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.