Why do bad things happen to good fans? Whether it’s atrocious art, ridiculous writing or something else entirely – some crimes against fandom cannot go unanswered. When that happens, it’s time to say ”BLAARGH!”
American moviegoers are quite familiar with the concept of film ratings by the organization known as the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA for short. This organization was founded in 1966 to classify motion pictures regarding its content and pass out ratings to inform the public as to which movies would be appropriate to certain age groups. This system replaced the government-mandaded Hays Code, which set up strict mandates regarding appropriate content in film. While much less restrictive than the Hays Code was, the MPAA has often been criticized for some of its decisions, especially within the last few years. Many have argued that this organization has been much more lenient on violence in movies and much harsher regarding sex and dialogue, which many feel is a ridiculously skewed view of what truly should be considered offensive onscreen. Some of their more recent decisions have left many moviegoers, myself included, convinced that the MPAA needs to seriously rethink its priorities.
One of the most controversial decisions made by the MPAA in recent years was its initial decision to give an “R” rating to the 2012 documentary Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch and distributed by the Weinstein Company. The MPAA determined that the documentary’s use of profanity was the reason it gave it an “R,” which would have kept viewers under the age of 17 from seeing it in the theater without a parent or legal guardian. This decision was contested by the Weinstein Company, who argued that slapping a restricted rating on this film simply for portraying teenagers honestly and having them talk the way they actually talk in real life would keep it from reaching its intended audience, which in this case would be teens who potentially are bullied every day. The Weinsteins eventually rejected the “R” rating and decided to release the film unrated, which was a gutsy move since most mainstream theaters will not show a film without an official rating from the MPAA.
This controversial move by the MPAA and the Weinsteins’ decision put a spotlight on one of the shortcomings of our current rating system that looks at a movie’s content without considering the context of its use within the film. The same issue came up when another Weinstein Company film, The King’s Speech, was given an “R” rating for a brief scene that included profanity that was actually integral to the overall plot of the film. The use of language in this scene was an important aspect in the main character’s therapy and was not an arbitrary use of profanity found in most films. Instead of considering the way the language was used in both Bully and The King’s Speech, the MPAA decided to treat it the same way that profanity was used in the two Hangover films, for example. The MPAA seemed unconcerned with how the language was being used and just slapped both films with an “R” because they both included one or more utterances of the dreaded “F-word.”
The biggest complaint that many have against the MPAA stems from the belief that they are more strict on language and sexuality in films than they are on violence. Films like The Dark Knight, Die Hard With a Vengeance, and most recently The Hunger Games were given “PG-13″ ratings without much scrutiny by the MPAA, and all of those films, regardless of their overall quality, contain numerous violent scenes and very high body counts, and in the case of The Hunger Games, much of this violence is directed towards children. I’m not criticizing any of these movies for their use of violence, but it does seem strange that the MPAA thinks that those movies are more appropriate for young people to watch than Bully, which deals with things that most kids deal with every day. Most of the violent films that were given a pass were not overly explicit or graphic, which means that the MPAA took more time to consider how the violence was being used in these films than they did in determining why films like The King’s Speech and Bully contained harsh language.
One of the silver linings behind the controversy surrounding Bully‘s rating is that it is giving the film more publicity than it may have had if the Weinsteins had just taken the “R”. This no doubt was their goal in contesting it, but all the attention that the movie has gotten is sure to draw more moviegoers to the theaters to check it out. AMC Theaters has agreed to screen the film and allow anyone under the age of 17 to see it if they present a signed permission slip from their parents. This hopefully will lead to a decent box office return for the film and give hope to other filmmakers who fear having to compromise their vision and/or message in order to appease the MPAA and get their films out to the highest number of people possible. Maybe then the MPAA will finally admit that their practices are arbitrary and outdated and influence them to retool their ratings system.