In the final stages of the 2000 presidential campaign, candidates of both parties have seized upon a hot-button issue: the marketing of explicit films and video games to America’s children. Blaming Hollywood for the nation’s ills is always a popular theme. It allows grandstanding politicians to puff up with self-righteous indignation. It provides plenty of easy targets, from slasher movies to Resident Evil. And it allows nervous parents to find a scapegoat for their children’s slackening morals.
Of course, all this huffing and puffing is essentially unenforceable. Indignant observers may well wring their hands about the evils of Tinseltown, but there’s a simple reason why There’s Something About Mary and Scary Movie made 10 times more money than a sweet, squeaky-clean family drama like The Straight Story: People paid to see them. And even if outrage could be enforced, government regulation of movie content is clearly not the answer. Would you want Jesse Helms or Ted Kennedy determining how you and your family should spend your weekends?
Nevertheless, there is a problem involving the guidelines of movie content that needs to be addressed, and addressed immediately. That is the ratings code administered by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA is not a government organization. It is a lobbying group funded by major studios to protect their interests, and one of those interests is avoiding government regulation of the movie industryexcept when it comes to upholding intellectual property rights, squashing online distribution of DVD technology, and similarly safeguarding the industry’s bottom line.
Instituted in 1968, the MPAA’s ratings code was intended to give parents convenient guidelines for determining what their kids could see, while protecting the rights of adults to see frank and challenging fare. But in recent years, the ratings board has failed on all counts. The misapplied PG-13 rating now gives minors access to gravely inappropriate material. At the same time, the craven use of the NC-17 rating has resulted in a chilling effect on filmmakers with serious artistic intent. Neither outcome is tenable.
The MPAA ratings system is inherently flawed. It needs, at the very least, a thorough overhaul, for the reasons outlined below.
Ironically, the MPAA ratings board was designed to dodge exactly the kind of political pressure the movie industry now faces. By the late ’60s, the grip of the old Production Code that had regulated movie content from the 1930s through the ’50s had weakened. The language of a movie like 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which scandalized viewers with the phrase “hump the hostess,” seems quaint today. But the floodgate opened in 1967, when the British comedy I’ll Never Forget What’s ’Is Name introduced the word “fuck” to mainstream movies. More scandalous, though, was the explicit violence of films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Point Blank, and the emerging sexuality of films from Europe and the American underground.
In April 1968, in this licentious artistic climate, the Supreme Court upheld the right of states and cities to protect children from books and movies that could not be legally denied to adults. Rather than face outright legislation that could govern movie content, the MPAA’s recently appointed chief, Jack Valenti, a former Lyndon Johnson advisor, convinced the industry to seize initiative. On Nov. 1, 1968, the MPAA ratings code was unveiled. It classified movies under four headings: G (general admission, for all ages), M (mature, which soon changed to PG for parental guidance), R (restricted to ages under 17 unless accompanied by a parent), and X (no one under 17 admitted).
Guidelines were deliberately loose, intended to represent the broadest possible standards of public decency. Nudity in a sexual situation and persistent rough violence guaranteed an R rating. Drug use was at least a PG and probably stronger. Language was variable: “shit” was PG, “fuck” an R. The panel that made the decisions, the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), would be composed of eight to 13 people with one major qualification: parenthood. Except for the X, which wasn’t copyrighted, the ratings could be issued only by the MPAA. What’s more, the code was backed by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the nation’s largest exhibitors organization, which agreed to enforce the ratings.
At first, as serious explicit films like the X-rated Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris flourished in theaters, American movies seemed to have entered a new era of artistic freedom and openness. But the ratings’ flaws were soon apparent. First, independent producers began to apply the uncopyrighted X to hardcore porn without consulting the MPAA, blurring the distinction in the public’s eye between art and smut. X became synonymous with grindhouse rather than arthouse fare, and it was ghettoized accordingly.
Second, since the MPAA was essentially a lobbying organization funded by the major studios, big-budget Hollywood films had a better chance of getting a commercially viable R than low-budget films with troubling social or political content, regardless of their explicitness. Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking 1971 indie feature Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was famously “Rated X by an All-White Jury,” as its tagline proudly proclaimed. But there wasn’t a single image in it as gruesome or as sexually outré as 12-year-old Linda Blair masturbating herself bloody with a crucifix in 1973’s R-rated The Exorcist.
More issues were raised every year. How could parents trust ratings without any kind of content guide? Why was the graphic, gory, and terrifying Jaws rated PG, when Woody Allen’s Manhattan got an R a few years later for a couple of bad words? And why were a handful of deliberately anonymous Southern California parents, acting in secret, allowed to decide these freeform, freely manipulated standards? These questions were present from the beginning. As we will see, they have never gone away.
Single minds, double standards
As Jack Valenti reiterates ad nauseam, the MPAA ratings board is governed by parents for parents. Which means that the gate-keepers are vigilantly aware of harsh language, violence, nudity, and sex. But as the old saw says, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The MPAA’s smut radar can pick up potentially offensive material at dogwhistle pitches, but it’s utterly tone-deaf when it comes to distinguishing between frank adult content and outright porn. If you look up the NC-17 rating on the MPAA’s Web site, you’ll find it applied equally to the art film La Grande Bouffe, the director’s cut of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 epic 1900, and Blonde Emmanuelle in 3-D.
This is merely a symptom of a larger malady: the MPAA’s variable standards as applied to serious material intended for adult audiences, versus the standards applied to exploitation. The MPAA is far harsher on dramas than it is on comedies. The 1995 British film Angels and Insects, a costume drama for adults, was initially given an NC-17 for a distant, brief (less than two seconds) shot of an actor with an erection. This summer’s Scary Movie, a parody of teen slasher flicks, got an R with a close-up of an erect penis spearing an actor’s head. If the distributor of the bleak indie satire Happiness hadn’t opted to release it unrated, the film would have received an NC-17 for an ejaculation scene less gross than the one in the R-rated There’s Something About Mary (or the aforementioned Scary Movie).
But even frivolous intent isn’t foolproof for a filmmaker getting the rating he or she wants. A big budget is far more reliable. Last year’s major-studio The Haunting netted a PG-13 with a grisly decapitation scene. In contrast, The Blair Witch Project, an indie release that featured no onscreen violence but cost less than a hundredth of The Haunting, received an R. With its parent company Disney on its side, the Miramax release Trainspotting got an R rating even with explicit sex and drug use. No such luck for this fall’s Requiem for a Dream, an intense anti-drug drama that’s being released unrated to avoid a certain NC-17. Indeed, of the films rated NC-17 since 1990, the overwhelming majority have been foreign or independent releases.
That isn’t to say major-studio releases haven’t been threatened with an NC-17. Many have: Summer of Sam, Boogie Nights, Natural Born Killers. Those films were resubmitted to the ratings board several times, until they received an R. But each application for an MPAA rating costs money, which puts indie filmmakers at a distinct disadvantage. Colette Burson, director of the indie coming-of-age comedy Coming Soon, gave up her battle with the MPAA over a scene of implied oral sex. For an R rating, either the actress’ head could be rising into the frame or lowering out of it; to show both meant an NC-17. Burson cut the movie to get the R ratingand then the studio that purchased the film ended up choosing not to release it. Meanwhile, in last summer’s hit American Pie, a girl is shown spitting a mouthful of her boyfriend’s semen into a cup.
The fight extends to advertising. There are countless recent examples of bizarre, MPAA-enforced cuts in trailers and posters. The South Park movie had to change its subtitle from All Hell Breaks Loose to the ironically more suggestive Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. The MPAA demanded that the X-Men trailer be altered to remove an image of the superhero Cyclops emitting laserbeams from his eyes. (This was later restored, for no apparent reason.) Yet this very same summer, the MPAA approved a trailer for Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps that showed a man being anally raped by a giant hamster and an elderly woman slipping beneath the water in a hot tub to perform oral sex.
The movie industry once needed the MPAA to shield its films from the whims of local censors. The ratings were designed, in large part, to take away the power of community censor boards, who could cut or outright ban a movie according to whatever standards they dictated. In 1946, the Memphis Board of Censors, led by the notorious smut-buster Lloyd T. Binford, refused to allow the racy Western Duel in the Sunmainly because it depicted sweaty clinches between a white man (Gregory Peck) and a half-Mexican woman (Jennifer Jones). Even in the early ’70s, with the MPAA ratings in place, local censor boards drew little distinction between an explicit adult drama like Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge and a porn flick like Deep Throat. The boards fought, and lost, bitter trials over both films.
Community standards have relaxed considerably over the past 25 years, hammered on all fronts by greater tolerance, the sexual revolution, shifts in public morality, and the increased permissiveness of mass media. Except in rare cases, censorship seldom flares up at the local level, thanks in part to the nationwide standards imposed by the MPAA ratings board. Unfortunately, the standards now imposed by the MPAA are just as vague and whimsical as those of Lloyd Binford. In allowing the MPAA to perform as our moral watchdog, we may only have exchanged local censorship for nationalparticularly in those markets where NC-17 films have no outlet. And unlike the local censors of old, who only passed judgment on films after the fact, the MPAA’s strikes end up being preemptive.
NC-17: the kiss of death
This wouldn’t be an issue if Hollywood had used its clout to shore up the NC-17’s commercial viability. After all, executives from the top seven major studios form the MPAA’s board of directors; their combined advertising dollars would have overcome any lingering resistance to the rating from print and TV outlets. Yet thanks to their inaction, the NC-17 has been unfairly stigmatized. What was supposed to allow a safe haven for adult material has instead ghettoized it even more.
As noted before, the MPAA’s choice not to copyright the X rating led to pornographers applying the X to the most explicit of sex flicks. As a result, most theater chains wouldn’t book X-rated films; some video stores (like Blockbuster) wouldn’t stock them; and few newspapers would accept advertising for them. Thus, if the MPAA initially slapped an X on a commercial film, the movie was doomed: It was too rough for mall cinemas, too tame for porn palaces. The only financial option filmmakers had was to cut, as in the cases of Scarface and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
After a high-profile case waged on behalf of Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! by Miramax and attorney Alan Dershowitz, the MPAA responded to industry pressure. Starting with 1990’s Henry and June, the ratings board essentially replaced the X with the friendlier-sounding NC-17, indicating that no one under 17 would be admitted even with a parent. Well, guess what? Most community leaders assumed the natural equation of NC-17 = X. And small wonder: The same NC-17 rating that went to David Cronenberg’s visionary apocalyptic satire Crash went to a bottom-shelf meat-flogger like The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet. Sure enough, NC-17 films still face refusals by newspapers, theaters, and video stores. According to the MPAA’s Web site, 85 percent of U.S. cinemas subscribe to MPAA recommendations, and they typically abstain from showing unrated or NC-17 material.
Worst of all, with the NC-17 a commercial kiss of death, serious adult films have suffered. There was no reason Boogie Nights, an epic about the 1970s porn industry, should have been targeted to anyone under 17. Instead, it was trimmed and softened to get a commercially acceptable R, and the end result feels watered-down. Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 experiment The Idiots required black boxes over the actors’ genitals to suit the MPAA; by the time the movie came out this year (barely), the well-publicized censoring turned away the arthouse audience that wanted to see it. Why should Stanley Kubrick’s last film, a dreamlike exploration of marital fidelity and sexual curiosity, have been dumbed down with digital foggery to suit the teen audiences it bored stiff? “[Warner Bros.] has produced an R-rated film which is not, in fact, appropriate for most viewers under 17,” wrote critic Roger Ebert, “with or without adult guardians.” Even if the MPAA were protecting kids from raunchy content, there’s no one to protect adult moviegoers from the MPAA.
Ebert, who pushed for a new A rating between R and NC-17 in the early ’90s, has been stumping again for the A. But who will guarantee that the same forces that aligned against X and NC-17 wouldn’t stonewall an A? No, the category of NC-17 is fine the way that it is. It’s the market that needs to be educated, and leaned on if necessary, to make the rating a viable option for truly adult material.
PG-13 and the “ratings creep”
Do we really expect movie studios and distributors to voluntarily give up their biggest audiencechildren? That’s what we still call people under 17 in this country, although the market power of teenagers has caused all kinds of retail industries to flatter them with the “adult” label. Kids have always wanted to grow up fast, and now the movie industry is helping them alongthanks to the phenomenon of “ratings creep.”
As a way of giving its best customers what they want while still nominally adhering to the system, the MPAA has allowed more and more adult material to slide down the slippery slope into the lower ratings. G-rated films like The Rugrats Movie can have scatological humor. PG, now the bastard child of the ratings system, is reserved for lowest-common-denominator comedy fare with some bad language, like Baby Geniuses. (Only 46 films were released with this rating in 1999.) If filmmakers can rough it up enough for PG-13 without going over the line to Rand judging from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, that line is pretty far out therethey do. But R still holds allure for teens from 13 on up, and plenty of movies aimed squarely at the low end of that rangeCruel Intentions, American Pie, Scary Moviedeliberately manipulate the system to get an R and the pubescent audience that goes with it.
Nowhere is the confounding nature of this trend more evident than in the PG-13 rating, which does more to help studios reach a less restricted audience than it does to clean up teen-targeted films. The rating emerged back in 1984, when these same sorts of debates about Hollywood “corrupting our youth” and about the MPAA’s ineffectiveness were raging almost as feverishly. The source of the dispute? An increasing amount of gory violence in “family-friendly” PG fare like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Was Hollywood’s response to tone down the violence? Of course not. The studios nagged the MPAA until it created a new ratings category, PG-13, which indicates that “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.”
But what does this mean? No one can be restricted from going to PG-13 movies, because there’s no way to card a preteen. Instead, it’s up to parents, who have never understood the rating. Most parents assume PG and PG-13 are synonymous. Consequently, they drag their kids to see smutty comedies and grimly violent adventure films, and then they complain that their 7-year-olds were disturbed by, say, the chopped-up G.I. Joes in Small Soldiers. It’s not like they weren’t warned, right?
Well, yes and no. Rigid enforcement of PG and R ratings decades ago meant that there was a clear line between adult material and material for families. Now more and more raunch and mayhem finds its way into PG-13 movies. There are even reports of filmmakers adding a few obscenities just to secure a PG-13, since until recently PG meant box-office poison. But changes are afoot. The surprise success of PG sleepers like Galaxy Quest, Remember the Titans, and even Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks has shown that there’s an audience hungry for inoffensive family entertainment.
There’s no better time for the MPAA to seize the opportunity and bury the PG-13 rating. Not only would it restore some order to the ratings system, it would assure that there’s still some innocence in a PG movie and some welcome maturity in an R. It would even result in better movies. The innocuous Galaxy Quest was likely improved by losing the “edgy” drug jokes and rote profanity that would’ve resulted in a PG-13. On the other hand, a tepid teen-sex opus like the PG-13 The In Crowd would have been more satisfying if the director had toughened it up for an R. As it stands, it’s too wild for preteens and too mild for grown-ups. It pleases no one.
It’s common wisdom among children that any movie that’s rated as appropriate for their age level is actually far beneath them. Eight-year-olds roll their eyes at G-rated fare, which is aimed at toddlers. Ten-year-olds know that a PG rating means something on the level of Stuart Little. Thirteen-year-olds wouldn’t be caught dead at a PG-13 moviethey consider themselves not only R-ready, but R-entitled. That’s where parental guidance is neededanother battle the MPAA isn’t winning.
Lax Theaters, Lax Parents
Nothing has done more to undermine the authority of the MPAA ratings code than the megaplex. In the good old days of the single- (or even double-) screen neighborhood theater, the cashier and ticket-taker could easily do their jobs. Keeping minors out of a single R-rated movie was simple: Either you were old enough to get in, or you weren’t. The megaplex is a different story. There are eight or 10 screens in any given area, and no megaplex can afford to station employees at each one. So what do kids do? Buy tickets for something PG-13, then walk next door to the R-rated movie they really want to see. At Regal’s Hollywood 27, the opening-night late show of The Exorcist didn’t have an empty seat leftalthough according to the flashing board of show times, it wasn’t sold out. By a strange coincidence, a large percentage of the audience didn’t look old enough to buy a ticket.
Sure, theaters are supposed to play watchdog and enforce the movie ratings. But two basic truths will always govern their diligence. One, the MPAA ratings depend on voluntary compliance. Two, theaters will comply only if it’s economically feasible. And at a 20-screen theater, where overhead is astronomical and staffs have already been trimmed to a skeleton crew, posting guards at every screen entrance isn’t cost-effective. Especially since, according to the MPAA’s economic reports, kids between the ages of 12 and 17 make up 49 percent of the country’s frequent moviegoers. Parents who use the mall cinema as a babysitter can complain all they want, but unless they’re willing to accompany their kids or learn more about what their kids are seeing, the MPAA’s moral authority ends where it begins: at the ticket counter.
Which raises the question: If Americans are up in arms about Hollywood poisoning their kids, who the devil is buying all these movie tickets? Is this one of those cases where we like sinsex, violence, gambling, etc.yet need someone to save us from our own worst instincts? In part, probably yes. But it’s mostly an “OPK” problemas in Other People’s Kids, which translates to, “My child can handle R-rated films with violence, drugs, and nudity, but I don’t want that crazy neighbor kid seeing it.”
Even parents more inclined to worry about their children’s friends and classmates realize that they can’t always know, much less control, what their kids are doing. In a nation of latchkey kids, multiple working parents, and countless pipelines for questionable entertainment, keeping up with everything a child sees is nearly impossible. And frankly, to a certain extent, that’s healthy. Sneaking into R-rated movies and reading dirty books is a kid’s rite of passage, and having parents dictate what material is inappropriate makes those illicit sneaks an even bigger thrill. But by codifying what is illicit, parents still issue moral guidance, even if a child surreptitiously sneaks around it. The MPAA should follow suitalthough it may have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Protecting the bottom line
Contrary to what we may be implying through this forum, the MPAA doesn’t exist merely to rate films and approve advertising. In fact, that’s the tiniest fraction of what it doesand its main task is, in many ways, antithetical to the ratings board’s work. The MPAA exists to promote the interests of the American film industry around the world. That means promoting its profitability.
And so, apart from Valenti’s appearance before Congress in September, the MPAA has barely bothered to respond to the public debate about violence marketed to children. Forget Columbine, forget Duke Nukem and Scream; what really worries the MPAA these days is copyright infringementspecifically by DVD pirates and anyone who dares associate with them. Its chief target right now is hackers who upload (or download, or even sell T-shirts with the source code of) DeCSS, a program that defeats the copy-protection on DVDs.
Certainly artists should be allowed to protect their copyrights and get paid for their work. But in the age of the Internet, there must be a better way than trying to intimidate every private individual with a Web site or a Scour account. Look how well the Recording Industry of America is doing with its fight against Napster: The issue is already moot because programs like Gnutella bypass the central distribution system that the courts have deemed piratical. The MPAA looks like a brontosaurus trying to swat a cloud of mosquitoes with its ponderous tail.
And while it’s tilting at this windmill of a money issue, the moral issues connected with the ratings system are being shortchanged. Valenti and the MPAA aren’t losing sleep over children consuming ultra-violent entertainment and imitating glamorous trench-coated killers, because no matter which candidate wins the presidency with anti-Hollywood rhetoric, the lobbyists will prevail. Kids eagerly watching The Matrix on pristine video copies bootlegged off the DVDnow, that keeps the MPAA up at night.
The myth of voluntary compliance
Public debates over the content of mass media may take many forms, but they usually lead to only one destination: the announcement of some self-regulation system by the industry in question. Desperate to avoid governmental or legal interference in their business, media corporations circle the wagons and bravely send out a press release stating how much they care about their customers and how they’ve come up with the best possible plan to inform and protect them.
For a recent example of just how well this works, one need look no further than television. You’ve probably already forgotten how much outrage there was in 1996 and 1997 about ratings for TV programs. There were hearings before Congress, demonstrations, editorials, parents with steam coming out of their ears, and network executives barricaded in their boardrooms. What was the result? A voluntary system of ratings that nobody understandsand to which nobody pays the slightest bit of attention. According to a 1999 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), an independent national health-care philanthropy, only 39 percent of parents surveyed have seen or heard anything explaining the TV ratings systemsuch as the difference between L (for foul language) and D (for suggestive dialogue).
And how seriously does the industry take them? According to a 1998 KFF survey, more than three out of four shows with violence do not receive the V content descriptor. Nine out of 10 shows with sex do not receive the S descriptor. Among children’s programs, eight out of 10 shows with violence do not receive the FV (“fantasy violence”) descriptor, the only content indicator available for use with children’s programs.
Nobody wants government censorship, but here’s a news flash: Information is not censorship. Look what a chilling effect those much-feared RIAA “parental advisory” stickers have had on the record industry: At least four labeled albums currently sit in the Billboard Top 10. In fact, one could well argue that labeling leads to more “adult” content. In the years following the TV ratings system, fairly explicit sex jokes have become all the more common, since producers have the “we warned you” shield behind which to hide. And Jack Valenti himself has said that the raunchier material in R and PG-13 films is a direct result of more lax TV standardsif it’s on Drew Carey at 8 p.m., why can’t it be in a matinee of Big Momma’s House? We’re willing to accept the fact that movies (and television) have more objectionable material than ever before. All we’re saying is there ought to be a way to make actual sense of it before we consume it.
So where do we go from here?
The other side of “voluntary compliance” is that many artists don’t want to comply with a system that has proven to be arcane and even de facto censorious. They of course have the choice to ignore the MPAA altogether. But that means they can’t get into chain theaterswhich means their film won’t reach much of its potential audience.
This is why overhauling the MPAA is such a vital issue. No matter what Jack Valenti says, filmmakers don’t have a true choice about cutting their films to meet a confusing standard. Savvy directors such as Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese have been known to submit footage they know will be axed, just to bargain down to the cut they want. In a CNN interview about the MPAA process, filmmaker Irwin Winkler said, “The ratings board will say, ‘There are seven things that we don’t like about this film.’ The director might have put in four of them that he doesn’t even want, so that when he goes back to the ratings board, he says, ‘Well, look, I took out four of them.’ ”
There is hope. Every time the MPAA says that it can’t do something, that usually means it’s about a year away from acquiescing. When asked recently by the Los Angeles Times what he would change about the ratings code, Valenti said, “The answer is zero.” However, look back at the news items that preceded the institution of PG-13 and NC-17, and count how many times Valenti defended the status quo. Some sort of content labeling is probably just around the corner to supplement (but not, sadly, to supplant) the current ratings system. This past weekend, the ratings on movie advertisements in The New York Times were quietly fortified for the first time with brief content labels.
As applied, though, they only point out how inscrutable the MPAA’s standards are. The controversial R rating for Billy Elliot, the popular British import about an 11-year-old boy taking ballet lessons, is explained by “language.” As for Meet the Parents, its PG-13 is supported by “sexual content, drug references, and language.” Which film sounds more offensive? The content labels are a good idea, but they’re a vague, inexact substitute for the kind of cinematic “Nutritional Information” box that’s needed. And while they may help parents in broad, unspecific ways, they do nothing to help distinguish serious explicit films from softcore exploitation. Given the history of local censorship, it seems plausible that movies with certain labels (particularly high sexual content) could be pressured off Nashville’s screens.
On the other hand, maybe that pressure will wake up studios to the genuine grievances families have about movie content. In black and white, the litany of recent MPAA-approved imagesfrom R-rated firehose blasts of semen to PG-13-rated sodomaniaindeed makes one empathetic to the concerns of scandalized parents and legislators. That doesn’t excuse lax parenting or hypocritical box-office support for filthy movies over quality family films. But with the rigorous marketing and corporate promotion of current filmswhich places a movie more in your face than out of the waya little more responsibility for movie content on the front end is not too much to ask.
For that to happen, though, filmmakers and audiences both must be able to depend on a rating system that is fair, just, clear, open, impartial, and evenly applied. With all due respect to the noble intentions of the MPAA ratings code, that system doesn’t yet exist.
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