The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was formed in 1922. For almost a hundred years, the MPAA’s creative tyranny and censorship have plagued the film industry. It has compromised the artistic visions of thousands of directors in a silly effort to inform generations of lazy, ignorant parents. Today, a seventeen-year-old can join the army (and buy a gun in some states) but isn’t allowed to see an NC-17-rated movie and requires a parental escort to watch a R-rated movie. This violation of common sense highlights how ridiculous and obsolete the MPAA has become. It’s time to pull the plug on movie ratings, an outdated remnant from a 1950s post-war, suburban society.
Over the course of the last century, the MPAA’s motion picture ratings system has undergone several cycles of change. The most recent and impactful tweaks were the creation of the NC-17 rating and the PG-13 rating. The NC-17 designation, universally viewed as a commercial death sentence by film makers, was created to prevent teenagers from witnessing extreme content. The PG-13 rating served as a middle-ground classification between the vastly different content domains of PG and R-rated films. We can thank Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for the wretched PG-13 rating. Concerned parents were disturbed by the dark violence of the PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, so the MPAA obliged and added another lump to the already advanced social cancer of film ratings.
Technology has made information-gathering effortless. Few facts require more than a smart phone and a Wi-Fi connection to uncover. Parents are now able to read detailed descriptions of a movie’s plot well in advance of the release. If these parents are still worried about the film’s content, they can always go see it before they let their kids watch it. The parents of today oscillate between overt laziness (needing a rating to tell them if a movie is appropriate for their child) and insane, helicopter micromanagement. Generally, the title and plot synopsis of a film is enough information to determine the suitability for child viewing. If you have a ten-year old, you should probably not take him to Stephen King’s It where the plot involves a demon clown terrorizing children. This judgment is not rocket science.
On top of that, kids are able to read about anything they want and watch anything they want, from the palm of their hands. Kids learn about the word ‘fuck’ long before they ever see it on the silver screen. Violence and sexually explicit content on Reddit will scar children far more than watching a simulated sex scene with two beautiful people. Movie ratings are useless for protecting children because the ‘content threat’ comes from their cell phones and any other device with access to the internet. If parents want to protect kids, they need to invest in technology controls, not movie ratings.
Reason Two: Movie Ratings Demonize Sex
For some reason, the MPAA has always believed that violence isn’t that big of a deal. Many PG-13 movies have featured significant levels of violence. Horror movies like Drag Me to Hell, Insidious, and The Ring all featured disturbing imagery that scared the shit out of many young film-goers. Action movies like Taken, The Dark Knight, and Live Free or Die Hard featured the same level of carnage as many rated-R films. The only difference is that in a PG-13 film, the camera cuts away just before significant levels of blood or gore are shown. The MPAA has an extremely high tolerance for violence before a film earns an R-rating, especially if the film is about war.
On the other hand, the MPAA has a much smaller tolerance for sex and bad language. More than one F-bomb in a film automatically warrants an R-rating. A movie has a very small threshold, when it comes to sexuality and nudity, before the MPAA slaps an R on it. Many relatively tame R-rated movies have gained the classification simply from suggesting sexually provocative content rather than actually showing it.
In a world where we’re exposed to horrific violence, such as school shootings, on an almost-daily basis, I feel like violence is a more dangerous film component than language and sexuality. The world is moving toward a sex-positive culture where sexual expression and sexual education are valued and encouraged. The days of abstinence-only education and body-shaming are behind us. Sex is nothing to be ashamed of. Violence is.
The goal of movie ratings is to provide information to parents so that they can make ‘informed’ decisions about what films that their children watch. The problem with ratings is that they often force filmmakers to compromise their artistic vision through censorship. For example, many horror films have an initial cut that qualifies as an NC-17 rating. Studios won’t let that fly. This rating means that most theaters won’t show it, the film’s marketing options are extremely limited and the movie ultimately won’t make any money. So, the director is forced to make incremental changes to the cut until the MPAA grants an R-rating. The same process plays out for films where the studio is shooting for the PG-13 demographic.
The problem with this dilution of obscene content is that movies meant for adults will become accessible to the very audience that they weren’t intended for. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert made this critique many years ago. Take Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, as an example. Kubrick passed away right before the film was released and the studio made changes to a graphic orgy scene so that the film would get an R-rating. Kubrick did not create this movie for children. He intended it for adults. The system meant to shield vulnerable children from harmful content actually forces filmmakers to make harmful content available to children.