Thursday, May 24, 2007

The “M” is for “Machiavellian”: The MPAA Rating System

A couple nights ago my husband and I watched the fascinating Kirby Dick documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated.” Let me just say, the MPAA has established a completely un-American, unconstitutional form of policing the film industry that just blew our minds. Rent the DVD and find out the whole crazy story. (But not from Blockbuster: their MPAA policy means they won’t carry it...yet another reason to sign up for Netflix!)

For the purposes of this post, I’ll just discuss one aspect of the documentary, its revelation of the interesting standards of the MPAA’s raters when it comes to sex. (Insofar as one can determine any standards, for this bunch is as whimsical as it comes.) First of all, it’s amazing the extent of violence a film can get away with and still merit an R rather than an NC-17, compared to the level of sex. Anyone who’s seen “Saw 3” has to wonder why the raters thought that movie was acceptable for teen viewing. On the other hand, the 2003 film “The Cooler” was given an NC-17 for the mere reason that one love scene permitted a glimpse of Maria Bello’s pubic hair (and it was a tender scene between two people in love, not anything purely gratuitous like that infamous Sharon Stone shot). Maria Bello won a Satellite and was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, by the way.

The documentary also demonstrates pretty convincingly that the same scene performed by heterosexuals will pass for R, whereas if performed by gays or lesbians it gets an NC-17. I suppose in view of popular public mores, I’m not surprised by that (although I’m not pleased either). But what irked me the most was that in more than one instance, the raters slapped an NC-17 on a film because the women simply had too long of orgasms.


Truly, they appear to have a beef with women having too much fun. Mind you, the camera is on the woman’s face here. Nudity or explicitness or penetration are not the issue. The problem is the obviousness of the woman’s pleasure.

Now I just had to wonder what kind of society judges the age-appropriateness of its entertainment on these sorts of standards. Women can be beaten, raped, and murdered by psycho-slashers, and we’ll let our teens see that, but if the ladies enjoy themselves in bed, that’s right out.

This really scares me.

Kirby Dick asked director Kevin Smith (one of my personal heroes) if he were in charge of the firm rating system, what sort of standards he would use. Kevin said he would most harshly judge those films that showed the violent humiliation of women. The documentary showed a quick montage of scenes from R-rated films guilty of this charge, and it was a slice of cinematic horror.

Meanwhile, interestingly, I most of the scenes the MPAA objected to which were shown in the documentary to be examples of thoughtful, artistic cinema. I truly felt for the directors interviewed, as they struggled with the absurdity of the MPAA requirements that nevertheless they were forced to address, lest their films suffer certain box office death. (Under today’s film distribution and marketing systems, NC-17 is indeed the kiss of death.) And monetary considerations aside, these filmmakers simply did not want huge portions of their potential audience led to believe the message and/or content of their films was prurient.

As a writer of fiction with erotic content, I thank my lucky stars I’m free to create, release and promote my work without a watchdog like the MPAA breathing down my neck. And the fact that the members of the ratings and appeals boards are kept secret, not monitored by any body outside themselves, and accountable to no one is downright Machiavellian.

And lastly, how sex got such a bad rap with these people is simply beyond my comprehension.


Jen said...

I've never even thought about the rating system! But, now that you mention it, it is really ridiculous the way things are rated. Let's add cartoons to this. Most are rated G. I'm sorry, just because Shrek is animated doesn't mean the smallest of kids should see it. Look at other Disney Animated movies with a G rating. Sleeping Beauty gets poisioned by an apple, Cinderella teaches kids that Step Mother's are evil, Bambi the mom is killed for cryin out loud!

bluelunareagle said...

A good point well made. New to your blog, which I found via theNextBigWriter, and very impressed by it. Look forward to returning.

Diana Laurence said...

Great observations there, Jen. The death of Dumbo's mom was horrific too!

Thanks, Blue Lunar Eagle, I hope you'll come back often!