This Document is Rated X…
…for Aberrational Honesty: Arguments for Ignoring MPAA Ratings
Nine-tenths of the appeal of pornography is due to the indecent feelings concerning sex which moralists inculcate in the young; the other tenth is physiological, and will occur in one way or another whatever the state of the law may be.
Marriage and Morals
Ahead, I will discuss documentarian Kirby Dick’s This Film is Not Yet Rated and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Those involved with the MPAA claim its purpose is to warn consumers about potentially objectionable material (sex, violence, language, and drug use, for example) in films. It does this, but in a way that outsiders, myself included, often find puzzling. The MPAA has also, relatively recently, expanded to become a major anti-piracy force.
This Film is Not Yet Rated focuses on Jack Valenti’s MPAA. Valenti was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson and was also involved in developing the TV ratings system.* He presided over the MPAA as president for thirty-eight years and in August 2004 was replaced by Dan Glickman, a former congressman and Secretary of Agriculture during the Clinton Administration.* Because Glickman’s tenure has been comparatively short and because he has made no substantial changes to the MPAA, I will also focus on Valenti.
I can’t see a thorough discussion of the MPAA being possible without an accompanying discussion of the origin of the MPAA. I try to condense decades of history into a few paragraphs that should cover this origin. Following this MPAA historical background, I will present evidence that I think proves the MPAA is guilty of inconsistency, hypocrisy (especially in their treatment of sex and violence), and censorship.
Movie Bosses Vote for Self-Censorship: The MPAA is Born
The MPAA web site offers the following about itself:
The initial task assigned to the association was to stem criticism of American movies, which were then silent, and to restore a more favorable public image for the motion picture business.*
Before film industry self-censorship began, city police and state-level organizations like the National Board of Review tried to deal with potentially objectionable material in films.* Government censorship was a background concern of filmmakers and filmgoers nearly since the first film was produced.* Where written media has shortcomings in accessibility, film transcends literacy and puts the filmmaker’s vision right in front of us. Many who experience this immediacy find it enjoyable. However, the psychological and moral impact of this immediacy has been—and continues to be—a source of deep unease for many others.
While film content is surely a topic of moral concern, it’s also a topic of economic concern. Cheap admissions meant audiences of all ages could experience blown-up “immorality” first-hand. Movies where women were disobedient and interested in sex; and where men drank, cursed, and shot each other were, according to revenues, movies many patrons wanted. Movie producers found it difficult to strike a balance between dull, wholesome movies and edgier fare with generous amounts of sex and violence.*
Many groups complained about film content, but conservative moralists won out. The most vocal group, by most accounts, was the Catholics. An early example of selective outrage from Catholic leaders involves a 1918 U.S. military sex hygiene film called Fit to Fight. This film showed several young soldiers-to-be who let their sexual urges get the better of them. Two of the five men are spared syphilis and gonorrhea after a night at a brothel. Those unscathed are the ones who paid attention to an army hygiene lecture which covered sexual health.
Protestant and Catholic religious authorities within earshot of the production responded by condemning the film’s frank sexuality. The underlying objective of the film was to produce physically healthy soldiers that would not be hindered in battle by genital discomfort. If it occurred to any of the film’s opponents that the film sought to protect the soldiers from sexual dangers only to cast them into mortal danger, none seems to have mentioned this. Father John J. Burke of the National Catholic War Council urged the army to remove titillating scenes such as those of the men in the brothels and shots where contact is made between the men and the prostitutes.*
Perceived onscreen lewdness and a rich variety of Hollywood scandals earned the film business a lot of unwanted attention from state and federal government entities who were being pressured (again, most prominently, by Catholic organizations) to take action. Comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s trial involving the unintentional 1921 murder (involving sex and drugs) of model/actress Virginia Rappe is an oft-cited last straw.
Government intervention loomed. A group of studio heads including Marcus Loew, Lewis J. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox, and Sam Warner called upon Warren G. Harding’s morally immaculate Postmaster General Will H. Hays to form a self-censorship organization.
Will H. Hays
The organization Hays oversaw would be called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America. Hays was charged not only with reining in the eclectic opinions of religious conservatives across the country, but also of any other groups with complaints about film representations. (Mexican salons, for example, banned American films for frequently depicting Mexicans as “greasers”—robbers, rapists, and murderers who terrorized the Southwest.*)
Hays knew that, alone, he couldn’t handle the work of promoting the morality of movies across the country and still make sure the movies maintained even a small level of morality. He established the Studio Relations Office in 1927 and put American Red Cross veteran Colonel Jason S. Joy in charge.* Joy quickly produced a list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” and sent it out to filmmakers; the filmmakers ignored the list.*
As perceived immorality continued, so did outcry from religious conservatives. Martin Quigley (devout Catholic and publisher of the Motion Picture Herald), Joseph I. Breen (public relations officer for the 1926 Eucharist Congress), and Father Daniel Lord (national director of the Sodality of Our Lady) were able to produce the Production Code.* Hays approved the code, but still couldn’t enforce it any better than the “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls.”
(left to right)
Martin Quigley, Cecil B. deMille, and
Paramount president Barney Balaban
Realizing the ineffectiveness of the Code, Quigley then spoke to the Giannini brothers (Amadeo Peter and Attilio), devout Catholics heading the California-based Bank of America. The Giannini brothers had helped fund projects of Columbia Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Pictures, and many others. Giannini warned producers against alienating the Church, as this would also mean alienating the Bank of America.*
Father Daniel Lord, S.J.
Joe Breen wrote to Hays to persuade him that Breen would be best at enforcing the code. Breen was better at confrontation than Joy and other Studio Relations Office appointees. Energetic follow-through by Breen and continuing pressure by Catholics (and their Legion of Decency) eventually gave Breen and Hays the necessary leverage to enforce the code. In 1934, with the formation of the Production Code Administration by mutual studio agreement, it became mandatory, under threat of fine, for filmmakers to observe the code.* The number one “General Principle” of the code was as follows:
No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
The following statements represent about 1/10th of the full Hays Code:
- The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.
- Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.
- Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.
- In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.
- Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.
- Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.
- Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.
- Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passion are forbidden.
- Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.
- The use of firearms should be restricted to essentials.
- Methods of Crime should not be explicitly presented.
- The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.
- Illegal drug traffic must never be presented.
- Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ—unless used reverently—Hell, S.O.B. damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression, however used, is forbidden.
- No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.
- The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.*
Joseph I. Breen
For the roughly twenty-five years following the creation of the Production Code Administration, the MPAA supervised the moral content of films and demanded edits where it deemed necessary. Occasionally, a few filmmakers would refuse to play along. Otto Preminger was probably the most influential of these filmmakers. He released his financially successful The Moon is Blue in 1953 without a Production Code seal after unsuccessfully arguing to include the words “virgin” and “pregnant.”* The fifties saw more and more filmmakers bypassing the code while still attaining financial and critical success. It wasn’t until the sixties, though, that extensive changes in political, social, and sexual attitudes forced the film industry to adopt a different type of moral watchfulness.
Friendlier Censorship: The New MPAA and the New Problems
Jack Valenti would be put in charge of the different type of moral watchfulness demanded by a changing country. He wrote the following about why he was brought into the MPAA:
By summer of 1966, the national scene was marked by insurrection on the campus, riots in the streets, rise in women’s liberation, protest of the young, doubts about the institution of marriage, abandonment of old guiding slogans, and the crumbling of social traditions. It would have been foolish to believe that movies, that most creative of art forms, could have remained unaffected by the change and torment in our society.
The result of all this was the emergence of a “new kind” of American movie—frank and open, and made by filmmakers subject to very few self-imposed restraints.*
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Mike Nichols’s
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Woolf marked the big screen debuts of the
word “screw” and the phrase “hump the hostess.”
Valenti helped develop the modern film rating system and created the ratings board. The MPAA web site lists the following ratings and explanations:
G—Some snippets of language may go beyond polite conversation but they are common everyday expressions. No stronger words are present in G-rated motion pictures. Depictions of violence are minimal. No nudity, sex scenes or drug use are present in the motion picture.
PG—There may be some profanity and some depictions of violence or brief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance. There is no drug use content in a PG-rated motion picture.
PG-13—Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented. There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence. A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context. The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.
R—[M]ay include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously.
NC-17—[C]an be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.*
Established in 1977, the modern division of the MPAA that deals with film ratings is the Classifications and Ratings Administration (CARA). The following is a description the MPAA gives for CARA on their web site:
The movie ratings system is a voluntary system operated by the MPAA and the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). The ratings are given by a board of parents who…view each film and, after a group discussion, vote on its rating. The ratings are intended to provide parents with advance information so they can decide for themselves which films are appropriate for viewing by their own children. The Board uses the same criteria as any parent making a judgment—theme, language, violence, nudity, sex and drug use are among content areas considered in the decision-making process.*
CARA is often intentionally vague about what it does and why. Spokespeople claim this is because the organization doesn’t want to be identified with censorship. This is apparently the explanation for phrases like “The Board uses the same criteria as any parent” where “any parent” is not defined and probably isn’t definable. We run into an extra problem if we then try to figure out what these murky “any parents” view as “appropriate for viewing by their own children.” We can’t simply ask raters what is appropriate because, as the MPAA web site indicates:
The identity of the Raters will not be disclosed, to protect them from being subject to pressure from members of the public and producers and distributors of motion pictures with respect to the rating of individual motion pictures.*
The board is supposed to consist of people who are like most American parents. One potential problem with this is that most American parents do not work for the MPAA. Most American parents do not, therefore, have more than a relatively small number of children to consider when deciding what is and is not suitable for viewing. Also, it seems likely that most American parents have plenty of opportunities to be pressured by members of the public (friends, family, and co-workers, for instance) and producers and distributors of motion pictures (whose opinions are easily accessed on-line and on DVD commentaries).
Just as we cannot directly consult the raters for explanations, we also cannot consult their notes. These notes would presumably outline the carefully considered explanations they surely must have made. The Ratings Rules clearly state, “The Raters’ ballots are treated at all times as confidential and are not disclosed outside CARA.”*
All of this, as far as I can tell, leaves us with only one way to try to figure out what “any parent” thinks her/his kids should be seeing and hearing: we have to consider, compare, and contrast ratings she/he and fellow raters have given movies. If we look at just the movies the board gave its strictest rating, NC-17, we find that thirty-eight out of forty-two (roughly 90%) of these ratings were due to sexual content. (John Waters’s 1972 Pink Flamingos has the distinction of receiving the NC-17 rating for “a wide range of perversions in explicit detail.”)*
It is difficult to pose arguments in favor of a ratings system or of censorship. To do so, we must assume that hearing “bad” words and seeing violence and sexuality have some impact on the human brain. This seems a safe assumption. We run into problems, though, if we then assume that hearing, for example, the word “shit” will adversely affect a human of any age. Currently, we have no evidence to support such a claim and, if we apply the same assumption to the effects on the brain of seeing violence and sexuality, we encounter the same lack of evidence. The only studies I have personally encountered—from the Payne Fund Studies of 1929-1932, onward—indicate that many factors determine the cognitive impact of media on the brain.
In the earlier quote from Jack Valenti I cited, the former MPAA president states that it was societal upheaval that resulted in “a ‘new kind’ of American movie.” He mentions nothing of movies contributing to this upheaval and societal “torment.” If Valenti accepted the assumption that movies can radically shape our consciousness, it seems he would have stated the opposite: “cinematic upheaval resulted in a ‘new kind’ of American.” This makes me wonder how many at the MPAA view “protect the children” as part of their objective.
It seems impossible to argue that the MPAA is actually protecting anyone. If we accept this, we could still possibly argue that the MPAA is a harmless entity that gives concerned people an idea of what to expect from a movie. This would be fine if not for another problem: an MPAA rating has a large impact on whether or not a movie has the opportunity to become successful. The most damaging rating for a film to receive is the NC-17 rating. Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films has said that receiving an NC-17 rating is ruinous because “many theaters won’t play your movie, you’re not able to advertise on TV, and many newspapers don’t take your ads.”*
This Film is Not Yet Rated: Sex and Independence Make CARA Squirm
Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated is primarily about the MPAA’s NC-17 rating. Dick also explores more thoroughly the problems with the MPAA as an organization and with CARA.
Early in the documentary, in order to establish just how many filmmakers have been affected by the MPAA rating system, Dick lists the following filmmakers who “have had their films rated X or NC-17, or have been forced to cut their films to avoid their ratings”:
Adrian Lyne, Peter Greenaway, Allen & Albert Hughes, William Friedkin, John Waters, Catherine Breillat, Martin Scorsese, Robert Aldrich, Oliver Stone, Melvin Van Peebles, Darren Aronofsky, Sean Mathias, David Cronenberg, Pedro Almodóvar, Allison Anders, Mike Nichols, Jane Campion, Michael Winterbottom, Jack Nicholson, Walter Hill, Vincent Gallo, Mary Harron, Brian De Palma, Roger Avary, Todd Haynes, Kevin Smith, Richard Rush, Ralph Bakshi, Wayne Kramer, Vincent Gallo, Walter Hill, David Mackenzie, Spike Lee, Patrice Chéreau, John Woo, Bernardo Bertolucci, Claire Denis, Marc Forster, Paul Thomas Anderson, Russ Meyer, Larry Clark, Philip Kaufman, Gregg Araki, Michael Cuesta, Louis Malle, Jamie Babbit, Stanley Kubrick, Nagisa Oshima, Sam Raimi, Ken Russell, Todd Solondz, Trey Parker, Quentin Tarantino, Wayne Wang, John McNaughton, Rémy Belvaux, Peter Jackson, Wes Craven, Neil LaBute, Abel Ferrara, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Kimberly Peirce, James Toback, Alan Parker, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Schrader, The Wachowski Brothers, Haskell Wexler, Amy Heckerling, John Schlesinger, Sam Peckinpah, Harmony Korine, Paul Verhoeven, and David Lynch.
What this catalogue shows, I think, is that NC-17 is not a rating that happens exclusively to pornographers (roughly, people who make movies that contain mostly sex). Included in this list are seventy-five of the most respected, influential filmmakers in movie history. If we look into the careers and films of each we can find at least one common characteristic: most, if not all, of these people attempt to honestly and thoroughly depict the many facets of what makes us human. Some of the films represented by this list are Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, Phillip Kaufman’s Henry & June, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, The Wachowski Brothers’ Bound, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Dick’s 1997 film Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is another that could never have made it to a theater near you without extensive cutting (I would estimate at least a third of the movie). Sick tells the true story of writer/musician/comedian Bob Flanagan, a cystic fibrosis sufferer, who found he could control the pain his illness caused, to a degree, through masochism. A fan of Flanagan’s (and fellow CF sufferer) that Dick interviews says Flanagan was a beacon of hope for her as people with CF are so often viewed as weak and hopeless before their illness. Due to Dick’s efforts, many more sufferers of chronic illness have access to this figure they can turn to for hope: a figure who represents bravery, honesty, and humor in the face of adversity.
Dick and the above-mentioned filmmakers aren’t alone in their wish to see and depict honest humanity. In Dick’s 2002 documentary Derrida about deconstruction founder Jacques Derrida, co-director Amy Kofman asks the philosopher, “If you were to watch a documentary about a philosopher—Heidegger, Kant, or Hegel—what would you like to see in it?” Derrida responds:
I would like to hear them speak about their sexual lives…Because it’s something they don’t talk about. I’d love to hear about something they refuse to speak about. Why do these philosophers present themselves asexually in their work? Why have they erased their private life from their work? There is nothing more important in their private life than love.
To be clear, CARA never publicly equates NC-17 movies with pornography. It would be surprising, though, if they didn’t recognize the devastating effect of this rating financially. One might expect that at least a few of the above filmmakers—many considered among the best the world has ever produced—might be able to convince the ratings board that it has made the incorrect decision. There is a problem with this as well, though: the ratings board members are kept secret and it’s extremely difficult to appeal their decisions.
As Bob Weinstein indicated and as box office analyst Dan Dergarabedian points out in This Film, the MPAA rating does have an impact on a film’s financial success. Dick shows us that the MPAA is comprised of Warner Brothers, Universal, Walt Disney Pictures, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount. He notes that, “Together these corporations control more than 95% of the U.S. film business.” This raises an additional question about whether or not the MPAA shows favoritism to its member companies over independent filmmakers and distributors. This favoritism would be in the best financial interests of the MPAA’s member companies. South Park co-creator Matt Stone believes the MPAA is guilty of this favoritism:
What should give movie-goers even more cause for concern about MPAA competence is the ambiguous and often bizarre explanations they give for their decisions. All Movie Guide’s Perry Seibert and Jeremy Wheeler compiled a top ten list of explanations they feel are the most absurd:
10. Mother’s Boys (1994)
“Rated R for language and for a mother’s sociopathic behavior”
9. Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
“PG for mild language and brief video images of violence and sexy dancing”
8. All I Wanna Do (1998)
“PG-13 for teen sex-related material, language, and substance misuse”
7. The Hunted (1997)
“R for strong bloody ninja violence and a humorous drug related scene”
6. War of the Buttons (1994)
“PG for mischievous conflict, some mild language, and bare bottoms”
5. Alien vs. Predator (2004)
“PG-13 for violence, language, horror images, slime, and gore”
4. Skateboard Kid II (1995)
“PG for brief mild language and an adolescent punch in the nose”
3. Bushwhacked (1997)
“PG for language and a mild birds and bees discussion”
2. Twister (1996)
“PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather”
1. Jefferson in Paris (1995)
“PG-13 for mature theme, some images of violence, and a bawdy puppet show”*
Another area where the raters show inconsistency within inconsistency is in the specific area of sexuality. Dick is able to gather that the only type of sex that the MPAA won’t rate harshly is vaguely-photographed, missionary style sex between a man and a woman. Aside from many forms of straight sex, this completely excludes gay sex. To prove just how unfair the treatment of gay sex is, Dick shows us side-by-sides of nearly identical sex acts from different movies:
Because of this inconsistency, one might argue that we should err on the side of caution—that is, we should alert parents equally to extremes of language, sex, violence and drug use. If this is possible, it does not happen. Instead, we find a suspicious absence of sexuality and a conspicuous abundance of violence. In light of this, it seems we have to consider the following: if we allow for the possibility that exposure to “bad” words and open sexuality might turn our children immoral, we must, based on the same lack of evidence, allow for the possibility that suppression of “bad” words and open sexuality might turn our children immoral. If the latter is true and we add permissiveness of violent material to that sexual and linguistic suppression, we might have an even more volatile recipe for an even more threatening deviant.
As it stands, the current MPAA rating system can only prevent “children” (this seems, generally, to be a person between the ages of one and twenty-one) from seeing R-rated and NC-17-rated films theatrically and then only when the rating is enforced. What happens, though, when our children are given access to cable? We may block cable at our own houses, but what about the world? How can we possibly hope to keep the delicate eyes and minds of our children away from potentially detrimental material until they can no longer be “immoralized” by it?
One solution that doesn’t seem very realistic to me is that we place our children inside a bubble and hand-select all material they are ever to mentally process. Another solution that does seem both realistic and reasonable is that parents teach their children the consequences of sex (both the good and bad ones) when they begin learning the difference between things that are dangerous and things that are not dangerous. Parents could also teach their children the consequences of violence (are there good consequences?) and, possibly, of “dirty” language (are there bad consequences?).
In the end, there seems to be little to redeem the MPAA’s rating system. At best, it oversimplifies the content of a movie; at worst, it stifles free and honest expression. Back in the 60’s, Lenny Bruce offered essentially the same solution to deal with sexual problems that I’ve proposed above—we must all talk about them (preferably, with each other). Bruce expressed a lot of the same sentiments that the filmmakers in Dick’s above-cited compilation have tried to express.
I now offer Lenny Bruce, via Dustin Hoffman, from Bob Fosse’s 1974 Lenny. Bruce argues that a less restrictive stance on certain language and sexuality could save us from gonorrhea. In my mind, this puts him up with Dick’s censored filmmakers and all others who don’t play by arbitrary rules—people who have ripped the lids off of things we’re too often forced to hide.
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