In Defense Of: The MPAA

MPAA-screenHere’s something I’d never thought I’d be doing. As many of you know, we here at the staff sometimes can’t stand one another and try to strangle each other through the phone have differing opinions on a myriad of subjects, so it shouldn’t shock anyone that we don’t all agree on the MPAA ratings system and its cultural impact. So when Joseph decided to form an Alliance of Evil Joseph’s with Joey, we engaged in a spirited debate regarding the ratings that I felt would be wonderful to expound upon here. Since the conversation following this is quite long I suggest you refresh your memory by going here ( and here ( before reading the goodness after the jump.

Most of the ire in the conversation is being drawn towards the NC-17 rating but before I dig into that I figured it’d probably be a good idea to understand how films are rated.  The ratings board is composed of 12 fathers and mothers from all over the country who see and rate about 900 (!) films a year. There are some set rules (more than one F word gets you an automatic R rating no matter what) whereas the distinctions between what gets a various rating is entirely up to the depiction of content. There are two religious orgs represented on the board as observers, i.e. they have no power to rate things. Should a filmmaker want to appeal, they go to an appeals board, made of distributors and exhibitors, who determine what the final rating should be. If the filmmakers decide they are not here for the ratings board, the film can be distributed as unrated.

At its core, the MPAA is an organization of parents for parents to explain to parents and other consumers what is in the content that is being distributed.  It’s given power by the industry it rates and the consumers to determine the suitability of various films for audiences, making them akin to a child lock or remote for TV. Joan Graves, the head of the ratings board, pointed out numerous times during the panel I attended at SXSW what a problem that can be with East and West coasts have bigger problems with violence, Midwest with sex and the South with language and drug use. Contending with both regional sensitivities and the national cultural conversation when judging art is something incredibly difficult and a task I don’t envy.

Let’s analyze that last part for a bit. Since the 1940s, we have not gone a decade without being at war with someone. Americans might not be continuously attacked but due to this constant engagement with violence, it’s no surprise that there seems to be a leniency towards violence, especially the more “unrealistic” the violence gets. On the other hand sexual content is policed much more strictly. While the US has a rampant gun culture, we are far more likely to encounter issues with sex and language in our everyday lives. Children (and adults) are way more likely to reenact the events of American Pie or use the language from Superbad than put on an Iron Man suit and start blasting aliens out of the sky. Suspension of disbelief and real world consequences do come into play with how the MPAA decides ratings.

But there are many false equivalences being thrown around regarding ratings using arguments like “My mom let me watch Alien at 7, so I’m mature enough to handle Shame/The Dreamers/Requiem for a Dream at 16″ or “Kids have seen porn by 16 so they can handle an NC-17 film” to justify why we should allow them to see these films. I’m going to go out on a limb and say everyone on the staff had seen some type of porn before turning 18. However, last time I checked there were laws against doing that, but will we argue there shouldn’t be because we were “mature” enough to view it? Since we’re talking false equivalences, should the age restrictions surrounding driving, smoking, and drinking be changed? You couldn’t tell me at 16 that I wasn’t mature enough to be driving my friends everywhere at any hour of the night, but that provisional license said not today young man. We take Constitution classes in 8th grade and for most of the country that’s the pinnacle of our knowledge about government and yet I don’t hear people clamoring to let 8th graders vote. These arguments regarding the ratings basically center on individual opinions about how we should have the right to see whatever the hell we want at whatever age we (or our parents) deem appropriate (indignant foot stamp and arms crossing included).


What’s so funny about this discussion is that the parents are not driving it. As Graves pointed out during the panel, the only rating the actually censors an audience from seeing a film is the NC-17. If you want to take a minor to go see the new Evil Dead and are over the age of 16 then you can. If you listened to the last podcast, you would have heard both Clayton and Mark say they are fine with the ratings system. Neither of them is extremely strict with how they plan to introduce their kids to mature content, but they will be in full control of the decision. If we remove the parents on our staff, we have an average age of 24, 5/6 of us live on a coast, and I grew up in the Bay Area. Most of us come from liberal households, so it’s no surprise we’re here telling you mature we are and how we could have handled anything. I think the readers should pitch in to help us get some sweaters cause it’s awfully chilly up here on this high horse we sit on.

People view the MPAA as this devious overlord seeking to censor films and I think it’s important to realize that there’s no censorship going on here. A filmmaker can make a movie and not submit it for rating. They can even have it rated and distribute it regardless of the content or the rating it receives. If a film gets an NC-17 and doesn’t want to appeal, it will still get released. Ah, but the film won’t make money you say? So now we get into the real issue of when artistic achievement and capitalism collide, with the ratings system thrown in. Studios are publicly traded companies that need to turn a profit to stay in business, hence the need for reaching a mass audience. In order to reach the largest base possible, they make films to coincide with specific ratings. This strategy of appeasement for financial gain makes it seem as if studios are in the pocket of the MPAA and visa versa, when in fact its more a mutual meeting of the minds.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with the NC-17 rating. Certain films tackle themes that even as an adult I have no experience in or with and can be uncomfortable to sit through. The problem is in how people use the rating as a scapegoat for the external factors that come from that type of film. Yes a higher rating can make it hard to market a film for a mass audience, but then again the higher the rating, the less and less you are trying to reach a general audience. If Shame had an R rating, do you think they would have put a trailer in the middle of the Grammys or during the Super Bowl to get more people to see the movie? How do you even market a movie about sex addiction to a mass audience, much less have them in the theater watching it?

But oh those poor souls under 17 who we are keeping from seeing NC-17 movies! How unfair! Give me a break. Honestly, what is the impetus behind anyone, much less a 16-year-old, going to see a movie like Shame? I completely understand that cinephilia can start at a young age and many parents couldn’t give two flying fucks about the ratings on films they show their kids/allow them to see. However, we live in a country of consensus. We decide on everything based on consensus. Presidential elections, civil rights, Staff Circuit Awards, the next American Idol, everything is based on groupthink. Regulating how old one has to be cannot be determined because there are a few individuals who believe they can handle the film. Yes kids are having sex at younger ages and many encounter violence, doesn’t mean that parents nationwide feel as if they can handle films dealing with those topics or should have the ability to watch films concerning those topics without their purview.

Also, I think it’s important that the ghettoization of NC-17 films is much more about the distributors and theater chains than the ratings board. Theater chains don’t want to deal with kids sneaking into seeing an NC-17 film so they don’t show them…but that’s the MPAA’s fault? Oh. Ok.

The MPAA is not without blame though. My biggest qualm with the MPAA is how inconsistent it is with how it rates films. There’s too broad a spectrum even in the R rating as to what can be shown. There can be a brutal scene of animal abuse in a movie, it gets subsumed into the violence tag and the film gets a PG-13. The descriptors are not doing a good enough job of outlining what is in a film, therefore too much attention is being paid to the letter grade. There needs to be more emphasis on broadening the descriptors to explain just what is in a film. The fact that sexual assault is included in the violence tag doesn’t do any good to explain that a film has this subject matter. Most frustratingly, the MPAA tries to play off the power they have. I give the MPAA a major side eye because they act like they aren’t complicit in how warped the system has gotten. The MPAA has not, is not, and will never be some small helpless wilting flower in the film industry. They wield too much power to try to act like their decisions don’t have ramifications, especially when it comes to how they impact the cultural conversation at large.

I posed a question to the panel regarding films using realistic violence such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant get hit with an R whereas Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End gets a PG-13. The MPAA should be looking for ways to bring films to different audiences and insert themselves into the cultural conversation, rather than always being reactionary. Elephant is a harrowing film sure, but given the subject matter and how it’s presented I think it’d be a powerful film for the MPAA to give a less restrictive rating and present it to an audience that might have to interact with those issues. Not many 16 year olds are faced with the knowledge of sex addiction, but in this messed up world we live in, there’s a high chance they’ll face some violence. Even if a film has heavy sexual content, it would be nice to see the MPAA giving credit to films that show safe sex or at least sex is film in a responsibly thought out manner aka more realistic honest portrayal like The First Time or The Spectacular Now.

Bonus Content:

@jbawardscircuit @lenoirauteur I view NC-17 similarly to prohibiting children from going to bars and strip clubs. It’s not age appropriate.

— Squasher88 (@filmactually) March 19, 2013

@lenoirauteur @jbawardscircuit Also, I support the restriction in helping to provide a suitable movie-watching experience.

— Squasher88 (@filmactually) March 19, 2013

@lenoirauteur @jbawardscircuit Like, if I’m going to watch Shame…I don’t to be bothered by babies crying or obnoxious kids…

— Squasher88 (@filmactually) March 19, 2013

@lenoirauteur @jbawardscircuit ..who are ONLY there to see nudity. If you feel strongly about your 10 year old watching it, wait for DVD.

— Squasher88 (@filmactually) March 19, 2013

Look at how Squasher88 just read me and Joseph our lives in four tweets.

What do you all think? Should the MPAA get rid of the NC-17? Will you pitch in to the “Staff Writers on High Horse Need Sweaters” campaign?

Note: No actual staff members were harmed during the discussion or making of this post.