Rated F for Flawed

Paper by Jian Gedrick.

What do the movie ratings G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 mean to anyone?  According to the MPAA, if you aren’t a parent, nothing whatsoever. For decades the organization has been providing film ratings for countless motion pictures; their alleged goal being to help inform about the content in a film so parents can decide if it’s suitable for their own children. They have come under fire, however, for their deeply flawed method of rating films, their inconsistent standards of what is appropriate, and overall unreliability. These issues ironically have made the organization go against the purpose it claims: providing parents with advance information about the content in movies(filmratings.com).

Before examining the MPAA, it’s important to know its prior history in order to understand it. The emergence of censorship and regulation of content in US cinema coincided with the evolution of the film business. In 1894 Thomas Edison opened a Kinetoscope parlor to the public in New York City “inaugurating the history of commercial movies”(Barsam & Monahan 438). These small shorts seen through the Kinetoscope later transitioned into projection making the viewing more comfortable and enabled crowds of people to view it all together. On the same page in the book Looking at Movies Richard Barsam and Dave Monhan mention that film soon became realized as a lucrative business as these projected shorts started becoming public spectacles with spectators coming to pay and see it (Barsam & Monahan 438). Hollywood, California ended up drawing filmmaking groups with it’s favorable climate and variety in nature. Barsam & Monahan also explain, the first Hollywood studio was built in 1911 and by 1914 Hollywood was synonymous with the film industry and had invested heavily in movie theaters replacing shorts with feature length films with vertical integration of the theaters (Barsam & Monahan. The film industry didn’t have any form of censorship until the early twenties 1920’s, “a period where the industry suffered a wave of scandals and already had several years of depicting relatively frank portrayals of sex and violence on-screen” (Barsam and Monahan 452).

In his book Sex and Violence: The Hollywood Censorship Wars Tom Pollard discusses threats of government censorship and boycotts from religious groups pressured producers in creating an industry controlled system which would regulate film policies and in 1922 the MPPDA (Motion Picture Distribution Producers and Distributors of America) was formed and headed by Will H. Hays. Pollard further discusses that despite the organization’s responsible image, they still furtively allowed freedom for filmmakers in order to entice audiences by any means necessary (Pollard). Following continued pressure in filtering offensive material, the Production Code was finally adopted in 1930. Purportedly the code was designed to prevent films from lowering the morale of viewers by blocking unacceptable subject matter. Pollard explains the code was composited with a list of don’ts and be carefuls, of what could be represented in a film (Pollard). “The list however was too vague, too subject to interpretation, and too lacking in enforcement provisions to work” (Pollard 52). Also the competition of the radio compelled studios into releasing  “daring, violent, sexy programming designed to lure audiences back to theaters” for the next four years (Pollard 52). During the time the Catholic community had formed the Legion of Decency, in a battle against the sinfulness of cinema and were becoming highly influential.

It wasn’t until 1934 when Joseph Breen, a prominent Catholic, was appointed head of the Production Code regulation became sternly enforced. All films now had to be granted a Seal of Approval in order to be presented to the public and any studio refusing to do so faced a $25,000 fine and expulsion from the MPPDA which consequently meant bankruptcy (Pollard). For at least twenty years the Breen office rigidly controlled the details of Hollywood storytelling (Barsam and Monahan). This twenty year control would later be demolished by several events. 1948 was the issue of the Paramount Decree which declared the vertical integration of studios in violation of anti-trust laws resulting in the loss of distribution and ownership of movie theaters for studios. The Miracle Decision in 1952 confirmed motion pictures as artistic expression protected under the first amendment and largely marked the decline of motion picture censorship. The introduction of the television in the 50’s became reminiscent of the radio in drawing people away from the theater so once again studios were obligated in displaying more risqué subject matter that couldn’t be accessible on the TV set in the theaters. Another threat was the influx of foreign films following WWII which weren’t obligated to abide by the Hayes code due to not being a part of any studio. Since the decree in 1948 theaters were allowed to show foreign films introducing American audiences to a new kind of filmmaking free from Hollywood’s conventions and more honest with taboo topics. Social changes began to emerge during the 50’s which challenged the Hays Code as well. The Kinsey Reports, a study which revealed that women were being far less chaste and sexually reserved than previously thought, showed the sanctimonious Hay’s view of human sexuality was inaccurate resulting in more lax views on sexual content in cinema. The combination of all these things resulted in the Hays Code becoming abandoned in 1966 and replaced by the MPAA rating system in 1968.

The introduction of the MPAA differed from its predecessor by regulating age as opposed to content with an age-restrictive rating system: G,M,R, and X. The system applied only to movie theaters. The G-rating is admittance of general audiences. The M-rating is intended for a mature audience (GP in 1969 then PG, ‘Parental Guidance’ in 1970). The R-rating means restricted, viewers under 16 must be accompanied with an adult for admittance (17 in 1970). And X-rating means only admitting viewers 16 and older (17 in 1970, replaced by NC-17 in 1990, changed to 18 in 1996). Following the 70’s a new rating was introduced: PG-13. The PG-13 film came after concerns of heavy content in PG-rated films (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins). CARA’s (film rating system) website explains, “the introduction of the PG-13 in 1984 expanded the scope of the rating system. Not intended to be tied to any specific age, the rating is a stronger note of caution suggesting to parents to further investigate the content of the motion picture before allowing their children to see it”(filmratings.). The number 13 being a part of the name makes the PG-13 rating appear as a restrictive rating for viewers under 13 when in actuality it is virtually the same as the PG rating. The rating being unrestricted, however, causes issues as it bunches two completely different groups, the high school age and elementary school age, in the same viewing category. This has made some films which are appropriate for teens but inappropriate for young children both being blocked off to them after they’re rated R.

One of the first films to be X-rated was John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. The film’s story of a young man, Joe Buck, leaving Texas in hopes of becoming a lucrative male prostitute in the city of New York and befriending another lost soul, Ratso Rizzo, was faithful to James Leo Herllihy’s original novel in depicting Joe’s homosexual encounters with clients. In one memorable scene he is bamboozled into meeting a much older man he believes is his future pimp. The older man’s interaction makes many innuendos as he studies the young hustler, commenting admiringly on his looks while lasciviously observing him. Then as his enthusiasm for Joe peaks he reveals to Joe a small shrine and implores him to pray along with him to fight the sinfulness. Joe realizes he’s been duped and this supposed pimp is really a closeted, religious freak. A scene implying that faith-based zealots practice religion due to suppression of intense homosexual feelings, would never have even been thought of during the Hays Code period. Depicting respectable religious men as secretively gay would promptly have been condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and forbidden from seeing the light of day.

With Midnight Cowboy being adapted from the literary work by a gay man and being directed by a gay filmmaker, it’s no surprise homosexuality is addressed truthfully in the picture. The film’s choice of style (use of flashbacks, dream/fantasy sequences) differed from the conventions of the recent Hays-oppressed Hollywood, being more influenced by the daring European cinema (use of the montage from Soviet cinema to represent characters’ mental states) which went against American tradition and censorship. Midnight Cowboy was shot on location giving a more realistic experience of urban street life and the struggles of the poor and lower class. The decision to shoot on location mimics the post-fascist Italian filmmaking of ‘neorealism’. This daring style of film storytelling would emerge and replace classical Hollywood storytelling. Evidently it proved too daring as it was given an X-rating. Director John Schlesinger and producer Jerome Hellman, however weren’t bothered by the restrictive rating as quoted by Schlesinger, “We did make the film for adults. Its not a film to which you’d necessarily bring young children.”(Kinn & Piaza 247) The rating didn’t hurt the film’s success and it went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture (the only X-rated film to achieve this). Midnight Cowboy was later re-rated R.

The NC-17 rating was a solution to the misappropriation of the X rating. During the 1970’s The X-rating had no copyright, several pornographic films self applied the rating in their advertising thus the rating became synonymous with pornography. This false perception lead to a stigma of X-rated films and a backlash by filmmakers who found the future of success for the film in jeopardy after being designated by an X-rating. Jack Valenti eliminated the X-rating relabeling it NC-17 rating as a way to distinguish motion pictures with adult content from pornography. Introduced in 1990, the NC-17 rating evidently hasn’t been a significant improvement over the X-rating. Ironically there is still a lack of distinction between pornography and motion pictures with the new rating. NC-17 films containing tame softcore sex scenes (Orgazmo, Last Tango in Paris, Shame, Inserts) are given the same descriptor as NC-17 films with hardcore, unsimulated sex acts (Inside Deep Throat, Marie and Jack: A Hardcore Love Story, Marriage 2.0) describing both as ‘explicit sexuality or sexual content’. Meanwhile the rating system in the UK (British Board of Film Classification) makes the distinction between 18 rated films with their descriptors. Films showing actual penetration (Antichrist, 9 Songs, Nymphomaniac 1 and 2) are explained as being 18 for ‘strong real sex’ and films (Blue is the Warmest Color, Wolf of Wall Street, Shame) are given the rating for ‘strong sex’.

The MPAA may have to do the same with the their rating descriptors as films that carry NC-17 are still viewed as smut. As Pollard points out in Sex and Violence: The Hollywood Censorship Wars, “NC-17 was quickly identified as the new X-rating and treated the same way. Video sale and rental outlets routinely treat them as such, most newspaper and television stations refuse to advertise them,” (Pollard)  and as director Jon Waters states in This Film is Not Yet Rated, “All the big chains (Walmart, Target, Blockbuster) which carry 40% of videos won’t carry NC-17 films”. What’s interesting about this statement however is while such big chains like Target refuse to stock NC-17 rated films they will stock unrated films that originally had the rating and simply surrendered it without making any cuts. This means the content isn’t the real concern for such companies rather the name itself. Youtube is similar in that it doesn’t carry many NC-17 films and the ones it does carry either omit or lie about what the rating is (Bad Lieutenant, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Tropic of Cancer). As a result of this stigma fewer than 100 films have accepted the rating out of its 25 year existence. If the organization still wants this rating embraced it is evident changes are needed.

Although the CARA website states, “the ratings offer guidance to parents regarding the level of content in a movie” (filmratings.), what is deemed as appropriate content for children is a slippery slope. A video of Joan Graves on the CARA website, head of the ratings administration, saying, “the ratings board are judged by a board of parents based on a modern parental outlook” (filmratings.). This outlook is contextual to the current era so it’s subject to change. This means there is no official yardstick regarding content with the MPAA and their practices are constantly evolving. Although Ms. Graves says, ‘the changes generally occur over decades not years,’ several films released closely together in years have received conflicting ratings which would suggest otherwise. Examples of inconsistencies regarding the MPAA’s standards could be considered between the comparison of Eli Roth’s extreme Hostel 2 and William Friedkin’s Killer Joe.

Hostel 2 (2007) gave new meaning to the ‘torture porn’ category with its graphic scenes involving a man being castrated then having his severed genitalia fed to dogs, and a nude woman slitting the throat of another nude woman who’s suspended upside down and then displaying sexual gratification from being bled on by the dying woman’s incision. Despite all this, the film managed to secure an R-rating, causing controversy. Mark Harris saw it as another example of the MPAA failing to protect children of being exposed to films with extreme violence pointing out in his article, “NC-17 carries the force of law: its the only stage at which raters decide their judgement should overrule yours…Hostel 2’s R-rating proves that they’re manifestly incompetent to make it”. On the other hand when Killer Joe (2012) was submitted it received an NC-17 due to its supposed ‘graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality and a scene of brutality’. The so-called ‘disturbing content’ involves a man forcing a woman to suggestively suck on a piece of poultry that’s held at a certain proximity near his crotch. Although several films have depicted objects or food being used suggestively before without garnering an ‘adults only rating’(numerously in the PG-13 rated Austin Powers series, or in the R-rated Spring Breakers involving a gun silencer where the act is reversed between the man and woman), the scene may have been viewed differently because of the coercion through the use of violence (she’s punched in the face and is threatened of having her face cut off if she doesn’t give in to the demand). The R-rated version of the film cuts out all the visible shots of her fellating the chicken leg.

The scene of brutality’ was due to a scene of a young man being beaten across the face with a can. Compared to conventional horror films the violence in the scene is not at all graphic, the back of the victim’s head is facing the camera almost the entire time he is being struck, but the number of blows were considered excessive and had to be minimized for the edited version.  This example models the immense fluctuation of how a movie may receive a more lenient rating one year then a more harsh rating the next and is evident the system is prone to errors. The MPAA has at least admitted they’re susceptible in making mistakes as quoted by Valenti from an excerpt in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, “the ratings board is populated by parents, normal human beings, neither gods nor fools who make errors of judgement from time to time”.

The ratings board needs improvement as it is deeply flawed, and it doesn’t have consistent guidelines of blocking children from objectionable content. Their goal of helpfully informing parents is obviously failing and needs improvement.Their claim that the rating system is only intended for the parents of children younger than 18 may make them obstinate towards the opinions from individuals outside that party. If more parents, or future parents, understood the flaws and demanded improvements and changes, the organization will be closer in achieving its goal.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard, Dave Monahan. Looking At Movies Fourth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013. Print

Hostel 2. Dir. Eli Roth. Perf. Lauren German, Roger Bart, Heather Matarazzo. Lionsgate, 2007. DVD.

Killer Joe. Dir. William Friedkin. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple. LD Entertainment, 2012. DVD.

Kinn, Gail, Jim Piazza. The Greatest Movies Ever The Ultimate Ranked List of The 101 Best Films Of All Time!  New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 2008. Print.

Mark Harris, “NC-17: Fatally Flawed,” Entertainment Weekly 940 (June 22, 2007).

Midnight Cowboy. Dir. John Schlesinger. Perf. Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvia Miles. United Artists, 1969. DVD.

Pollard, Tom. Sex and Violence: The Hollywood Censorship Wars. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009. Print.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Dir. Kirby Dick. Perf. Kirby Dick, John Waters, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone. IFC Films, 2007. DVD.

“What:Guid to Ratings.”filmRatings. The Classification and Rating’s Administration n.d. Web. August 1, 2015.

“Who About US.”filmRatings. The Classification and Rating’s Administration n.d. Web. August 1, 2015.

“Why History of Ratings” filmRatings. The Classification and Rating’s Administration n.d. Web. August 1, 2015.

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