Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Stacking the Deck: The Failure of the MPAA Rating System

[Another composition piece, prostituted for blog material.]

"Mom, I wanna see Saving Private Ryan!"

I was perhaps ten years old. All the other kids, it seemed, were seeing the WWII bloodbath—arguably one of the greatest movies ever made—but I was not allowed to. Why? Well, in my mom's words, "Because it's rated R."

Of course, this was not actually the reason I was not being allowed to see one of the greatest war movies ever made. The reason was that it was filled with gore and violence on an unprecedented level, and my mom had decided that my ten-year-old mind did not need to be filled with such images. However, the short explanation she used was that it was "rated R."

An "R" rating means, of course, "Restricted." It is generally movie theaters' policy not to admit anyone to an R-rated movie who is under the age of 17 unless they are accompanied by a guardian of some kind. This is a voluntary rule, put in place based on the recommendations made regarding films submitted for review and rating by the MPAA—the Motion Picture Association of America.

The Motion Picture Association of America is one of the most well-known institutions in America. It is a pseudo-Hollywood institution, as it proudly proclaims, because while it is based around Hollywood and the movie industry, it claims to be completely outside of the authority and power of the motion picture industry (

The MPAA rating system is based on the recommendations of a "board of parents," who view each movie and try to apply a rating based on what "most American parents" would think an appropriate rating for that movie. Their ratings are "voluntary" —producers and directors are "free to go to the market without any rating" ( However, in today's film industry, doing so would almost certainly mark a movie for controversy and make it a proverbial "black sheep" in the movie industry. So while submitting a film for MPAA rating is voluntary, it is the sort of choice anyone who doesn't want trouble is forced to make. It reminds me of my grandma's cherry pie that she would serve at Christmas time—you only took a piece if you wanted one, but if you didn't want one, you had better be prepared to suffer grandma's glares all day.

The MPAA rating system rose out of a desire to help parents make informed decisions about the kinds of movies they want their children to see; though in some cases, such as R- and NC-17-rated movies, it has turned itself into rules for preventing certain age groups from seeing certain movies altogether. While this is a commendable goal, and perhaps a necessary one in our pluralistic age, its execution by the MPAA is thoroughly imperfect and could use improvement.
A case study, hopefully, will illustrate what we mean.

Take two films, both of which were released in 2007: Once and Live Free or Die Hard.

The first, Once, is an independent film that was released to a limited number of theaters and quickly gained a sort of cult following. Set in Dublin, it is a simple story of a busker and a Czech immigrant who meet and fall in love. They are both musicians, and the busker writes his own songs. They spend a whirlwind three days recording an album, but then, because of very subtle differences that are never really explicated but that don't have to be, they are forced to part.

Personally, I think this is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. I mean this not just aesthetically, not just because the music was brilliant and the acting was perfect and the composition and everything else about it fell perfectly into place, but I also mean this philosophically. In a normal Hollywood film about a "once in a lifetime" romance, the couple would meet and fall in love, and all the external conflicts would fall away or be made to go away and the couple would live happily ever after. The ending would be generic, and heart-warming, and trite: love conquers all.

Once's message, however, is more artistic and more nuanced. It conveys the idea that a once in a lifetime love need not have a happy ending. The idea that one can act decently despite bad circumstances. The idea that you can improve someone's life, and in fact be the best thing that ever happened to them, despite having known that person for less than three days. Love conquers all, yes, but the world is imperfect and the ending doesn't always go the way it ought to. But that's okay.

The critics seem to agree with my assessment of Once (see A.O. Scott's review for the New York Times, Peter Travers' for Rolling Stone, and Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times for more). Richard Roeper even went so far as to call it a film that "would make any twelve-year-old a better person."

Once was given an "R," or "Restricted" rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. According to that organization's website, this means that the ratings board of the MPAA thinks it is a film that "most parents would not want their young children to see" and that "May include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements." Once's specific rating was "For language," presumably the "hard" language mentioned in the above generalization.

One word is used repeatedly in Once, and it is the one word that, at least colloquially, is considered one of the worst of curse words. Once might actually be a movie many parents would not want their children to see, simply based on the pervasiveness of this word in the dialogue.

However, we will leave off discussion of this briefly, in order to look at our second example, Live Free or Die Hard.

This movie was released in the summer of 2007, and was the fourth Die Hard movie. It was rated PG-13 “for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation.” The other three installments of the series, Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and Die Hard With a Vengeance, all received R ratings. The creators of the movie claimed they had scaled back the violence and profanity to receive the PG-13 rating.

According to the MPAA's web site, a PG-13 rating “is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them… 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.” This seems almost self-contradictory. Words used as expletives are said to denigrate the things they refer to—think of various racial slurs. But using a sexually-derived word in such a way requires only a PG-13 rating. Using these words to actually refer to sex, that is, in a context where it is possible for them to be appropriate, automatically garners the film a higher rating.

But that is not our current point. Live Free or Die Hard is a violent, profane, and sexually oriented movie. Its central message, if there is one, involves solving problems by resorting to violence and an iron fist. As a college student, this sort of thing actually appeals to me for the pure escapism that it is; but when I put myself in the shoes of a concerned parent, the perspective changes. Any child can pay for and walk into this movie without challenge, simply because the movie cut out a few curse words and made its pervasive violence less graphic.

Once, as stated, is a movie about love and about realizing one’s true potential. It is a redemptive and, in some ways, a salvific movie. Yet to see this movie, a child under the age of 17 would have to pass through whatever restrictions a movie theater puts on R-rated movies, simply because the dialogue contains some language the MPAA does not approve of.

The MPAA makes a point of saying it does not exist for the benefit of artists or film makers or producers, but for “concerned parents in order to help them make informed decisions about the type of movies they want their children to see.” But how can “concerned parents” make such decisions when the MPAA’s ratings seem to be increasingly arbitrary?

It is my opinion that the MPAA rating system is at best outdated, and at worst hinders parents in making the “informed decisions” it sets out to help them make. Were I a parent, I might easily prefer my children to see a movie with many swear words to having them see a movie with fewer swear words but with sex and pervasive violence instead.

As consumers and movie-goers, we should hold the MPAA more accountable for the kinds of ratings it gives to movies, and perhaps push for reform of the MPAA. Based on what I have said here, I highly recommend that parents and those in charge of the younger and more impressionable members of our society look at a movie’s content and, even moreso, its themes and message, and pay little if any attention to the MPAA rating.

1 comment:

NOT Freddy Jones said...

(This comment is a little belated, but..)
The same goes for the new James Bond movies. Both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were rated PG-13 by MPAA, which really surprises me. It goes without saying that a JB movie is going to be violent, but they're also awfully sultry. How is that more acceptable than a movie that really just says a few four-letter-words a few times? It really doesn't make sense.