No More Movie Ratings

Johnathan M. Preston

In this research paper I will aim to convince readers that theaters, or the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for that matter, should no longer enforce the movie ratings. I will be going in to detail later on in the paper using sources from Rodman (2012), Ebert (2000), Svetkey/Entertainment Weekly (1994), Libaw/ABCNews (2013), and MPAA (2010). However, to begin I will focus on giving a brief background of this issue, and then aim to explore what you could consider the “worthlessness” of the rating system.

Founded in 1922 the MPAA have been developing and establishing a voluntary system that classifies motion pictures. However, children of all ages have been able to go view movies through trickery or through members of older ages. Now with the ever-evolving advances of technology it has become almost impossible to enforce the ratings on movies. Quite simply, if someone wants to see a movie there’s only a few things preventing the possibility; the lack of funds to afford going to the theater to partake in the event, or the lack of Internet accessibility. With numerous sites available to download or watch new movies it could be argued more of a burden on the pockets of Hollywood than the worry of the impression a movie may have on our youth. The seemingly invisible line the MPAA has drawn has become more laughable than enforceable. Not only is the system easily avoidable, but also the criterion on which it’s based is questionable. For example, the MPAA urge parents to be cautious if their child is going to a PG-13 rated movie; yet parenting itself is conducted on an individual basis, so the classification can seem unfair as ultimately what is ‘cautious’ to one parent is acceptable to the next. The idea a room of individuals should be afforded the opportunity to decide what’s considered ‘right’ or appropriate to all age groups seems a bit asinine.

In the book, Mass Media in a Changing World, Rodman discusses how movie ratings were established by the movie industry to avoid government censorship in 1922. A few years later ‘Motion Picture Production Code’ (MPPC) was established to officially put in place rules set by Will Hays, an elder in the Presbyterian Church. The industry sanctioned Hays to delay the release of films until producers complied with his demands. During this period many different rules were put into effect. For example, movies had to refrain from any reference to sex or sexual activity, any mention of breastfeeding, or even the agony of childbirth. Upon the formalization of the MPPC the rules became more subjective and limiting. For example, in a bedroom scene where one bed was shown with a man and a woman, both actors were required to have one foot on the floor. Some films went away from the one foot grounded rule and decided to combat the rule by placing separate beds in the room instead. The Hays rule also forbade producers from disrespecting the government with negative portrayals as well as not allowing the ‘bad guy’ in films to get away with criminal activities (Rodman 177). Hay’s rules changed the direction of many movies of the time and also could be directly blamed for sullying the outlook of moviegoers and distorting society around him. Today directors, actors, and production companies are blamed for their involvement in the portrayal of negativity shown on TV and movie screens alike, and we compare the violence and sex shown on different mediums for the actions carried out in the real world we live in. Can we not use that same logic for the unrealistic exploits the Hay’s rules implied? The idea a married couple wouldn’t share the same bed, or everyone should be in agreement with the government’s views are unrealistic. Hell, even the Bible speaks of how childbirth is meant to be painful for women. In some ways he was denying Americans the opportunity to explore other concepts brought forward by the talented and creative writers and directors of these movies. Films such as Moon is Blue (1953) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) directed by Otto Preminger were released without the approval of the MPPC. Preminger’s films would gain tremendous notoriety and success both financially and critically. These films would lead to the demise of the MPPC and introduction of the debacle of today’s current system established in 1968.

To better educate myself on the matter I read the Classification and Rating Rules Guide. The content of the twenty-three-page document ranges from the criteria for the rating of a movie, to the selection standards of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) members. Some of the major and more interesting facts I pulled from the document were: each member of the Rating Board must be a parent, raters children must be between the ages of five and fifteen upon entry to the board and must vacate from the board when all their children have reached twenty-one. The idea of this was to ensure the MPAA is getting the perspective of knowledgeable parents and what they believe is suitable for children. According to the rules, the raters must also remain unanimous to protect against pressure from individuals of the public, producer, and others affiliated with the motion pictures. The following sections layout the template for each rating: G-General Audiences. All Ages Admitted, PG-Parental Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable for Children, PG-13-Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13, R-Restricted. Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian, and finally NC-17-No one 17 and Under Admitted. One major issue seems to be the thin line between NC-17 and R ratings.  Most studios shy away from NC-17 because of its low profit margins and limiting fan base.

Roger Ebert, a well-known movie critic, calls for a more realistic ratings system. His reason behind the change stems from the wayward manner films are rated by the MPAA. He goes on to compare Coyote Ugly (2000) and Almost Famous (2000) to the cookie cutter rules of the Association. Coyote Ugly was rated PG even though the movie glorified the objectivity of women who sexually danced atop bar counters for tips but “because there is technically no nudity” the movie dodged a higher rating. Meanwhile Almost Famous was destined to receive an R rating because of it’s irrelevant nudity, language, and negative portrayal of drug use (Ebert, 2000). The MPAA failed to see the depiction of a teenage boy navigating through the tough life on the road during a rock tour with the support of his mother. The obvious matter in all of this is the protection of our youth undoubtedly, but are we really under the impression today’s teenagers don’t know profane words already? Certainly, in Ebert’s generation and in a constantly maturing world teenagers have seen exposed body parts through courses of sexual education or daily life occurrences.

I’m aware the ratings system was created to protect filmmakers’ freedom of speech and avoid censorship, but at what point is responsibility given back to the viewer. Creator of the current system and former President of the MPAA, Jack Valenti recognized the inconsistency of the system declaring, “Violence is harder to catalog than sensuality…There either is copulation or there isn’t…But it’s hard to measure gradations of violence. John Wayne hitting the beaches at Iwo Jima and mowing down 2,000 people–how do you equate that with a fellow being fellated? It’s pretty difficult.” (Svetkey & Natale, 1994) If it’s that difficult, why not put control into the hands of loving, responsible parents and guardians? ABCNews reported the FTC’s undercover survey of close to 300 theaters proved almost 50% of unaccompanied 13-16 year olds were able to buy tickets and attend R movies. The study also showed those unable to purchase the tickets still found ways of getting around the rule, either by getting older sibling or friends to purchase them, or buying PG-13 or lower rated film to get into the theater and simply walking into the R-rated picture. Now, it is important to point out I’m not saying we should bare all and immediately emerge our children in nude images, conversely I do believe in the proper plot a teenager can learn from the acts of someone figuring out what’s right from wrong from a film. As Shawn McReedy simply said after being questioned on his opinion by Libaw of ABCNews, “What else is there to go see? Any movie worth going to is R-rated” (Libaw, 2013). Do we really expect our teens to only watch and learn from Disney movies? We are passed the point of musical teapots and snowmen relating to the typical American teen. Let’s put an end to the ridiculousness and move on from this overbearing system.

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