We have all seen this image before. It begins before the vast majority of trailers released in the United States. Most of us take it for granted -- it doesn't mean much to us when we are in the theater. Even the rating system itself is taken for granted. Every now and then we may scratch our heads at it, but the average moviegoer doesn't analyze the rating system.
And yet, this private company (this will be important later) is the keyholder for a film's success in theaters.
I think it's time we drastically re-invent our rating system in the United States and do away with the MPAA once and for all.
Firstly, it's important to understand that I am not saying we shouldn't rate films. Quite the contrary. We have always had rating systems and censorship boards in place since film's inception.
In 1909, the New York Board of Censorship was created to dictate specific standards of morality for films being released. This spread to other states, who did the same thing, eventually becoming known as the National Board of Censorship. However, its name was changed to the National Board of Review to avoid the term 'censorship.' They still acted as a censorship board, though, as producers would submit films for review and adhere to the changes the Board requested.
The Board's goals ultimately changed, though, around 1930. They began focusing more on championing art and reviewing films than dictating what sort of moral fiber should be present in filmmaking standards. The National Board of Review still functions to this day, but its film commentary and awards (as seen in Screen Magazine) became its primary goal.
The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was created in 1922. It quickly took responsibility for creating industry standards for ethics and guidelines, ultimately coming up with the Motion Picture Production Code.
The Motion Picture Production Code was implemented from 1930 to 1968. There were a strict set of guidelines filmmakers had to follow in order to be in good standing with the MPPDA. They included the following:
"Don'ts & Be Carefuls":
- profanity (including words like God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, hell, damn, and other curses)
- Suggestive nudity (including on-screen nudity and silhouettes)
- drug trafficking
- inferences of sex perversion
- white slavery
- sexual relationships between white and black folks
- mention of venereal diseases
- scenes of childbirth (on-screen or silhouetted)
- children's genitalia
- ridiculing the clergy
- offending any race, creed, or country
Also in the code was a list of things where "...special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized."
- using the flag
- avoiding any unfavorable mentions of other countries' religion, history, institutions, etc.
- using firearms
- theft, robbery, safe-cracking & the dynamiting of trains and buildings
- brutality and gruesomeness
- committing murder
- actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments of crime
- sympathy for criminals
- attitude towards public people and institutions
- cruelty to children and animals
- branding people or animals
- the sale of women, or a woman selling herself
- rape, or attempted rape
- one night stands
- men and women in bed together
- deliberate seduction of girls
- the institution of marriage
- surgical operations
- the use of drugs
- titles or scenes dealing with police
- excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one is a criminal.
Seem ridiculous? That's because many of the things in the Motion Picture Production Code were ridiculous. Films had rules where kisses could only last for three seconds, and the act of flushing a toilet could not be filmed. Things that seem excessively trivial today (one night stands, drug use, interracial relationships, nudity, profanity, etc.) were strictly enforced for over thirty years!
The Production Code eventually stopped being enforced, but only because a rating system was being formulated. Unsurprisingly the MPPDA renamed itself the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and created a new rating system. And here we are today.
So what's so wrong with the rating system? It seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, it is and it isn't.
Let's start with the things that make sense. Firstly, it makes sense to categorize films that are okay for children (G & PG) and films that are not (PG-13 & R). It also makes sense to divide these films by their content -- things like blood, sex, profanity, etc. would not be expected in a film marketed for five-year-olds, while it would be expected in a film marketed for adults.
For films that only adults should see (meaning a kid can't see them with a parent/guardian), the MPAA created an NC-17 rating.
So far so good.
Now here's where things get weird. The MPAA is a private organization. It claims that it does not censor films because the rating system is strictly voluntary -- films can be screened without being rating, or with extremely adult ratings
However, the vast majority of theaters refuse to screen unrated films and films with NC-17 ratings. This means that if you submit your film for review by the MPAA and you receive an NC-17 rating, your film will not get sold in theaters. Additionally, if you reject the rating and submit the film as unrated, your film will not get sold in theaters.
So you end up with two choices: either you re-submit your film to be rated again, or you cut out the things the MPAA mentions and re-submit your film to be rated again hoping they will lower the rating.
A very famous example of this, as was seen in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (which I highly recommend) is Kimberly Pierce's film Boys Don't Cry. When Pierce submitted the film to the MPAA for a rating they returned it with an NC-17 rating in part due to a female orgasm that "lasts too long." When Pierce called the MPAA to ask what was wrong with that particular scene she says the MPAA responded: "well, we don't really know but that's offensive."
Another famous example is Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1. During the fight at the House of Blue Leaves, the reason why the film becomes black & white halfway through is that the MPAA wanted to give it an NC-17 rating when the entire scene was in color. By changing it to black & white the MPAA re-evaluated their decision and gave it an R rating.
So what you have with the MPAA is, like with the National Board of Censorship, a de-facto censorship organization. They have a team of screeners who decide the ratings every film gets. Without those ratings, filmmakers don't have a chance to end up in theaters nationwide. So while they claim the entire process is voluntary, and therefore not censorship, they have created a system where filmmakers and production companies can't function without them.
And (unsurprisingly) the MPAA is just as ridiculous with their standards as they were when they were the MPPDA and were enforcing the production code. Female sexuality (ranging from explicit nudity to showing a female orgasm) often gets an NC-17 rating right away while violence, blood, and torture will get R ratings. If you say fuck more than once in a film you automatically go from PG-13 to R. In fact, there are some films that are rated R only because of their curse words (words, I should add, teenagers are already using on a daily basis in their personal lives).
So what do we do? Well, while I suppose it's not practical, what we should do is scrap the MPAA.
Firstly, as has already been detailed, it acts as a de-facto censorship board with ridiculous standards. It is not a voluntary system for directors who want their work to be seen (which is everyone) and it tampers with creative vision. In other words, the system is already so corrupt that trying to alter it would be just like the MPPDA changing its name and creating a new system.
Secondly, the ratings do not protect kids. This is their main goal, and yet more parents are bringing their kids to rated-R films every day. I remember sitting in the theater when Logan was playing and seeing parents file in with their six to ten-year-old daughters and sons. So if the system isn't "protecting children" what is it good for?
Finally, the MPAA rating system has often revealed itself to be sexist and homophobic, often giving films that deal with female sexuality and same-sex relationships much harsher ratings than films dealing with male sexuality and heterosexual relationships.
If you need a clear example of this, just look to Ghostbusters where Dan Akroyd's character gets oral sex from a ghost. That was rated PG. Boys Don't Cry had to fight against an NC-17 rating in part because of a female orgasm that went on longer than the MPAA liked.
Now we can't have total anarchy, either. I don't subscribe to an "anything goes" style system. But a new system needs to be built from the ground up. Maybe by directors; maybe by filmgoers. Regardless of where it comes from, though, it should not be shrouded in secrecy and held to complete privacy like the MPAA is. People have the right to know what is in the films coming out -- it can help them decide whether or not they want to see it. But the focus should not be to deter people from going to see films. It should be to excite them.
Just ask yourself this question: would you still have gone to see Kill Bill Vol. 1 if it had an NC-17 rating? If the House of Blue Leaves sequence had been fully in color? An NC-17 rating, or the lack of a rating, shouldn't bar someone from participating in the theater experience. The MPAA makes it so those filmmakers cannot have that experience, though, unless they bend the knee and obey their (often) ridiculous wishes.
That is why the MPAA needs to go.