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Our Hot, Sexy Culture: Welcome to the Burn Ward

Our Hot Sexy Culture Welcome to the Burn Ward Sean Dreilinger

Sean Dreilinger

John Zmirak - published on 01/27/14

A new mainstream Hollywood film, 'Gimme Shelter,' explores the world of “throwaway girls” and the crisis pregnancy shelters that embrace them.

There I was, sitting at the brass-railed open bar with a posh knot of gents in blazers and bowties, jawboning the culture wars. By the third Tanqueray and tonic, a warm haze of nostalgia had swept me away. Drinking top-shelf gin on somebody else’s dime and discussing the Great Ideas stripped off ten years and twenty pounds… I felt like an undergrad again. I’d met these fine fellows through a highbrow conservative journal, and for hours felt right at home, telling school tales of tweedy old Commies and multiculturalists in dashikis. But as we emptied the seventh priceless round, the conversation turned; it left the smooth black asphalt road with its bright yellow lines, and plowed me right into the woods. I should have known better, I guess, than to mention abortion.

The topic was Teddy Kennedy, and I cited his abandonment of the unborn as one more glittering facet of his gem-like moral squalor. At that, the blondest guy present — a crew jock, gone slightly to seed — gave a little harrumph. Another gent nodded knowingly. The third just looked away. A better-bred man would have taken the silent hint, and changed the subject to Hilary Clinton, but I am a mailman’s son from Queens. So I barreled ahead.

At length, the sandy-haired guy in the J. Press jacket turned his narrowed eyes on me and just flat out said: “We need to keep abortion legal to cull the welfare rolls.”

For the first time in many, many years, I was struck speechless, long enough for another new friend to add, “And the crime rate. Have you read Freakonomics? Roe v. Wade is the reason New York City is liveable again.”  The third defender of Kultur just waved at the barmaid for another free glass of Laphroig.

I had read the detailed critique of Freakonomics that blew the authors’ thesis into thousands of tiny, sophomoric pieces. I had memorized a string of Margaret Sanger’s useful, proto-Nazi quotes. But none of that seemed to the point. And instead of that surge of adrenaline that warms me to any fight, I felt in my gut a cold and sour numbness, a preternatural dread. All I could manage was, “Well, if that’s how you feel, why don’t you just napalm the ghettos?”

The crew jock smiled thinly. “Not as politically palatable.”

I put on my coat as soon as I decently could, and fled the reek of brimstone for some fresh Manhattan air.  The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend.

As superior as it makes me feel to tell that story, I know deep down that it shouldn’t. My empathy muscles are only a little less atrophied than most folks’. That lesson was driven home for me by a heartrending new movie that stars some of Hollywood’s hottest young stars (Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson) and features Brendan Fraser and James Earl Jones. The film, Gimme Shelter, is a stark and honest look at the “throwaway girls” who bear the brunt of our modern sexual mores, who look for love under all the wrong rocks, and end up pregnant and desperate. This is the real face of the life issue in America, and it’s one marked by tattoos, bruises, piercings, and the scars of a hundred “bitch-slaps.” The men in these young women’s lives are pathetically unready for fatherhood, and the welfare system we’ve set up to serve as a surrogate seems almost designed to perpetuate their helplessness.

The protagonist, Apple Bailey (Hudgens), is a young teenager who flees the tenement of her abusive addict mother (Dawson), but refuses to plunge back into the “system” of foster care where she was shunted back and forth like a lump of radioactive waste. Instead, Apple pulls out a soiled letter she’d received while still a small child from the father she never knew. She tracks the man (Fraser) down and barges into his lavish suburban home — to the understandable horror of his fit trophy wife (Stephanie Szostak) and perfectly coiffed children.

I said “understandable” because I could understand it. The lovely Hudgens is unrecognizable in this role, as battered and dirty as any street kid one might trip over in some favela. She looks as if she smells, and her manners stink. She is haughty, defensive, accusatory, demanding and profane — the kind of urban urchin on whom one instinctively calls the police. But her father is stricken by guilt and by smothered longing. He calms his wife, corrals his well-scrubbed kids away, and tries to figure out how he can offer Apple, at last, what a daughter deserves.  

His empathy fails. When a fit of morning sickness announces that Apple is pregnant, he and his wife are flabbergasted. Here’s a girl primed to serve as just one more link in a chain of urban dysfunction, to replicate her mother’s sorry life in the welfare underclass. Surely, the most loving thing they could do for her is to “solve” her problem and help her “move on” as if nothing had happened. Fraser explains it to Hudgens in a calm, tender way, pleading with all the sweetness of post-modern reason for her to save herself.  Then he makes it coldly clear that her place in his home rests on her making the “right” decision. She is driven to the clinic, and laid out on the table. But as she awaits the tender mercies of the women’s reproductive health care provider, Apple pulls out of her shoe the pitiful token of hope she has carried around: the ultrasound of her baby. That blurred little image of a helpless homunculus, a creature as unwanted and inconvenient as she has always been, makes demands of her. It insists that she “ruin” her life. She jumps off the table, and rushes out into the rain.

Apple sleeps in people’s cars, eats out of trashbins, and narrowly escapes a predatory pimp by carjacking his SUV — which she promptly crashes, and ends up in the hospital. Here, the battered girl encounters her first real glimpse of decency in the form of the hospital’s chaplain (James Earl Jones). He endures her taunts and repeated rebuffs, and keeps coming back to visit her. He tells her of a shelter where she could live, keep her baby, and train for a job.

That shelter was founded by a woman who had once been homeless herself, played brilliantly by the under-rated character actress Ann Dowd. The rest of the film explores the question of what Apple will decide, and whether she can make it. The joyous, hopeful moments we see in the lives of several young mothers and the tough-minded love of their caregivers more than redeem the film’s gritty sequences, but the grace that’s depicted here is far from cheap: only after Golgotha comes Easter.

This is not some pious film produced by well-meaning pro-lifers and Bible-thumpers who borrowed a camera. It’s a mainstream Hollywood movie, produced by a team that made its bones on music videos, who blundered across a story they found compelling: a culture that uses girls up and tosses them out, and a tiny subculture of citizens who try to repair the damage — to treat these girls and their babies for the first time as human beings. The process of healing isn’t pretty, and it isn’t always successful. Casual sex, as we have forgotten, is playing with fire. This movie visits the burn ward.

I wanted to look away.  I wanted to “pause” this film and go order a Tanqueray and tonic. I had too much in common, I found, with the well-groomed couple who wanted this girl and her problems to fade away — who wished to “intervene” and break the cycle of self-destructive behavior, even if doing so meant just a teensy bit of destruction.  A microscopic amount.  Just a bunch of tissue, really, if you can learn to see it that way.  Compare that tiny sin with the blight of the slums, those menacing crime statistics, and those pushy, demanding urban youths who have driven you into the suburbs. Are you really supposed to feel that every such life is somehow sacred?

No, you probably aren’t. If you try to extend your empathy to every human being on earth, from conception to natural death, you will simply fail — as liberals do, so they end up favoring free laptops for Rwandans, along with abortion on demand.  There’s not enough butter on earth to spread across that much bread. On the other hand, if you limit your moral concern to those with whom you can feel empathy, you will act like a moral monster. The answer lies elsewhere — outside the emotions, in the solemn and timeless rational truths that compose the natural law.  Whatever your gut pretends, the fact remains that every human being on earth, regardless of age, is starkly your moral equal. That’s true in the same sense that gravity and mathematics are true, and true regardless of how you feel about it. So act accordingly, and maybe your gut will catch up with your brain. Or maybe not. Do the right thing anyway: it’s called being an adult.

But movies like Gimme Shelter offer us hope by depicting truth through the terrors of beauty. They challenge the lies we tell ourselves, the evasions we depend on, and the barriers we cobble together against our wholesome natural instincts. And the most natural response in the world for a mother to have toward her child is to care for it. We know, deep down to our bones, that this is the “right” decision. We must in our day-to-day lives and political action hold this fundamental human truth in mind. No society that rests on falsehoods can long endure — it will flounder in chaos, crime, and poverty. If we cannot protect a mother’s love for her child, there is simply nothing left for conservatives to conserve.

John Zmirakis the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived atThe Bad Catholics Bingo Hall.

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