The People vs. The MPAA

April 23, 2012

I think one of the most confusing moments a Canadian movie buff can experience is to look at the back of a DVD case and wonder why Americans rate movies the way they do. The MPAA assigns ratings of G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 to movies in order to rate the suitability of each film for children. Canadians are familiar with G and PG, of course; we have them on our own labels. But with the other ratings, it starts to get a little tricky.

The MPAA’s PG-13 is for movies that are considered intense for children under 13. The content can include large amounts of (often bloodless) violence, minimal sex and nudity (Kate Winslet’s breasts in Titanic is about as far as you can push it), and any number of variations of the word ‘shit’ – but usually, no more than two ‘fuck’s, and never when the word refers to a sexual act. Specific, yes, and also completely arbitrary.

When a movie has more violence, sex or naughty words, it’s given an R rating by the MPAA. Sometimes what’s given an R rating is baffling. Look for a second at Bully, the recent anti-bullying documentary and a movie that teens should be obligated to see, which unfortunately contains some incidents of kids saying naughty words. It was instantly slapped with an R rating in the States – excluding anyone under 17 without a guardian. Canadians, however, slipped it a polite PG. See also, for instance, The King’s Speech or Planes, Trains & Automobiles, both homely and family-friendly movies, each with single scenes in which characters say strings of ‘fuck’s. The MPAA rated them restricted, akin to the blanketing of gore in movies like Hostel or the Saw series, but both managed to retain a PG in Canada.

It’s Complicated was rated R for a scene in which an elderly couple smokes pot. Meanwhile, characters in other movies chain-smoke real tobacco and skate away with PG-13 or less. Consider director Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl, a movie that originally received the R rating just for a scene in which Liv Tyler mentions that she masturbates. Smith says, “I actually spoke to Joan Graves, the current head of the MPAA. And she was saying it would just make me uncomfortable thinking about my sixteen-year-old daughter sitting in a movie theatre watching that scene. To which I was like, Joan, do you think that your sixteen-year-old daughter hasn’t masturbated already?”

The queerly conservative values of the MPAA are confusing, but also damning when the NC-17 rating is brought up. NC-17 stands for No Children Under 17, and enforces exactly that: no children under the age of 17 are allowed to see it, even with a parent or guardian: no exceptions: no ifs, ands or buts.

Unfortunately for directors, many movie theatres will not even run movies rated NC-17, and big chains like Wal-Mart won’t stock DVDs of the title. Several publishing houses will not even release a movie rated NC-17. An NC-17 rating can cost a movie millions of dollars in potential revenue, but the MPAA hands them out like candy. In Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling goes down on Michelle Williams (both fully clothed, and in a scene most definitely not meant to be erotic): bam, NC-17. A glimpse of Maria Bello’s pubic hair in a love scene in The Cooler: NC-17. Boys Don’t Cry got an NC-17 partly because one female character’s orgasm went on for too long. Of Trainspotting’s NC-17, director Danny Boyle says, “We got a message back from the censors that they thought the girl was enjoying herself too much.”

In defending Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling says, “The MPAA is okay supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex.” He has a point. In Saw 3D, a woman is bound to a torture chair and her jaw is ripped away from the top half of her face, leaving a gaping bloody hole and a flapping tongue; nevertheless, Saw 3D received only an R rating. Now, which is more likely to scar children and produce aberrational behaviour: Saw 3D or Ryan Gosling performing cunnilingus?

This ratings hypocrisy paints a larger picture of the MPAA’s ratings system. Says David Ansen, a film critic for Newsweek, “What strikes you immediately about the MPAA, and I’m sure I’m the three hundredth person to say this, is how much more they seem to be concerned about sex than they are about violence.” A moderate amount of sex can push a film up to the R rating, or even NC-17, but a fairly intense amount of violence can make it into a PG-13 movie (i.e. The Dark Knight or The Hunger Games). An R movie can show decapitations and dismemberment galore, as in Sin City or Kill Bill—but The Dreamers, in which a few lady- and man-bits are shown, was given an NC-17. As actress Sally Struthers says, “If a man is pictured chopping off a woman’s breast, it only gets [an] R rating, but if, God forbid, a man is pictured kissing a woman’s breast, it gets an X [early version of NC-17] rating. Why is violence more acceptable than tenderness?” As of 2005, the MPAA has given out NC-17s for sexual content four times as much as for violence.

In claims made by the expose-doc This Film is Not Yet Rated, there is also evidence that the MPAA is harsher on homosexual content than heterosexual content. Where the Truth Lies is no more explicit than R-rated movies, but was given an NC-17 due to homosexual content. 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader was meant to be a teen comedy about kids sent to homosexual reform camp. It had a serious message meant to empower gay teens, but was originally given an NC-17 rating for a fully clothed female masturbation scene. Many other films have received harsh ratings for perceived homosexual bias.

The American ratings system implicitly tells kids that violence is good and sex is bad. James Bond can shoot any number of ‘bad guys’ and escape with a PG. Torture porn, as in the Saw or Hostel movies, easily gets R ratings. Show a bit of skin, however, and you’re into murky waters, running the risk of your film being shown to a very limited audience. The American culture is permissive towards violence and oddly puritanical about sex and language. In the era of Columbine and endless debate about the effects of media violence, this is a disturbing trend. What are we training our kids for?

With our Canadian ratings system more in line with European values than American ones, this is very confusing indeed, as the cultural state of America, unconcerned about the normalization of violence by its media, and still awed by the masculine archetype of the cowboy or soldier or spy action hero, ruthlessly marches on.