September 13, 1999
Volume 52, No. 4
Film studies' Bernstein asks, Do movie ratings work?
As a lover of films and as a parent, I have mixed feelings about President Bill Clinton's campaign last summer to get movie theater chains to enforce the rating system and restrict underage ticket buying.
It's easy to see Clinton's move as political grandstanding; he avoids condemning the filmmakers (some of his strongest supporters) by focusing on the theaters. And it's hard to control where the kids go once inside a multiplex.
Even if the policy worked, policing the theaters would regulate teenagers' access to only one source of violent imagery in our popular culture. Clinton's move is also facile--politicians have made headlines for decades by bashing the film industry, most horribly during the anti-Communist "witch hunts" in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s.
It's been suggested that controlling where kids go once inside a multiplex raises the specter of censorship: restricting access to artistic expression, even if it can be proven to have debilitating effects on impressionable minds. But this criticism of the Clinton policy doesn't wash. Adolescents can still see the films they want to see, only now their older relatives or friends must accompany them.
Nor is the ratings system itself a censorship mechanism. It is a system of classification, intended to give parents and viewers some guidance as to what they might see and hear-in terms of language, drug use, violence and sensuality and nudity-before they enter the theater. We are free to take note of the ratings or ignore them.
The ratings are discussed and negotiated by an anonymous panel of ordinary parents, the Classification and Ratings Administration. If filmmakers or distributors are unhappy with the rating, they negotiate and/or appeal it. Most recently, the makers of South-Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (and distributor Paramount Pictures) had extensive negotiations with the ratings board to get that film an R rating rather than the NC-17 rating. (NC-17 is effectively box-office poison, since the core market for movies consists of teenagers and no one under 17 can see NC-17 films under any circumstances.) The film was effectively offensive, even with the cuts.
The ratings board's work sounds like censorship, but some movie history helps put things in perspective. The Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that movies were not entitled to First Amendment protection. Thereafter and until the mid-1960s, American states and cities employed movie censors who cut scenes or banned films based on their individual judgment as to what was fitting for their community.
Atlanta's censors, from 1917 to 1962, were particularly sensitive and disapproving of depictions of social equality between the races, criminals who went unpunished, loose women and lascivious men, and unflattering portrayals of the South in general and of Georgia in particular.
The beginning of the end of such censorship came with a 1952 Supreme Court decision that reversed the 1915 ruling and granted movies First Amendment protection. Simultaneously with these legal developments, Hollywood changed from making mostly family-oriented films to producing more "adult"-themed movies about alcoholics, drug addicts, police brutality, the death penalty, sexual promiscuity, etc. As Hollywood made increasingly frank films on formerly taboo subjects, the studio's agency responsible for reviewing scripts and finished films on moral grounds (the Production Code Administration) became obsolete. The PCA was scrapped in 1966.
Enter the ratings system, created in 1968 and sponsored by the Motion Picture Producers' Association's leader Jack Valenti, who still heads this industry group. Admittedly the ratings system has not worked perfectly. Filmmakers protest that it infringes on their freedom of expression because it forces them to make cuts to obtain ratings desirable for strong box office. On occasion, major distributors have dropped films rather than release them branded NC-17 (as with Universal-owned October Films and Todd Solondz's Happiness last spring).
Parents have been outraged over what they consider inappropriate material in a particular category. For example, the MPPA had to create the PG-13 category after Steven Spielberg's PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom explicitly showed a beating heart pulled from a victim's body.
The most pertinent criticism of the ratings system is that its board members have been more puritanical about labeling sexual frankness and surprisingly tolerant of violence. In other words, a scene with a hint or brief glimpse of female frontal nudity was more likely to earn an R rating than a scene of machine-gun killings.
If this double standard persists, it is because the ratings system reflects our broader culture. With every decade we've become less sensitive to movie violence, and I believe this is the case in part because, surprisingly enough, we now appreciate a film's style regardless of its content.
Until the late 1950s and early 1960s, American critics and audiences admired films with serious content from Hollywood or from abroad. It was only in the 1960s that Americans came to appreciate films that might be entertaining but extremely stylish and to give films like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho the critical appreciation usually reserved for puzzling foreign films or Hollywood "message" movies. Today one can appreciate the Wachowski brothers' Matrix as an extremely entertaining, violent, sci-fi action film that is extremely stylish, hip and ironic; 30 or 40 years ago it would have been dismissed as well-made but mindless fun.
It makes more sense, I believe, to recognize these aspects of our movie culture-as viewers, we have learned not to take any of it too seriously. We've become so attentive to how Scream reinvents the slasher film with homages to Halloween that we don't stop to consider what is actually on the screen. Our children are learning to do the same-and now the violence at Columbine and Heritage high schools has forced us to think twice about the violent content of our mass media and video entertainment.
We cannot expect the ratings system always to capture the nuances, ironies and other subtleties of a film's general tone. It cannot distinguish a violent critique of America like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers from the average slasher film (nor can many viewers).
The ratings system also cannot please everyone because not everyone agrees on what is objectionable for kids of a certain age. When my older son was 11, my wife and I were appalled to learn that some of his friends had been allowed to see The Silence of the Lambs.
So I would argue that we are still better off with the ratings system than without it. In my experience, the ratings are reasonable and appropriate more often than not. Moreover, enforcing the R rating at movie theaters is not censorship, pure and simple. And even if ratings cannot register nuances of meaning, even if the motivations for the policy are cynical, that does not invalidate the results-one of which could be that we watch more R-rated films with our children and talk about them afterwards.
Matthew Bernstein is an associate professor in Film Studies. This
article was first published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.