Like the family, storytelling has been integral to cohesive societies for ages. It’s been shared an infinite number of times since it was first reported following the 1980 US Census. In all likelihood, you’ve heard it repeated today, by the media, in an article here, or from the mouth of someone you know: America has a 50% divorce rate.
This “knowledge” that America has a 50% divorce rate has shaped the very state of marriage in our culture today. Almost every movie or TV show features divorce or people avoiding marriage for fear of it ending in divorce. Even kids’ shows feature children of divorce and kids living in single-parent homes, all with the intention of better reflecting “the reality.”
And this ‘statistic’ is having a profound effect: Young adults are staving off marriage in record numbers. By 2010, almost half of Americans aged 18 to 29 thought that marriage was becoming “obsolete.” More children are born out of wedlock than within it. For millennia, the bedrock of human society is now a relic of the past, tried only by fools or romantics. So what’s the point when marriage is a 50-50 gamble?
But the question is, Is the story true? In a word, no. And it never has been.
For the most recent year reported by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) 2019, the divorce rate is 2.7%. No, that isn’t a misprint nor a typo. In 2010, the divorce rate was 3.6%; in 2000, it was 4%. So, for several reasons, the divorce rate is actually falling, not rising. (The 50% error was, in part, created by dividing the number of divorces in 1980 by the number of marriages, without considering the millions of intact marriages from previous decades).
The 50% divorce rate was logically flawed out of the gate, but it seemed right to the reporter, and so was reported. The shocking error wasn’t challenged and so has been repeated to this very day by people willing to believe it. Why would they repeat it if it weren’t true?
Well, marriage isn’t easy, plus we all know someone who is divorced. But more than anything, as Joseph Goebbels infamously said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.”
This example offers a dramatic study of the impact that storytellers wield in society. As the image above suggests, they have for eons. Christians know well the teaching, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Spider-Man fans well know his mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And it has become clear that storytellers have the power to impact society — positively and negatively.
In my own industry, the motion picture business, we see the impact storytelling has on our families and society.
Critics have written much of censorship associated with what came to be known as the Hays Code or just “the Code,” officially known as The Motion Picture Production Code, enacted in 1930 but not fully enforced until 1934. Many people are unaware that pre-Code movies had already begun to feature nudity and so on.
Albeit under pressure from civic and religious leaders to deal with the moral decline and criminality movies were causing, “the Code” was used voluntarily by Hollywood to govern its film production. It included a set of “General Principles,” shaped with the help of various civic and religious leaders:
No [motion] picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence, the audience’s sympathy should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.
Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Of course, the application of the Code did lead to some somewhat laughable extensions, such as not using the word “pregnant” and not showing a husband and wife sleeping together. But what also emerged from this self-restraint positively impacted society: less delinquency, increased civic pride, patriotism, and respect for social institutions like religion, education, parental authority, marriage, and the Golden Rule.
Additionally, the Code resulted in what came to be known as the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” and Hollywood’s coffers were never more full. It was a win-win-win for studios, storytellers, and society.
But the will of Hollywood and the resolve of civic leaders began to wane, especially after the realities of World War II struck. To many, including French and German émigrés, the Code was a confining relic of an archaic system. By 1968, the Code was abandoned. And almost immediately, Hollywood set itself at odds with America and its traditional cultural norms, including those formerly fostered by their stories.
While filmmakers thrilled at their newfound freedom, executives quickly faced a backlash from the public. In little more than one year, per capita, movie attendance nosedived by roughly 40% and never rebounded.
As the saying goes, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” And from that fateful decision, Hollywood has paid a price, but so has American society. Societal norms, both here and abroad, have been reshaped in the image of the Hollywood subculture, for good or ill, and its impact continues.
As a filmmaker and father, who has worked to overcome Hollywood’s influence on me, I do my utmost within the framework of today’s society to tell stories that will serve society well and responsibly. I also choose to align with other filmmakers who share this sense of responsibility. We are sobered by the power that film and television have to shape our children, our communities, and the world in which we live.
As a parent, you, too, are a powerful storyteller. You recount cautionary tales from your youth, heroic choices made by ancestors, lessons of history that have made life and society better for us all. Your children study everything you do and say and often repeat the stories you tell them or that they overhear. So, try always to tell a story with a learning element, even a humorous one of something you got wrong or perhaps got away with! But, in the end, storytellers can also, in error, impart destructive messages like a 50% divorce rate. So, whatever kind of storyteller we may be, we would do well to shoulder the role responsibly, considering the impact we make will echo in the future generations.
Given the influence of movies and TV, resources like CommonSenseMedia.org and MovieGuide.org can help you guide your family to stories that reinforce the power and positivity of family life and marriage. ◙
The Case for Marriage by Linda Waite, Maggie Gallagher
The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths about Marriage and Divorce by Shaunti Feldhahn
Hollywood vs. America: How-and-Why-the Entertainment Industry Has Broken Faith With Its Audience by Michael Medved
Annual Report to the Entertainment Industry by Dr. Ted Baehr, MovieGuide
About Rick Rapier
Rick Rapier is a professional screenwriter-producer and co-founder of Red Wood Studios, LLC. In close collaboration with Philip Spilker of Metrostop Entertainment and industry professional Lisa Marie, and others, the future looks bright. Keep an eye out for films like Pride of India, Against Her Will, Bandit’s War, Secret Recipes, and Maui Michaels: Private Eye, as well as TV series like “Agents of VAST,” “King of the Highway,” “Just Maintaining,” and “Forget You, Phil!”
Originally from Illinois, Rick graduated from Eastern Illinois University. For 23 years, he has been married to his New Jerseyan soul mate, professional illustrator Flip Rapier, with whom he has two incredible adult children, Noelle and Luke. It’s been a story-like adventure, thanks to their faith in God. The Rapiers currently reside in Arizona. Redwood Studios; Metrostop Entertainment, Inc.