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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : In Defense of the MPAA Ratings System » In Defense of the MPAA Ratings System

In Defense of the MPAA Ratings System

Rusty - February 11, 2008

Last week I watched This Film is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick’s exposé about the American movie ratings board. I’ve always disliked the ratings system, especially since Mormons are so inclined to use it as a measuring stick of righteousness (“the prophets say no R-rated movies” is a hallmark of the American Mormon vernacular regardless of the fact that it’s not true*). I was excited to see this film, if for no other reason than to solidify my arguments against the broken system and its zealous adherents.

Except that it did just the opposite.

Without going too much into the detailed history, the MPAA ratings system was established in 1968 as a response to complaints about the sexual, violent, and profanity content of American cinema after the long-standing “Hayes Code” (either you self-censor or you don’t get distribution) had been recently revised. Jack Valenti, the then MPAA president, created the voluntary rating system to allow parents to be better informed about the films their children view. Decades of experience have proven that certain ratings get better returns than others, with NC-17 being the box office kiss of death (apparently not many people like movies that are either extremely violent or sexual). That means filmmakers often shoot for a certain rating and sometimes don’t get it.

The problem, according to Dick (and all of his NC-17 rated directors that he interviews), is that the system is both vague and inconsistent. The MPAA doesn’t outline any hard and fast rules, that would be censorship, instead they provide only general principles. In addition, they are much more lenient on violence than they are of sexual content, especially of the homosexual variety. All of this of course proves that the MPAA (and America in general) love violence, hate gay sex and are afraid of women.

What’s interesting, though, is that Dick is right. Not that America is that way, but that the system is both vague and inconsistent as he says it is. It’s true that violence is given much more leeway than sex and that man-parts are rated harsher than lady-parts. Yes, it’s inconsistent, but I just can’t get too worked up about it because frankly, violence doesn’t bother me that much (my favorite video game is Call of Duty 4) and I don’t want to see man-parts in my entertainment. Of course my sexual preferences and tolerance for violence don’t matter, though I probably share them with the majority of Americans.

But the reason I am not as opposed to the system as I was before I watched the film is how much it drives filmmakers crazy. You see, filmmakers are artists. This is a community of people I know very well and if there’s one thing I know about artists it is that they always have been, are, and always will be boundary-pushers. This is true in almost the full history of art and especially so within the last 150 or so years. Artists desperately want to know where the “line” is so that they can go right up to it and mock it and the moving target of vagueness is the perfect antidote. Whatever the system, someone will push the limit and everyone will complain.

That’s not to say I think the ratings system is the best possible system, far from it, but I think it generally accomplishes it’s goal, to inform parents of the content of films that their kids are watching. I think our current technology performs this much more efficiently than a small group of anonymous Los Angeles residents, but it still gives a general place to start from.

Warning: The film was actually rated NC-17, though after an appeal Kirby Dick decided to just release it as “Not Rated.” It is assumed it was given this rating because there are quick clips from other NC-17 films.

*Only President Benson said it once to the young men in a priesthood session twenty years ago in a specific context. Whether or not that means “the prophets have told us…” is up to individual interpretation. But the purpose of this post is NOT to rehash the R-rated movie debate, as we’ve had that debate a number of times so if you try to make that tangent your comment will be deleted.

17 Comments »

  1. My thoughts exactly, Russ. The system is broken for sure and needs some retooling, but it’s something.

    I also have a big problem with boundary pushing for the sake of pushing the boundary. That is an end in and of itself worth pursuing.

    Comment by Bret — February 11, 2008 @ 2:08 am

  2. I don’t support the MPAA system. I care a lot about the content of the films I (as well as my children) watch, but the MPAA is biased against non-big-studio filmmakers.

    I use
    http://www.kids-in-mind.com/o/index.htm

    which gives separate scores for violence, language and sexuality, as well as explanations about the specifics behind those scores.

    The MPAA ratings tell me very little, so I do not defend them.

    I’ve been very disillusioned with the MPAA system ever since the LDS-produced SAINTS AND SOLDIERS was slapped with an R.

    I also disagree with the blanket condemnation that ALL artists are out to push the envelope. There have been some great movies which don’t have explicit sex, violence, etc. that have even done well at the box office. The popularity of the Jane Austen flicks speaks to that trend.

    Comment by Naismith — February 11, 2008 @ 6:35 am

  3. Naismith,
    The MPAA ratings system has been adopted as the universally accepted system. Whether or not I think it’s perfect (I already said I don’t), it’s what everyone knows and uses. Therefore, it’s not a bad system. Your website is great and something I’d be likely to use, but it’s not universally accepted. That means I couldn’t give a one-word response to an inquiry about the general content of a film.

    And I apologize for not adding the modifier “many” artists rather than just saying artists. But either way, I wasn’t condemning them for pushing the envelope, just stating it as fact (a fact that I’m generally not opposed to). Of course there are great movies without explicit sex, violence, etc., I don’t think that was in dispute.

    Comment by Rusty — February 11, 2008 @ 8:10 am

  4. I agree with your assessment, Rusty. I’m glad there are lines. I hope there will always be some type of measuring stick (no matter the exceptions) that we can use to make informed decisions.

    Comment by Cheryl — February 11, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  5. The MPAA ratings system has been adopted as the universally accepted system.

    Universally? Actually, other countries in the world have their own systems, and different criteria.

    I’m amused at the “bandwagon” argument you are giving for this failed system, when as LDS parents we spend so much time telling our children that “everyone is doing it” is not sufficient reason.

    But we should support MPAA because it is “universally adopted”?

    Sorry, but I think for myself. Popularity is not an indicator of quality. The Mac OS was better than DOS, so I have never owned a computer with a Microsoft operating system.

    That means I couldn’t give a one-word response to an inquiry about the general content of a film.

    I guess that we have different criteria for seeing films. I’m not interested in a one-word description. I can handle complexity, and I think carefully before seeing a film. I read several reviews, including one that addresses concerns of appropriateness.

    One reason is the cost of movies; I hate the waste of having to walk out of a film that I’ve paid so much to see. I live in a smaller town that doesn’t have second-run theaters. Going to a movie costs me more than going to a live performance at the community theater, and more than seeing Broadway touring shows, etc. (since I usher to get in free to those). So going to a movie is not done casually; I often only see two films a year, more this past year was because of the many excellent films.

    Plus, I understand that (as Elder Oaks said), media we ingest stays there–there is no mechanism for getting rid of it, as with bad food into our digestive system. So I am kinda careful/picky.

    I am not going to make the decision to see a movie on the basis of a single word.

    Plus, we all do realize that this conversation only has to do with theatrical releases? On DVD, director’s cuts may not (and often do not) follow the ratings of the film as it showed in theaters.

    Comment by Naismith — February 11, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

  6. The story I heard about the creation of the ratings board involved the beginning of an effort to make a govt board that would rate movies. The MPAA didn’t want an independent entity rating their movies, so they offered to do it. The govt was willing to give the responsibility to the MPAA so they didn’t have to spend taxpayer money on rating movies.

    I wish the govt had taken it over. My wishful thought is that the govt would have used actual studies of the effect of watching violence or sex in deciding the ratings. Those studies may have helped prevent the “ratings creep” that we see now.

    The idea that “hard and fast rules” would be “censorship” and so the MPAA can’t have rules is ridiculous. Censorship means the govt says you can’t say something. If a private entity like the MPAA wants to censor, it can do so freely. And telling a movie studio what rating a movie will get based on hard and fast rules doesn’t prohibit the studio from making a movie – it just explains the rating it will get. The studio can still make the movie the way they want to. There’s no censorship involved in giving a movie a rating based on so many seconds of skin exposure, or a certain number of murders, or a certain amount of profanity, or etc.

    The MPAA rating does give an idea of what the movie is like, which makes it a good starting point. I’m very squeamish about movies. So I know that if it’s rated R, I’ll hate it (regardless of how educational or historical or thought-provoking it is, I will hate it). If it’s rated PG-13, I need to check with someone who knows me well about whether or not I could stand it. I see PG movies. It’s not a “righteousness” thing, it’s a “nightmare” thing. I can’t get frightening images out of my head.

    Comment by Melinda — February 11, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

  7. Oh brother, Naismith. A little nitpicky today are we? By “universal” I didn’t mean “everyone in the universe”, just America, the place where the system is firmly established.

    I’m amused at the “bandwagon” argument you are giving for this failed system, when as LDS parents we spend so much time telling our children that “everyone is doing it” is not sufficient reason…Sorry, but I think for myself.

    Why do you spend so much of your time telling your children that “everyone is doing it” is bad, especially when everyone is using inches, minutes and decibels? Your kids are going to be in for a big surprise when they discover that it’s actually a good thing when everyone speaks the same language because it fosters good communication and understanding. What’s amazing is that both of us still think for ourselves even though we have both always used the same type of computer (Mac).

    I’m not interested in a one-word description. I can handle complexity, and I think carefully before seeing a film.

    Naismith: Hey, have you seen that new movie Rochelle, Rochelle?
    Friend of Naismith: No, I haven’t heard of it. What’s it rated?
    Naismith: It’s an erotic journey from Milan to Minsk. It has 24 sex scenes showing breasts and bum, 14 f-words, five of those in reference to the sex-act. There are 13 s-words, 19 d-words and 21 h-words. It also has 3 scenes of violence, 2 of those sexual. It’s a drama.
    Friend of Naismith: What was that? Sorry, my phone lost connection while you were telling me all that.

    OR………..

    Naismith: Hey, have you seen that new movie Rochelle, Rochelle?
    Friend of Naismith: No, I haven’t heard of it. What’s it rated?
    Naismith: R.
    Friend of Naismith: That’s too bad, I don’t watch R-rated movies.

    A similar conversation could be had with a G-rating as well. One word is usually enough information to decide whether or not to even persue further investigation. How lame would that be to have to go to the internet EVERY FREAKING TIME you want to get a general idea of the content of a film? Answer: very lame.

    Comment by Rusty — February 11, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  8. Naismith,
    You know, I just got a Mac and I love it (mostly); still, the fact that you liked the Mac OS better than DOS is a pretty weak reason never to have tried a PC; I’ve never owned a PC where DOS was the primary operating system, and I got my first PC more than 10 years ago. Which is to say, maybe Macs are better (they are for some things, at least), but evaluating them based on a criterion that has been outdated for, say, 15 years (eternities in computer-time) isn’t superhelpful. Evaluating them against Windows XP or Vista would be helpful (although ME was the singularly worst thing Microsoft ever created).

    That may be a threadjack, but it keeps me from fully taking your argument (about evaluating movies) seriously. The MPAA ratings, while not perfect, give me a rough idea of what a movie will have, and between ericdsnider.com and the NYTimes (and, of course, the Onion’s AV Club), I can get a pretty nuanced idea of whether I want to see it or not, based on both positive and negative content.

    Comment by Sam B. — February 11, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

  9. …. a pretty weak reason never to have tried a PC;

    Oh, I’ve tried PCs. I use them every day at work.

    I’ve also had to carry a Windows laptop on business trips, if I was going to be needing software that only ran on PCs.

    I’m actually considered to have above-average Windows skills by my colleagues. I know it, I can use it, I just don’t like it.

    (And it seems to me that recent Windows versions are just trying to catch up with what Apple was doing months to years earlier.)

    Comment by Naismith — February 11, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  10. Nice Seinfeld reference.

    I think avoidance of R-Rated movies is one of those “gospel hobbies” that are spoken of sometimes. If you wanna see R-Rated movies, go ahead! If you don’t, don’t! How simple is that? (of course, this would result in people not judging each other for their choices…imagine that!)

    Comment by Phouchg — February 11, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

  11. Why do you spend so much of your time telling your children that “everyone is doing it” is bad, especially when everyone is using inches, minutes and decibels?

    Well, my kids understand that “everybody” doesn’t use inches. Folks use metric in most of the world.

    I think that when something is not working, and there is a much better idea, we should carefully consider adopting it. This is why my state re-did all the highway exit numbers to correspond to miles, which will be a much better system in the long run (although we all had to buy new maps).

    A similar conversation could be had with a G-rating as well. One word is usually enough information to decide whether or not to even persue further investigation.

    And once everyone becomes familiar with a better system (and there actually several out possibilities out there; I’m not pimping for that particular website), I could say, “It’s a 6-6-3″ and folks would know that it each was a score from 1 to 10, for sex/nudity-violence-profanity.

    But in real life, my friends are also thinking people who don’t discount a movie on the basis of “one word.” So I can’t imagine either of those conversations happening.

    Two of my most meaningful film experiences this year were the movies ONCE and THE KITE RUNNER.

    ONCE is an incredible musical. (Eric Snider gave it a B+.) It was a delightful 90 minutes, and left me in tears about what love really means. But it was an independent film, and made by some folks in Ireland who weren’t really aiming for the US market or considering MPAA (the musicians who tried acting thought they might eventually recoup the expenses by selling it at their concerts; they had no idea of the millions it would eventually bring in), and it was shot documentary-style with lots of improv. It ended up with more F-words than MPAA allows for PG-13, even though those words (1) never had a sexual content and (2) were spoken with such a strong Irish accent that it didn’t affect me more than flip or frack. It was rated R by MPAA and 2.1.7 by KIds in Mind.

    Then I saw THE KITE RUNNER. It was produced by a major American studio (and remember, major studios pay for MPAA and reportedly get a better deal). Despite having a brutal rape of a child and other scenes of violence, it was rated PG-13 by MPAA and 6.6.3 by Kids in Mind.

    Which of those two films would I like children to be older before seeing? Definitely THE KITE RUNNER. I had read the book first, and knew when to shut my eyes, but still.

    I don’t think the MPAA shares my values. One of the dangers is that it can give a false sense of security. I appreciate having a more accurate tool to get a better idea of what is in a film before spending my money and time to see it.

    How lame would that be to have to go to the internet EVERY FREAKING TIME you want to get a general idea of the content of a film? Answer: very lame.

    I guess I don’t mind, since I see so few films each year.

    Comment by Naismith — February 11, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

  12. @ Naismith

    Why is Mac better than Windows?

    Comment by California Condor — February 12, 2008 @ 9:19 am

  13. I’ve always been puzzled by censorship. Here in the USA and especially in Utah, a nipple is considered pornography; blood and gore are regularly accepted, especially if in a warfare context; men are obsessively (and in my opinion, in a very hypocrite way) apprehensive of “man parts.” I guess I understand the homophobia since in my experience that is simply part of the culture here in the USA: if a male who is not offended by male parts he may simply be showing signs of the beginnings of homosexuality… (the culprit of ignorance). I have noticed this apprehension has come to the point that men don’t even bother to shower before going into a public swimming pool! They just splash some water on their head and on their shoulders and off they go… heaven forbid other men will see them naked, or that they would have to face the horrible and disgusting nude of another man… LOL!!! But that is a threadjack, so let me summarize it this way: I think this extreme apprehension against the human form is a bit deviant from healthy sexuality, but that is just my opinion.

    I guess the standard is so low that anything nude is sexual in the USA. Whether it is art, entertainment, or whatever mundane activity, the human body is still a taboo to self righteous puritans. I guess their thoughts are so dirty that any of these things will simply spur impure thoughts and unmeasured lasciviousness. I don’t know.

    This is how funny life is, I myself have participated in theater fully nude. It was not in a sexual context and in my particular view (and in the view of my bishop at the time), not immoral. On the other hand, one of my best friends takes his rated R movies to a company to get them “cleansed” (by someone who obviously gave up his/her salvation long ago and therefore find themselves in the position to do righteous people the favor to watch those nasty parts in a film and effectively and conveniently edit them out… hehehe). Nevertheless, this is what freedom of choice is all about. Different people react differently to different things, and all of them should be able to go through life comfortably being able to choose whatever they may choose, thus we need tools like a rating system.

    Since I am naturally vain and egocentric person; I just like to think I find myself in a far superior level, and when done in good taste, nudity does not spur immoral thoughts nor any type of sexual arousal. I am a man who is not offended by the nudity of other men. And this is what I advocate: Use both, a rating system and your own judgment. And please, for sure do this: OWN YOUR JUDGMENT!!! Put an effort to make a judgment for yourself whether something is good or bad! Don’t be lazy and simply allow some committee to tell you what is good and what isn’t good for you. Weight the issues. We are capable of this! If the movie is titled “Vegas Striptease Whores” and it is rated NC17…. Use your judgment!

    Regardless of how critical I am of the pathetic puritan perceptions of art and the oft abused term “morality” in American society… I actually agree with the rating system established by the MPAA. Why? Because it is necessary to have guidelines. Because it is necessary for artists or entertainers to respect the tastes of all audiences, even if sometimes they doesn’t make any sense. Because people should be able to have guidelines to make their decisions. Because it is impossible to see everything and judge it. Because you need to know what your children are watching even if you don’t care to watch it. Because I like practical tools. Therefore, I say yes to the rating system.

    This is a community of people I know very well and if there’s one thing I know about artists it is that they always have been, are, and always will be boundary-pushers.

    And thanks to this wonderful attribute, the Renaissance could happen! And half a millennium later our jaws still drop in admiration of the great pieces of art that this creative freedom propelled. God bless all artists who don’t fall in the trap of judgmental censors and prudes! And good job for those who rate things so that people can make wise choices!

    Comment by Manuel — February 12, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

  14. Oh Manuel, if only we prude and ignorant Americans could be as enlightened as you. By the way, your use of the word “puritan” is both naieve and incorrect.

    Comment by Patrick — February 12, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  15. I meant the word puritan in this Merriam Webster Dictionary definition:

    “one who practices or preaches a more rigorous or professedly purer moral code than that which prevails”

    So, I don’t think it is incorrect… but I will take Enlightened and Naive as compliments. Thanks!

    Comment by Manuel — February 12, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

  16. One of the “problems” with the MPAA system is that only five “bins” were created, into which are stuffed thousands upon thousands of movies, each unique in the story it tells and content (both objectionable and not) it contains. What were seeing these days is that a lot of contemporary films with challenging content and/or themes do not fit very cleanly into the bins that have been created.

    The South Africa movie ratings system has seven classifications, which is better in my opinion, but it’s not perfect either. In addition, that system doesn’t take its cues from the U.S.-based one. For instance, “The Matrix” is rated “10″ over there, meaning in theory that children under 10 years aren’t allowed to watch it. “Saving Private Ryan” is rated “13.” So naturally, a lot of people over there have seen those movies. Folks over there don’t know what “R-rated” means, so it was shocking at first to this American missionary to hear Church members talk about seeing this or that movie which I knew was R-rated in the States. Of course, they didn’t know that, nor should they be expected to.

    For us moviegoers, the MPAA system is best understood as an important but imperfect guideline. It’s an initial advisory thrown out there as a heads-up to people who are concerned about such things. The textual “explanations” of movie ratings added in 2000 help a bit, but they’re also usually vaguely worded and sometimes poorly written. Kids-in-Mind and ScreenIt are helpful tools, but their classifications are imperfect too. One benefit to the Kids-in-Mind system is that over time it helps you know where your personal boundaries are. With me, for instance, I know what anything over a “4″ for sexuality, a “7″ for violence, and a “5″ for language will make me feel fairly uncomfortable.

    Given all of the above, I think the revised “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet says it best regarding entertainment choices. It establishes a clear but highly interpretable standard for Church members around the world, regardless of movie rating system. We really should be rallying around that statement (which more fully reflects the official position of the Church).

    Comment by Bryan — February 15, 2008 @ 5:16 am

  17. I tend to take the side of Manuel regarding nudity.

    If there was an inspiring, non-sexualized movie playing in town that happened to have some natural nudity in it, I would not mind my children seeing it (they would probably not flinch about it either); however, if there was a PG-13 movie with a touch of raunchiness but “doesn’t really SHOW anything” I would say no.

    I’m also surprised by the level of violence that most Americans and even Mormons tolerate in their entertainment fare. I was amazed to hear of a “cleaned-up” R-rated movie shown in an LDS community for a family showing. Yup, they scrubbed-out a scene that showed a woman’s nipple but left the murder and mayhem intact. (Sure wouldn’t want them kiddies and babies to see one of those nursing apparati, now would we?)

    Comment by Kelton Baker — March 1, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

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