Guest post: Kyra S.
In the age of YouTube, Twitter, blogs, and other powerful sources of independent media, censorship seems like an arcane concept relegated to authoritarian regimes. Perhaps this is why I found the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated simultaneously fascinating, frightening, and thought-provoking. If you haven’t seen it, go see it. Seriously…see it. It’s available for instant viewing on Netflix, or you’re local, you can check it out from the Ann Arbor District Library.
TFINYR is an exposé on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Director and narrator Kirby Dick initially takes viewers through the MPAA’s transformation from a parent-centered rating system, to a Mafia-like institution. One major focus of the documentary is on the significant impact a rating has on a film’s ultimate success. Film ratings go from G all the way to NC-17—which means no children under 17 admitted under any circumstances. In the biz, the dreaded NC-17 rating instantly limits a film’s ability to reach an audience, because many movie theaters won’t show these films, and distributors won’t buy ad space for a film that no one will see. The difference between an R and NC-17 rating, therefore, has a direct, linear effect on the viewership and monetary success of the film.
The second part of TFINYR is a detective story of sorts. Because MPAA raters are kept completely anonymous, Kirby Dick and a small team of private investigators go on a quest to determine their identities. Through clever investigative methods, they figure out some essentials to MPAA ratings: raters follow no formula for how to rate a film, and have no established credentials as experts in child psychology or any other relevant field. In fact, raters are praised for being normal people who have children between the ages of 5 and 17 (which is also proven false in the film).
It is not just the lack of qualifications of raters that has gotten me so incensed, but the reinforcement of violent, heteronormative messages for young people. To begin with, America’s rating system is completely inverted from Europe’s. In Europe, movies with excessive violence have more severe ratings, whereas in this country, sex is seen as more dangerous than death. Women’s sexuality in particular frightens raters. They reward movies that depict a woman enjoying herself or in control of her sexuality with NC-17 ratings. Homosexual behavior in films is also judged harshly. Heterosexuality and the denial of female pleasure are further buttressed as normal—all else is unacceptable. What messages do kids take away from a lack of exposure to films depicting romantic sexual encounters, homosexual sexual activity, or a woman who has agency over her sexuality?
What about all that violence that young Americans are inundated with? Movies that show blood and the consequences of violence, such as Saving Private Ryan, are actually given more severe ratings than movies that do not. So, shooting a gun doesn’t result in severe consequences? Is the assumption that children are more capable of figurative thinking than adults?
The MPAA and its rating system are problematic both because of the blatant reinforcement of a patriarchal society, and the lack of exposure to alternative ideas. History has taught us that exposure to the viewpoints of marginalized groups creates a more open and accepting society. If the MPAA is only representative of a small elite group, how can we expect an informed democratic citizenship?
The director of Jersey Girl, Kevin Smith, proffered my favorite quote of the movie: “If I were to create a rating system, […] I wouldn’t even put murder right at the top of the chief offenses. I would put rape right at the top of chief offenses […] and assault against women because it’s so insanely overused, and insulting how much it’s overused in movies as a plot device—a woman in peril. That to me is offensive. Yet that shit skates.”