Last night I watched This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the documentary about the MPAA‘s film ratings system. It was an interesting film that raised a number of valid criticisms about the ratings system, but ultimately I think it was too intent on blaming the MPAA and completely missed a far deeper issue.
First the good bits.
It certainly seems strange to me that the people on the film ratings board are all anonymous. The MPAA says that this is to ensure that they are free to do their job without the threat of any kind of coercion, but if that’s really a problem then surely it can be addressed in other ways. Having an anonymous group of people making these decisions really doesn’t encourage people to believe that this process is fair and open.
The film also demonstrated that the ratings have been wildly inconsistent over the years. For example gay sexual scenes always seem to be rated more harshly than similar straight scenes. Or, perhaps that’s not inconsistent. Perhaps that’s completely consistent, but bigoted – which would, of course, also be a problem. It’s also the case that sexual content is often rated more harshly that violent content. For example, all of the extreme violence in American Psycho was fine, it was a relatively brief sex scene that had to be re-edited in order for the film to avoid an NC-17 rating.
All of this shows that there are problems with the way that the ratings system is administered. But in my opinion there are deeper issues that are completely outside of the MPAA’s control which also need to be addressed. In many (probably most) cases I agree completely with the ratings board’s decision to give a film an NC-17 rating. There was some spectacular naivety shown by some of the film-makers interviewed when they expressed surprise that the ratings board didn’t want their films seen by people under the age of seventeen. Of course there are some things that should only be watched by adults. And remember that NC-17 is the only US film rating that has any kind of age restriction. It’s not like the UK where you can give the film a 12 or 15 rating. Anyone in the US can see an R rated film as long as they are accompanied by an adult.
So the NC-17 rating shouldn’t be avoided. It should be used more. There should be many films released each year that are given an NC-17 rating. But that doesn’t happen currently because an NC-17 rating is seen as commercial death for a film. Many cinemas won’t show NC-17 films, newspapers won’t carry advertisements for them and some DVD rental companies refuse to stock them.
This is the fundamental problem. The NC-17 is avoided for commercial reasons when actually it should be embraced. There should be a market for NC-17 films. But something in the puritanical US society won’t allow that. Adult films (and I don’t just mean that in the sense of porn films) are doomed to commercial failure by the moral majority. Can’t they see that this is counter-productive? If there was an acceptable market for NC-17 films then you wouldn’t have so many people trying to push back the boundaries of what is acceptable in a R rated film.
There are definitely changes that need to be made to the way that the MPAA’s ratings board works. But I don’t agree that they need to rate fewer films as NC-17. If anything they should rate more films as NC-17. And the rest of the US film industry (in particular the distribution sections) need to promote NC-17 films more.