Have 43 years of MPAA ratings really helped parents at all?

During my vacation, I was poking around Twitter late one night and talking to Sasha Stone, owner and operator of Awards Daily.  We were talking about Fox Searchlight’s upcoming release of “Shame” and the NC-17 that the film was awarded.

She mentioned the full-frontal nudity by Carey Mulligan in an early scene in the film and how she was convinced that was one of the reasons for the most restrictive rating, and I told her I was fairly sure that was not the case.  Our conversation was blunt, with frank terminology used as a sort of shorthand, and one of my Twitter followers told me that a woman next to him on the train was actively offended by the terminology we were using.  That made me laugh because (A) the woman was reading his Twitter feed and (B) adults who get worked up over words they don’t like are funny.

While it’s easy to let a conversation about the functional insanity that defines what is or isn’t appropriate for a sixteen-year-old versus a seventeen-year-old lapse into open silliness, it’s a real conversation that is worth having.  During my vacation, the ratings system that is regulated by the MPAA had its 43rd anniversary, and it seems to me this is a good moment to reflect on whether or not it’s doing the job it was created to do, what alternatives exist, and what the Internet means to ratings in general.

November 1, 1968 was the day the MPAA first implemented a voluntary rating system for movies released in the United States, something that was spearheaded by Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA.  To understand how it came to pass, you have to take into account the cultural atmosphere at the time.  He took office in 1966, and one of the first things he did was examine the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, to figure out how to change the system.

The Hays Code was drafted in 1930, and for almost 40 years, any movie released by a studio had to comply to a very narrow vision of what was allowed to be shown onscreen.  Clever filmmakers would find ways to challenge the Code on subtle levels, but it was almost impossible to just plain ignore it.  There were Hollywood films that made money without the approval of the Code, like “Some Like It Hot,” but it was very difficult to do in general.  Sidney Lumet’s film “The Pawnbroker” was released in 1964 and went head-to-head with the Hays Code.  The film featured bare breasts and a sex scene that the Hays Code refused to approve, and Allied Artists released the film anyway, with the MPAA voting the film a special exemption.  With “Blowup,” MGM just bypassed the MPAA completely.  Even with the MPAA trying to create a special certification, “Suggested For Mature Audiences,” or “SMA,” it was obvious that Hollywood was ready to start telling stories that reflected the frankness of the age, and that something had to be done to revise the Production Code completely.

When the new MPAA film rating system launched in 1968, there were only four ratings.  G was “General Audiences,” M was for “Mature Audiences,” R was “Restricted,” with children under 16 not admitted without an accompanying parent or adult guardian, and X for “Adults Only,’ with no one under 18 admitted.

Almost immediately, they started revising the system.  First, they dropped the age from 18 to 17 for the X rating, doing that before the end of the year.  Then in 1970, due to confusion caused by the M and R ratings, the MPAA adjusted the ratings.  It became G, GP for “all ages admitted, parental guidance suggested,” R adjusting to 17 with parent or adult, and X for no one under 17.  Then in 1972, the GP became the PG.  In 1978, they rewrote the PG description a little bit, settling on “parental guidance suggested – some material may not be suitable for children.”

And in 1984, I remember the endless editorializing and think-piece positioning that led to the creation of the PG-13, a truly useless stop-gap measure.  I think this should have been the moment where we had a real conversation about how to revise the system altogether.  Valenti always went out of his way to say that he had created the system for parents first and foremost, but I don’t really buy that.

The ratings system was about allowing the studios to make and release anything, without restriction from the outside.  The only true arbiter of what a distributor can release tends to be the marketplace.  Fox Searchlight knows going into it that “Shame” is going to be limited to how many theaters it can play and which theaters, in some cases legally.  I worked for several different theater chains over the years, and in many cases, the theaters would have language in their leases that restricted them from showing anything that wasn’t an R or lower.  This was originally to keep theaters from booking pornography, and because the NC-17 was announced as a replacement for the X rating, people took that to mean that they are the same thing.  Never mind that the NC-17 is a trademark that only the MPAA can hand out, while the X is a rating anyone can self apply.  Doesn’t matter.  NC-17 means X to many people, and that’s the problem.  The stigma is still just as strong as it’s ever been for genuinely adult material.

It’s all subjective anyway.  What I would never consider showing to my kids, other parents have no issue with, and what I might feel is fine for the boys might scandalize other parents.  I had someone write me a 900 word e-mail lambasting me for showing a PG-13 film to my 6 and 3 year old sons, calling me all sorts of names because of my obvious deficiencies as a parent.  Never mind that I have gone out of my way to engage my kids in real conversations about the big ideas or difficult emotions that come out of these viewings… that’s no good.  I guess people like that almost prove Valenti’s long-standing point about the ratings being a guide for parents first.

The problem is, I see parents take little kids to R-rated movies simply to avoid paying for a babysitter, and you can’t tell me that the parent has seriously thought through the implications of showing “Saw 5” or “Paranormal Activity 3” to a kid in first grade, because they haven’t.  They just don’t care.  It doesn’t mean anything to them.  There’s no filter there at all.  I think those people are wildly selfish, but as long as the ratings system is a voluntary thing, enforced by arbitrary whim by theater owners, then it’s not really a guide to anything.

I know when I was growing up, I lived in a house where my parents took the rating of a film seriously, and I also know that I was determined to see certain films and became expert at negotiating my way into the theater as a result of the ratings.  For an R-rated film, for a long time, it was a blunt “no,” and that was that.  But after a while, I figured out that my parents were starting to get a little more flexible, and so I would press the issue and really do my best to con my way into R-rated films.  From the age of about 10 on, it was a battle with occasional and noteworthy victories, and as soon as we got a VCR in the house, the war was over.  If my parents weren’t home, ratings didn’t matter at all.

That’s more true than ever today, and the access kids have to adult materials via the Internet and other media sources is absolutely bananas.  Anyone who thinks those ratings are preventing anyone from seeing anything is delusional, and so it once again raises the question:  what are they for?  Are they simply to keep the government off the back of Hollywood?  If so, couldn’t an alternative system do the same job?

I’d much rather have a ratings system that is simply informational, a content-based system that uses “V” for violence, “L” for language, “S” for sexual content, “N” for nudity, and so on.  Use an “E” in front if the content is extreme.  Do that and make it a genuine guide for parents as to what sort of content they can expect from a film, and then I have no more issue with the MPAA at all.  As it is, I think the system is so deeply out of step and pointless that I find it just irritates me when the subject comes up.

Do I think “Shame” deserves an NC-17 this year?  Sure.  It’s a very stark film about sexual addiction and bad behavior, and it is for adults only.  No kid needs to see the film, because there’s nothing in the film that they need to think about.  It is a movie that deals with adult themes and looks at an adult lifestyle and centers on adult choices, and if it is a movie just for adults, that seems appropriate.  What still seems wrong about the system is the uneven way in which ratings are applied and the bizarre rules about what is or isn’t acceptable based on what seems to be a fear of same-sex coupling and a general distaste for anything involving bodily fluids.  When ratings have very specific real-world financial implications, then it makes for a corrupt system.  We all know that the studios get to play the game in a way that independent filmmakers can’t, and that there’s no consistency to the decisions made about what gets the most restrictive ratings.  If these things were informational rather than based on some personal and hard-to-define criteria, then there’s no room for anyone to game the system or abuse it based on financial capability.

I don’t believe the MPAA will ever want to overhaul the system.  What amazes me is how the studios still play along with this stupid game, and how they continue to empower the notion that ratings actually mean anything.  For my entire life as a filmgoer, these ratings have been in place, and for my entire life as a filmgoer, I’ve been aware that they are a sham.  Until the studios decide that they are tired of negotiating morality over individual frames of thrusting or random body parts, this isn’t going to get any better, and Valenti’s Big Lie will continue to create and reinforce the notion that sex is dirty but violence is fine for everyone.

If you’ve never seen it, let me recommend that you track down Kirby Dick’s excellent “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” a documentary about the inner workings of the MPAA.  If you find it on DVD, I’m actually part of the commentary track, and I think it’s a great conversation about something that has been one of the greatest ongoing sources of frustration for filmmakers, and something that should be addressed if we’re serious about encouraging movies for grown-ups that aren’t treated as something to be ashamed of.

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