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There Will Not Be Blood: Thoughts on Movie Ratings and a PC Culture…

I feel decidedly behind the times in writing this. After all, the gigantic scuffle over the MPAA’s rating of the documentary Bully seems to have resolved itself, with both the Weinstein company and the MPAA reaching a settlement that both can agree on to get the film distributed with a rating that won’t alienate its target audience. However, I can’t help but feel like this single case of compromise managed to avoid the heart of the issue at question. By allowing this single film to slip through the net, the censorship authority avoid an actual discussion on the role and obligations of a ratings authority. It’ll only be a matter of time before another controversy erupts, and that will undoubtedly be dealt with on its own terms as well, avoiding any actual debate or discussion about how censorship bodies rate particular films.

I can’t help but feel that ratings authorities around the world are wrapped in cotton wool and trapped by a culture of political correctness. I think it’s ironic that the first people to decry the “lax” standards of various international ratings authorities are precisely the same sort of people who would argue for small government or less government interference in their lives and the lives of their children.

When did it become the State’s job to decide what children should and shouldn’t see? Surely that falls within the realm of the parent or guardian to look at their own kid and to determine if they are capable of watching Saving Private Ryan or The King’s Speech on their own terms? I’ve always generally believed that parents should know what their kids are watching or playing, and that it is part of the fundamental responsibility of parents to safe-guard that.

 

After all, different kids develop at different rates, and different children are raised in different households believing different things. Different parents have different hot-button topics for their children – some might be okay with their children witnessing violence as part of a historical film, rather than indulging in romanticism about global conflict; some might be more comfortable with their teenagers watching movies about sexuality and love than about nihilistic violence; some might think that their kids would learn a lot from naturalistic dialogue, even if it incorporates profanity.

The problem with expecting a body like the MPAA to put a hard-and-fast age rating on a particular film is that it devolves a lot of that responsibility. It also makes a child’s movie watching a far less personal experience. I am talking, quite freely, from personal experience here, but watching movies with my family was an essential part of growing up. I remember my grandfather used to pick films he thought would be of interest and recommend them, and watch them with me. I remember (and still partake in) legitimate family discussions choosing “the movie of the week.”

Trying to standardise an age restriction ends up feeling somewhat arbitrary, because it needs to be standardised. There need to be precedents to decision-making, because no state authority can be seen to be entirely arbitrary. There are obviously films that I would never show to a child, but I don’t think you can really reduce the justification down to a clinical collection of reasons. I’d make the case that it comes down to “common sense”, but a decision based on “common sense” can’t meet the standards of transparency and reviewability necessary for a state body.

So we codify what we can and can’t show, and “tally up” for a particular film. Somehow, saying the word”fuck” more than four times bumps the rating from PG-13 to R in the United States. Part of me wonders if the fifth time is the charm in turning young kids into swearing-mad hooligans. The problem here is that there’s no allowing for context. The King’s Speech famously fell foul of this system, despite the fact that the character wasn’t swearing at anybody in particular.

In contrast, X-Men: First Class got a PG-13 rating despite one of its most popular characters telling another to “fuck off.” If the goal is to stop kids from emulating big-screen behaviour, I suspect they’re more likely to emulate Marvel’s most iconic merry mutant instead of the King of England, but that’s me.

I think this sort of “woods for the trees” approach is well illustrated in the way that the MPAA deals with violence. It seems it’s quite easy for a violent film to keep a PG-13 rating… as long as they don’t show blood. It seems like a logical distinction, because more blood means more gore, which is more graphic and possibly disturbing. But what does that really say? To me, it seems like it’s okay to show kids ridiculous violent acts, without any consequences.

People worry about kids emulating violent films, but I can’t help but worry that kids are more likely to attempt something that was shown to be clean and bloodless rather than an act that had a very graphic aftermath. I think that was my problem with The Hunger Games, a movie that seemed to want to condemn that sort of brutality. However, none of the violence in the film seemed to have any consequence. Even when a character was impaled through the chest with a spear, it seemed like it was a flesh wound.

If anything, rather than warning kids about violence in popular culture, I worry that there are going to be kids out there playing at The Hunger Games, significantly undermining what appears to be the central point of the film in question. Many of the films that I feel are actually important to show kids – like Mississippi Burning, for example – are rated in such a way that implies they should not be shown to kids. I think that the graphic nature of the film is what makes it so perfect. Mississippi repulses the viewer in a way that The Hunger Games can’t, and thus leaves them feeling much more strongly about the matter at hand.

There’s also the somewhat unnerving observations that the ratings system makes about our own culture. Hell, Blue Valentine initially got into trouble for including a scene where the male lead performed oral sex on the female lead, while other movies have gotten away with more graphic and less taboo sequences with lower ratings. Male nudity” exists as a ratings classification distinct from “nudity.” Some have argued that the institution has a somewhat homophobic outlook.

More than that, though, I can’t help but wonder at the inherent bias in favour to violence as against sexuality. I find it weird that the (occasionally incredibly brutal) violence The Dark Knight is somehow more acceptable to show to kids and teens that a shirtless woman or a pantsless man. It seems strange that parents seem to reinforce this attitude – reacting more strongly to inappropriate sex scenes than they do to the casual use of guns or swords or knives.

Of course, you could argue that these are exceptional cases, but I think there’s enough of them that it is time to talk about movie ratings and how we assign them and what purpose they serve. Hard cases make for bad law, but I think that a medium like film is subjective enough that rigourously applying hard-and-fast rules undermines a lot of the more important underlying issues. Decisions like this need to be based on context, even if it does make it harder to quantify and qualify decision-making.

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4 Responses

  1. Great piece. I do find it strange about the sexuality vs violence thing. It does seem that decisions should be based on context and seeing as they review every single film individually, this should be possible. They are so scared of making a mistake but then why are they not more careful about violence? I completely agree with your point about kids seeing violence without consequences. Show them blood, show them pain, show them violence hurts and is destructive.

    Only thing that concerns me is that unfortunately I don’t beleive all parents are the best judges of what their children should be watching. I hate to say it and be judgmental but I am aware of some pretty terrible and down right worrying parents. In that case we do need state intervention but this goes way beyond just film classification.

    • I remember once being asked if I would recommend a comic book for somebody’s teenager. I said it was very clever, very violent and a little graphic, but quite witty. They had no problem with the violence at all, but balked when the notion of sexuality came it. Apparently the book would have been fine, save for it featured two men in a committed and loving relationship. (The irony being that this was the only wholesome thing in the comic, and there was nothing graphic at all, especially compared to the violence and even the female characters.) I was quite offended by the homophobic nature of the query, but I simply answered the factual question without offering an opinion. It’s not place, I know – and if I had made any such point, it would have just sparked an argument that wouldn’t have resolved anything either way.

      I just found it very weird the priorities of the parent in question, and wondered what that kid’s going grow up thinking, you know? And, again, not my place, but still…

  2. You make an interesting case here for reform on the rating system. I have some friends who themselves won’t see anything over a PG-13 and I have some who will see anything and pretty much decide for themselves at the violence and the sex. I myself don’t even notice the ratings, in fact, I’m always quite surprised when someone brings it up.

    To me the rating system is a simple gauge. People know that a PG-13 film will desensitize and make more palatable violence and sex. I’m not saying this makes the end product a stellar one, The Hunger Games is an excellent example you brought up yourself. It is a gauge though. People could comfortably allow their teenagers and children to go see the midnight showings and not feel a need to see it beforehand.

    I have to admit I’m probably on the more controlling end of parenthood in that I want to see and read the things my child would be seeing and reading, preferably before they do so. In other words, I would probably never use the MPAA’s rating to distinguish then what my child sees in a movie theater. I think society can only do so much in censoring a child, on the other hand the system would be too subjective if there weren’t hard and fast rules. So while I agree to your “fuck off” point, if the rating system didn’t go by number of fucks then no one would be able to come to a consensus.

    So until we either go to a more communist or socialist rule where they tell the people the government’s opinion and treat that as society’s we are kind of stuck with our more democratic ways. It’s not that I like it but our systems aren’t perfect, they are based on freedom and choice. Well that’s a small part of my opinion anyway. Cheers! Great post by the way 🙂

    • You are, of course, entirely right about the number of swears. If we didn’t have a rule based on number, it would have to be based on cotnext, and that would open the system to a massive amount of criticism for being “arbitrary” and “prejudiced.” Having a number keeps it transparent, even if I’m not convinced it always leads to the right decision. Although, it would be just as right to state I’m looking at it backwards, that a system should be designed to reach the “right result”, but a fair system will only ever reach the right decision – if that makes sense. That the decision should be a result rather than a factor.

      Thanks!

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