalized that you become desensitized. Before doing this film, I didn’t think it was a mental health crisis. I read that in an American Psychological Association report, and I was like, “What the heck?” This is a group of 5,000 leading psychologists in America that wrote this report called “The Sexualization of Girls,” and they said that the amount of sexualized advertising and the results—meaning depression, eating disorders, and body dissatisfaction—have reached a crisis to the point of mental health crisis. And I’m like, “This is bad.” It’s one of the reasons that sparked me to do the film, because I thought that was an interesting concept. It is not just a company selling a computer anymore, when you advertising like that you’re contributing to the deleterious state of minors.
Capone: I’m aware of it when I see it on a billboard or in a magazine or commercial. So maybe I’m not desensitized to it yet, because I don’t think it really impacts me that much. Does being aware of it kill it in a way? If people can look at an ad and say, “There’s an ad with a bottle of water being held by a woman in a bikini; clearly something’s going on there,” is that half the battle?
DR: It’s funny. I went to a media literacy class. They teach that a lot in middle schools and high schools, and these young kids were some of the most intelligent at dissecting images, but they will also tell you that the images still affect them. So even if you can intellectualize it the way you just said, it still affects them and makes them feel bad. I think what’s really happening is, our culture is so homogenized, meaning regardless of how they feel, teens know that they’re expected to act and dress a certain way in relation to their peers to be accepted. So that peer pressure becomes a third factor in it, whereas in our culture if we as parents and adults taught kids to be individuals, to think for themselves, and have their own values, that would kill the whole thing because advertising only works on groups of people. They don’t work on individuals. So that’s why they want groups of people to think, act, and behave in a monologic way, so they can control the group and sell products.
Capone: You definitely present this, at least the severity of it, as a uniquely American problem. Are there places in other parts of the world where this is an issue?
DR: Well, it may be a small issue, but all the stats in the film, say with teen pregnancies compared to every other country, we’re the worse. With STDs, we’re the worse. I’ll tell you what’s missing, and I just figured it out doing the tour. I’ve been to 15 cities with the film, talked to a bunch of organizations. This is the difference between America and Europe and other places. We, meaning as adults and parents, and our culture at large have no idea what it means to have a healthy sexuality. To give you a point about that, in Europe, teenagers are having as much sex, even more, as American teens. Nowhere near the STDs, nowhere near the pregnancies, because they’re more healthy with their sexuality. So when a teenager’s hormones are raging, and they’re searching, and a parent can’t step in to tell them what it means to have a healthy sexuality, they’re going to find something else, whether it’s porn, whether it’s this. It’s that puritanical thing.
Capone: You’re right. The more you tell someone you can’t have it, the more they want it. And the less they know about it, the more likely it is that they’re going to enter into it incorrectly.
DR: Boom. That’s it, right there.
Capone: Actually, the numbers that really shocked me the most in this movie were the ones about how many underage kids are finding porn at a younger and younger age. I had no idea.
DR: I’ll tell you the two things that were shocking to me. One is that a seven-year-old boy who was addicted to porn. He was 14 when I was interviewing him, and I said, “So how did this affect you?” And he said, “Well, I just didn’t treat women with respect. I thought they were less than me. I didn’t think they were human.” And then there was the news report at the beginning about the five-year-old girl having oral sex with a four-year-old boy. I talked to some psychologists, and they say what probably has happened to her is she was sexually abused at home. Because my question is, how does a four-year-old girl know what oral sex is? And they start telling me the extent that young kids are sexually abused. I didn’t know it was that rampant. I don’t have kids, and I was like, “Wow, this is crazy.”
Capone: I’ve read studies about grown men watching too much porn and how it changes their expectations about sexual experience, and it changes the way they act towards women, and it deflates their sexual desire with real women. So I can’t even imagine what it does to the head of a pre-teen boy that’s exposed to that much porn that early. It must turn them into a type of sociopath.
DR: They the former porn star says, it’s turning men into monsters. That’s what the boy with the hat on was saying at the roundtable—he was in college—that he was watching a lot of porn and he couldn’t like have sex with women. He couldn't respond. As soon as he stopped, he was able to have more normal relationships.
Capone: Back to the idea of this being a mental health crisis, if it isn’t inherently so, it certainly leads to things that you’ve talked about in your other films like body image issues. There’s no one solution. It’s not just about parents. It’s not just about recognizing it in the media. It’s not just about a corporation changing up it’s strategy when it comes to advertising. But at the same time, it begins at home I think, because it’s the parents that get these kids when they’re young.
DR: Well, I’ll tell you what: Steve Hersh [founder and co-chairman] from Vivid talked about it, remember? “It’s the responsibility of parents” with his 8-month-old kid in a photo right behind him.
Capone: It was upsetting to actually see that picture there. And you know that he put it there just for you.
DR: That would have been funny. You think so? Because it was just there when I got there.
Capone: I think so. Painting the portrait of the family man.
DR: That would be hilarious. He was very bold and just didn’t care. But you're right, it’s not going anywhere, and that’s why I talked about educating parents to what a healthy sexuality is, and we do have to stand up for our kids. I tried to make it a subplot in the film, I didn’t just say it. But that’s what happened when you think about it with Calli. She tried to commit suicide, lived, met me, started interning on this film, and the more she interned and did research, the more she felt hurt and would heal. She was getting better and better. And then when it came to the Abercrombie & Fitch protest, by the time that turned into a 20-city campaign, she was like feeling empowered.
But what people don’t realize when you see that, because they look at is as Calli as Super-teen, and Callie’s cool, but I laid the groundwork for her to do all of that. Minus that, there’s no chance that she could have pulled that off. So what the message really is is that as a parent or an adult needs to step in early. If we stop trying to be our kids’ friends and wear their clothes and listen to their music, and start actually being supportive of them and laying that foundation, they will have the space to thrive. That’s how she thrived. The foundation was laid for her to thrive, and that’s what we have to start doing now, and that’s how we start correcting some of that stuff. We have to step in.
Capone: Speaking of being your kid’s friend, and laying down the foundation for what is to come, and I don’t remember their names—the mother and daughter…
DR: You’re talking about Sydney and Nicki.
Capone: That woman, the mother, is a monster. She is a monster in subtle ways. Watching the film, I actually had more respect for the mothers putting their little girls in beauty pageants than I did for her, because those women can’t hide what they’re doing. Like at least they’re upfront about it, but this woman is so devious. First of all, she’ll do anything her daughter tells her to do.
DR: Well, she’s “in love” with her, remember?
Capone: “I don’t just love her, I’m in love with her,” which is horrifying. But the way she breaks and buckles when each new phase of this career doesn’t pan out, she’s like, “Alright, let’s do Playboy.”
DR: “And I’ll take the pictures.”
Capone: That's so upsetting, and she’s worse because she just keeps giving in, and she does it under the guise of protecting her daughter, but she’s not at all. She never one time says, “Enough of this.”
DR: That’s what the difference is, regardless of what she does, and she even said it herself: Sydney’s 18. That’s like a big difference between something you do to a four year old. I’m backstage at those beauty pageants, and those little girls are back there crying, “I don’t want to go out.” The parents push them out. That’s how they ended up on stage just crying. That’s abuse. That’s the difference.
Capone: You’re right. This is something else. And don’t get me wrong, Nicki is even worse. The daughter knows how to play her mother. The daughter is a liar. She lies to you on camera about her safe sex practices. How new is the newest footage in the film of those two?
DR: Of those two? Beginning of this year. March of this year.
Capone: Where are they now?
DR: Last time I talked to them, they were preparing to go to Paris because they said the United States didn’t understand them, and over in Europe, they’re more open with sexuality, and Sydney would be a true star over there.
Capone: Oh, boy. She’ll be at Cannes next year.
DR: [laughs] That’s right. You’ll get to see her.
Capone: One of the more disturbing things in the film is revealed at the end, which is about what happened with your other intern.
Capone: You said legally you couldn’t reveal the name of the producer, but would you have if you could?
DR: If I could? Oh, absolutely, because he’s hiding right now.
Capone: Is his name still on the film?
DR: I took it off. His lawyer made me take it off.
Capone: I figured as much.
DR: He’s hiding. He’s one of the top producers at one of the biggest networks in the country and all his response to doing this to this girl is, “I have a morals clause, and you all can’t out me, and if you out me, I’m going to destroy that girl.” That’s what he said to me. I absolutely would have said his name, but nothing is going to happen to him. He gets to hide behind this. I started to do it anyway, but the lawyer created a scenario, and they said if his network gets involved, this is how they could go down, and it wasn’t pretty. So I said I better back off.
Capone: Right now there are interesting little waves happening in Hollywood and in the modeling world—some celebrities are insisting that magazines don’t Photoshop them anymore, and they’re doing photo shoots without makeup. Are these are small signs that things are getting better?
DR: I do see changes. Yes, you see a lot of that stuff like not wearing makeup, contracts that say you can’t photoshop, and it’s proof to me that we’re reaching a point where a lot of people are saying enough, and they won’t do this anymore. I did an Entertainment Tonight segment two weeks ago with Geena Davis, and her institute called me saying, “We want to help you promote the film.” Emma Watson started the HeForShe Campaign, wanting men to become allies for women. If you see this stuff happening to women, speak up, say something. And I think the more that that happens, the more things will start to change. They have a lot of influence in this cultural thing, unfortunately—Beyonce, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian.
Capone: Speaking of which, we have all these small steps in the right direction, and then a couple of days ago, Kim Kardashian is on the cover of a magazine naked, clearly Photoshopped on the same day that we land this probe on a moving comet. Which do you think got more headlines?
Capone: Where do you go from here? I know you’ve said this is probably the last of these films you’re going to do at least for awhile.
DR: Next I’m doing a romantic comedy.
Capone: Back to features.
DR: Back to features, here in Chicago, so I can purge, because when you deal with a lot of people’s pain—I’ve done for three films now—it sticks with you. So I’m going to purge all that out of my system and do a romantic comedy. And my hero will be a big influence on it—John Hughes—just flat-out my hero. The feature will actually cater to the same crowd as the documentaries. I’ve built an audience of like 700,000 college students that I do a monthly newsletter for. So it’ll be the same people going to see the film. It’s funny because with these films, I was talking to an executive at Lionsgate and breaking down the economics of it. I’m more successful doing these films with my distribution model than I would be if Lionsgate distributed the film, financially speaking. It’ll be prestigious if they did it, but I’ve built this grassroots distribution model. I have over a million people who watch these films, kind of cool.
Capone: And in between the films, you’re talking to people, you’re giving speeches.