Wednesday, January 6, 2010



Movie ratings amuse me. Whenever I see a movie poster, I always look at the rating box. In the old days, the rating box was simple: It just listed the rating (G, PG, PG-13, R or X), plus the general description for the rating. For G, it said "General Audiences." For R, it said "Restricted Audiences."

Now the rating box is a little more complicated. It still gives the rating and the general description. But it also gives "reasons" why the movie earned its rating. For example, it might say the movie is rated "R" because it contains "Nudity, Some Sexual Content and Drug Use." Or it may say the movie is rated "PG-13" for "Some Language, Adult Situations and Scary Images."

I know why there is a rating system. The Motion Picture Association of America started the system in order to help parents decide whether they should take their children to the movies. If a parent sees "R" at the bottom of a movie poster, then he or she would know not to take 6-year-old Johnny to see it.

But the rating system does more than "protect children from unsuitable content." I have written that it can also perform a political function by limiting access to a film if the "raters" do not like its message. An "R" rating, for instance, substantially reduces a film's potential audience by reducing the number of theaters that will show it. That, in turn, makes it more difficult for a film to reach a broad audience. In sum, raters can influence an artwork's communicative outreach by tacking on harsher ratings, even when they are not really warranted.

And who are these raters? What criteria move them? Put simply, they are private Americans with relatively little tolerance for "unconventional" ideas, language, themes, images or messages. They also have a very squeamish moral sense. Sex and nudity put them off more than violence. Breasts are more threatening than explosions and killing. If a movie even remotely strays into "controversial" ground, they will rate it "R." A straight make-out scene might only generate "PG-13." But a gay one would definitely yield an "R;" or maybe even "NC-17" if it is graphic enough. And if you dare to use the word "fuck" once in your movie: Forget it; that's an "R" for you. Hey, you could always opt for "fudge" to save your
box office.

What explains this hypersensitivity? Is it really all about the children? Why should movies that deal with "real-life things" earn harsher ratings than meaningless fluff?

Consider this: I recently saw a movie poster with a "PG-13" rating because it contained "Some Smoking." Say what? Smoking? Since when did smoking become a taboo subject? Do we really believe that our children will turn into criminals because they see someone smoking a cigarette onscreen?

I mention this for three reasons. First, I do not like the moral hypersensitivity in the movie rating system. Second, it is just not possible to shield children from every single allegedly "bad" thing in life. Third, there is little correspondence between what happens in movies and what happens in actual human experience.

Children see smoking all the time. They do not need to be 13 to know that people smoke. In fact, if their parents smoke, they probably have known about smoking since the moment they could form memories. Even if their parents don't smoke, it does not take long to see someone else smoking outside. Smoking is everywhere. Sure, it's not good for your health. But it's part of life. There's no sense morally rebuking a movie simply because it shows something that millions of people do every single day. And there's even less sense in attempting to prevent children from learning about it: Chances are they already know.

There is so much about movies that is totally unrealistic, even in movies that claim to portray reality. Movies are a fascinating medium because they lead viewers into a dimension that closely resembles reality. Yet on reflection, it is clear that they are not real--not even close. Life does not have snappy dialogue, segue cutscenes or a melodramatic soundtrack. It does not have a set run-time, either. Put simply, there is a wide range of human experience that will never appear on a movie screen. And even the most banal things--like going to the bathroom or sexuality--often earn harsh scolding from the raters.

We do and say things every day in our lives that would lead to an "R" rating or worse. Just getting undressed to get in the shower pushes us into "NC-17" territory. The human body, in other words, is a taboo subject. And movies are supposed to represent reality? How could they when they don't even show the most basic things that people do and say every day?

Movies are artificial. They do not represent reality. In that light, it is foolish to rely on them to form impressions about life because there is so much about life that they never portray.

Movie ratings are artificial, too. If anything, they simply measure the moral qualms of a few squeamish Americans. It is too bad that the raters have such a strong influence on what millions of people see on movie screens.

All I know is that my own life is not even close to PG-13. It's been NC-17 since before I could even talk. If you've ever been naked in your life, you're rated "R" at least.

Movies might spare the faint of heart. But life doesn't. This shit is rough.

1 comment:

Timoteo said...

Well,at least the rating system helps me in weeding out all of the unrealistic "family" fare when I see a G or a PG rating, so it's a bit of a time saver there.

It's so funny that we censor things in the name of "protecting children," when the children are more foul-mouthed in public than most adults.
Any movie that contained the language I hear from the elementary school kids piling off the school bus in the afternoon would get an X rating.