Shame on the MPAA

Suicide Squad has been rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language,” which is an extremely generalized reading of what we actually see on screen. Personally, I would have added “gratuitous sequences of gun violence that make shooting look fun, with a tendency to desensitize viewers of all ages” somewhere in the mix. But that's just me.

As chronicled in the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA)'s ratings board is a shadowy group that rates films based on the opinions of a group of members about whom very little is known. One of the main critiques of the board is that it tends to be much harsher on depictions of sex than it is on depictions of violence, a bizarre standard that has been demonstrated many times over in the form of big-budget studio movies that garner PG-13 ratings despite featuring often-gratuitously violent acts. 

Needless to say, it's impossible to understand the MPAA without understanding the culture that it springs from, and the continuing power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the face of alarmingly frequent mass shootings is instructive in that regard. In short: Americans like guns, and perhaps even more than that, they like seeing them fired on the big screen, often gleefully and into multiple bodies. This is viewed as entertainment. And when you really stand back and look at it, the frequency of these depictions in our visual media is itself alarming. I'm alarmed that we aren't alarmed enough.

I've written about media violence on HitFix before, and I've cited more than once the meta-analyses that indicate its tendency to incite real-life aggression in both children and adults in the real world. I won't belabor that point again here, though the studies are there if you care to look at them. By all means, agree or disagree on that particular point if you want (you will inevitably find studies to back up your argument too); that said, it's difficult to see how any rational person can discount the hypocrisy inherent in a rating system that gives a film like Mike Birbiglia's Don't Think Twice an “R” for “language and some drug use” (namely marijuana smoking) while awarding a film like Suicide Squad, which features almost wall-to-wall gun violence and various other incidents of mass killing and destruction — exuberantly portrayed, I might add — a PG-13? How is it worse for children to see adults smoking a joint or spouting the f-word than it is to see them machine-gunning another being, human or otherwise?

Birbiglia made this point very succinctly and very persuasively on Twitter yesterday, and as I said at the time, the MPAA deserves every ounce of his ire. In fact, there needs to be much more public outrage directed at the board over their utter wrongheadedness on this issue. We are living in an age where mass shootings have become an epidemic, an age where we suffered the worst mass-shooting incident in United States history in Orlando earlier this summer. For the MPAA to condone exploitative displays of violence like those seen in Suicide Squad with a PG-13 – displays that I dare say make shooting automatic weapons look like a fun nighttime activity – is absolutely unconscionable to me given everything we've suffered through as a country over the last year, not to mention the past several years.

No, fantasy violence is not real violence. But we cannot continue to pretend that fantasy violence has zero effect on the human brain, or that the demonstrated effect towards desensitization and lack of empathy doesn't have a negative impact on the culture at large. Almost no one who watches the Joker happily fire away at people from a helicopter will subsequently go out and gun people down in real life because they saw it. But most if not all of us, when peppered with these kinds of visuals over and over and over again, will inevitably become desensitized to human suffering depicted on screen, and it's disingenuous to completely discount the effect this might have on our attitudes towards actual suffering, particularly when experienced remotely.

The MPAA is not a machine. It is an organization made up of actual human beings who, like most of the rest of us, have been similarly warped by the American obsession with violence that goes back centuries. They are a product of the culture just like we are, and thus it is unsurprising that they tend to be more forgiving of violence than they are of naked bodies or the dreaded f-word (only one utterance of which is allowed in a PG-13 film, for the record). But they are in those positions to, ostensibly, protect children from seeing things they should not see, and to serve as a guide for parents and guardians who need help understanding whether a particular film is appropriate for their children. In short, we need to hold the people responsible for these ratings to a higher standard, and right now they are falling down on the job in a big way.

I'm glad Birbiglia tweeted what he tweeted. I'm also glad that Judd Apatow suggested (as many have before) that the big studios all but control the MPAA in order to garner less-restrictive ratings for their summer tentpoles, many of which happen to be excessively violent in nature. I'm writing this because I care what kids see, and I'm concerned about the messages being propagated by the media they consume. The MPAA needs to do better, and those of us who care need to push them in that direction, and to shed light on the organization wherever we can. The kind of moral hypocrisy they've demonstrated over decades is absolutely deserving of our outrage.