Rating the MPAA Film Rating System at 50

“Celebrating” half a century of inconsistent self-censorship

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Rating the MPAA Film Rating System at 50

Subjective declarations such as this one … that some content is “too important” to be labeled in accordance with the standards set forth by the MPAA and understood, trusted and relied upon by parents, undermine and negate the entire purpose of having the content rating system in the first place. — Statement from the Parents Television Council on news that Eighth Grade would be screening for free to young viewers despite its R rating.

::eyeroll:: —The rest of us

The Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system, surprisingly, turned 50 this past month. It’s surprising because it’s worked its way so deeply into the fabric of society that you figure Woodrow Wilson came up with it, and yet your parents remember a time before it. At a venerable half a century, it’s worth it to ask why on Earth we still use a system that provides very little practical value to the parents it purports to help, and frustrates the visions of artists and the enjoyment of their patrons and audiences.

Voluntary Self-Censorship

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Rated PG!

The rating board members who are parents, and neither gods nor fools, look at a movie and try to put a rating on there that the average parent would believe to be an accurate depiction of that film. —Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America for 38 years

The Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system arose from the ashes of the infamous “Hays Code,” the deeply troubling and almost certainly unconstitutional regulatory framework that governed films starting in earnest in 1934 and, by 1968, had faced litigation and public backlash. As the studio system was adapting to the rising prominence of television, more availability of foreign films, and a new generation of risk-taking filmmakers catering to a changing national mood, Hollywood in essence stepped up to voluntarily censor itself rather than be imposed upon by outside forces.

It’s important to remember that nothing about this system is legislated, enforced or adjudicated by any federal law. It’s entirely a voluntary construct of Hollywood, enforced only to the degree that basically every distributor, studio and theater chain adheres strictly to it.

The MPAA established the first ratings framework in 1968, establishing “G,” “M,” “R” and “X” ratings for films. 1970 saw the “M” rating adjusted to “GP” (later the current “PG” we all know and love). Steven Spielberg famously caught grief from a nation of parents who balked at the two 1984 films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which he directed, and Gremlins, which he produced, after their PG ratings failed to warn parents just how violent and dark the films were. Spielberg successfully lobbied Valenti to introduce the PG-13 rating, for which Spielberg has expressed some pride. (Not, I should say, without due cause—it would be an illuminating rating if the classifications weren’t totally inconsistent.)

“NC-17” was later introduced as a replacement for “X,” a move which was intended to distinguish mature, unsparing content from pornography. “X” has not been an actual rating of the MPAA since 1990, though pornographic films happily declare themselves X-rated. They may as well have kept it, though: Blockbuster Video (remember them?) declared it would not stock NC-17-rated films for rental and most theater chains declined to screen the movies. More infuriatingly, 17 is no longer even the age at which you are allowed to view an NC-17 feature, since it now means “No One 17 or Under Admitted,” meaning you must wait until you are 18.

In theory, ratings of G (for General Audiences), PG (Parental Guidance Suggested), PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned), R (Restricted) and something equivalent to NC-17 that isn’t lying to you by its very designation should be enough to capture a general idea of how a movie might play to youngsters. Unfortunately, those ratings do not do that.

Rated “Classifications Not Consistent or Useful

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“Don’t do drugs!!!”

If you were to see [PG-13-rated Coyote Ugly and R-rated Almost Famous] side-by-side you might be as mystified as I am why the MPAA thinks one is appropriate for 13-year-olds, while the other is questionable for 17-year-olds. But of course the MPAA cannot have values; it can only count beans, or nipples, or four-letter words. —Roger Ebert, in a 2000 article calling for reform of the ratings system

The past couple years have seen a major change in how I view cinema because I’ve begun helping my girlfriend parent her children, currently aged 8 to 13. That’s enough of a spread to need to consider how the youngest will process Batman: The Animated Series differently than her oldest brother, or whether my favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard, is going to be an all-ages appropriate two hours on the family couch. And here’s what I’ve found: I never look to a piece’s MPAA rating for guidance.

Consider that The King’s Speech (2010), a delightful and affirming period piece where nobody gets shot, naked or has to grapple with anything more morally complicated than having to deal with Winston Churchill, is rated R, despite the fact I’d rate it as a perfectly acceptable view for the entire household. Why? Because it has the word “fuck” in it several times. We at Paste generally drop a tasteful asterisk or avoid use of the word altogether out of a sense of professional decorum—but there are certainly times it’s warranted. A blanket ban on its use—or its mere presence pushing an otherwise light piece into the realm of being forbidden—is reductive and ultimately harmful.

The general rules in my girlfriend’s household are that her children may not curse at one another or in the presence of other people who will be put off by it (and they mostly abide by them with maturity).

Those same guidelines would perfectly describe Colin Firth’s troubled monarch in that movie, who unleashes a carpet F-bombing in one scene during a therapeutic session. Context is everything here. He is swearing at nobody, cursing nothing. Letting fly with the F-word a few times is part of his doctor’s therapy regimen and it is helping him to feel some small manner of empowerment over a condition that robs him of his confidence. This scene, about this real feeling, could be helpful to real children. Yet, this was apparently so unthinkable an activity for 16-year-olds, most of whom swear as if they were raised by sailors and mafia hitmen, that the MPAA’s ratings board slapped the movie with an R rating. This put it in the same company that same year as The American, which features George Clooney graphically killing multiple people and prolonged scenes where he orally pleasures a prostitute.

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“Here’s change for the payphone, Timmy. Call when the movie is over!”

I argue the former is far more concerning, as Maria Bello did while being interviewed for director Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary on the ratings system This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

“Just a couple months before I’d gone to see a horror film that was rated R,” Bello said, relating her experience when learning The Cooler (2003), in which she filmed an explicit sex scene, had been rated NC-17. “In the first ten minutes [of the horror film] a woman gets her fake breast cut out, and there’s blood everywhere and that’s what made me so furious to want to go in and fight for my pubic hair. Don’t tell me that movie should get an R, and why, for seeing my pubic hair do we get an NC-17 when it was a beautiful moment between two people that had a lot to do with love?”

That same documentary goes far deeper into the lack of transparency or accountability of the ratings board, a state of affairs that flies in the face of what a democratic society that values freedom of expression should stand for. At one point, another director asserts, the length of a woman’s orgasm is called out as pushing the film into an NC-17 rating—something I personally find to be among the least objectionable things I can think of. I wouldn’t let my girlfriend’s kids watch such a scene at their current ages, but at 15, if the movie is otherwise pretty tame? 17, when they can already watch RoboCop or The Thing?

We—that is, legal adults who can watch whatever we please—should at minimum know who is rating our movies and have some say in what constitutes a rating, since it is our children for whom the ratings are intended.

Fine, What Would You Do Instead?

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To some extent the MPAA has already begun to implement a more precise system by introducing short descriptors of why a film has been rated the way it has, starting in 1990, and the differences are actually almost useful. All but G-rated films get short descriptors such as “strong bloody violence” or “brief nudity.” I was unable to locate a definitive list of these descriptors, nor was I able to find clear definitions for what constitutes them. I reached out to the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), the arm of the MPAA which sits down to rate movies. Chairman Joan Graves informed me that there is no comprehensive list.

“Each [descriptor] is formed directly after the screening of the film,” Graves said, responding to me via email. “There is no finite list as we individualize each to fit the film, but certainly there are some that are used more frequently as you have noted.”

This reveals a fundamental weakness in the descriptors as a ratings tool. Is Kill Bill “strong violence” or could you argue it constitutes “fantasy violence?” (And what is “weak violence,” something like a Three Stooges sketch?) What constitutes a “disturbing image,” as the MPAA has noted for Overlord? How brief is “brief” when nudity is concerned? Does “drug material,” a descriptor for Time Freak, mean a bong is lying around in the background, or that the characters profess joy at snorting cocaine, or that it features some harsh and realistic consequences of abusing narcotic painkillers that might actually mean kids want to do it less? Is “language” worthy of noting if the curse words aren’t even being used offensively, as in The King’s Speech? Can we not put “factually inaccurate” on Dinesh D’Souza’s films, or “undercurrents of toxic masculinity” on like, most action films?

These are all far more important questions I, as a parental figure, have about what I might allow my girlfriend’s kids or my brother’s grade school-aged daughters to watch. They’re the finer distinctions that actually determine whether a piece of art could potentially be too heavy for a young person to view without a parent there to answer questions and guide discussion afterward, which is way more important than the question of whether or not the kid should just be allowed to see it unaccompanied in a theater.

Going over entirely to a more transparent, more defined, more democratically resolved system where a film earns these specific descriptors rather than a one-size-fits-all rating might be a way forward. Anonymity for raters on individual films would probably be ideal—nobody wants to volunteer to screen a few movies and then find themselves hounded by studios looking to plead down to a “brief nudity” instead of a “pervasive sexual content” or whatever—but some public listing showing the people who rate films and a scatter plot of descriptors they’ve been applying (again, not tied to specific movies) could at least keep the process more open and less arbitrary. Care would need to be taken to keep ratings from becoming an alphabet soup that bewilders some parents, but it would be more honest, more accurate, less arbitrary, and it would (imagine it) require everybody to think a bit more about exactly what subject matter is actually appropriate for our kids.

That might even mean we respect their growing independence a bit more.


Kenneth Lowe, like life, has not been rated by the MPAA. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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