Avatar has incited controversy over Sigourney Weaver’s character’s smoking in the film, even though the character is decidedly not, as director James Cameron describes, “an aspirational role model” for teenagers. Anti-smoking advocates fear that children will mimic the vices they see onscreen — another theory in a long line of efforts to attribute social ills to media or other cultural influences.

But it’s a troubling conceit that controlling what kids see in the movies (or read in books, etc.) will prevent them from getting the “wrong” ideas or engaging in undesirable behavior.

writes NCAC executive director Joan Bertin.

Kids don’t exist in a cocoon that admits only socially approved messages. They observe real people smoking all the time, at home, on the streets, at parties and at friend’s houses. They also see people drinking and engaging in other risky behaviors. How young people, with different experiences, circumstances and personalities, respond to the multiple and sometimes mixed messages they receive from the media, parents, teachers, peers and the culture at large, is a complicated business.

Instead of getting up in arms, why not first consider how the behaviors — no matter how vile — contribute to the filmmakers vision, thus offering an interesting avenue for educating young people. Mr. Cameron explains that

From a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn’t care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games.

Sanitizing film is not likely to fundamentally modify child behavior, while it will certainly interfere with the filmmaker’s artistic vision and the messages a film intends to convey to its audience.