MPAA’s Impact on Mainstream Culture

Let’s talk about movie ratings.

Back in 1946, Anti-Defamation League managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. They managed to witness various rituals and other customs. They had a problem, though. How to get this information to the public? So, they had a weird, but ingenious idea. They wanted The Adventures of Superman radio show, a huge hit at the time, to make a series of episodes based on them. And they did. While the factual basis of the information used in the show has been disputed, it did the trick. Soon enough the KKK couldn’t recruit anyone and was forced into hiding after people started to turn up at their rallies to mock them.

Exorcisms are on the rise once again. This seems to be partly the fault of Pope Francis and the rise of various Pentecostal churches, but as I was trying to find statistics on this, each article I found made it seem like the roots of the modern problem always go back to 1974 and the release of The Exorcist.

Tim Pool’s whole worldview is based on action movies. He used this as a talking point in a debate with Sam Seder. He actually brought up the point that movie villains are often utilitarian, naming specifically Thanos in an absurd attempt to sway Seder. One would hope that Pool is an outlier here, but his primary YouTube channel also has 1.26 million subscribers.

So, why these examples? While the effects of media on us is a highly disputed and controversial area (although there is no proof of movies actually causing violence, but that doesn’t mean violence in movies is automatically okay), it would seem that based on these two examples there is an effect, even if it’s hard to generalize from these examples. If we are aware of how media is knowingly or unknowingly manipulating us, we can at least somewhat understand its effect on us.

In the Loop is one of my favorite comedy movies. It’s a spin-off of a British political sitcom called The Thick of It, which revolves around a department in the UK government, which tries to handle whatever crisis they happen upon (or often causing them themselves). These attempts don’t generally go very well and that invariably leads them to face what they truly fear: the prime minister’s attack dog Malcolm Tucker, played by the future Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi.

The thing about Tucker is that he has no filter. At least in regards to those he holds power over with the exception of Sam, his secretary, who he always tries to treat with respect. The language used by Tucker is… colorful. Here’s some quotes from the series.

“He’s about as much use as a marzipan dildo.”

“All these hands all over the place! You were like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra.”

“Get over here. Now. Might be advisable to wear brown trousers and a shirt the colour of blood.”

“I just wanted to say to you by the way of introductory remarks that I’m extremely miffed about today’s events and in my quest to try to make you understand the level of my unhappiness I’m likely to use an awful lot of – what we would call – violent sexual imagery. And I just wanted to check that neither of you would be terribly offended by that.”

And yes, I’m censoring him in the sense that I chose quotes specifically without f-bombs or c-words, which actually took some work. According to IMDb, there’s a hundred and thirty five f-bombs in the hundred and six minute movie, eighty six of which were by Tucker. That’s only the beginning. Profane language is pervasive. It was also nominated for an Oscar for the script.

There’s an implicaiton of sex, one case of someone smoking a cigarette and some alcohol use. So, what would you suppose the age limit for such a movie would be? Well, it hasn’t been rated in the United States at all (despite the aforementioned Oscar nomination), but since you can’t drop more than a couple of f-bombs in your movie without an R-rating, that’s what it would have received.

In my home country of Finland, it’s listed as K3 on IMDb, but it’s actually S for ‘sallittu’ meaning that anyone can see it. Granted, the translators in Finland often choose to use softer language, but it’s not like ten-year-olds don’t know English and even younger can’t recognize those specific words.

Here’s some other ratings from across the globe:

In Norway it’s fine for all audiences.

You need to be seven in Sweden and Spain to see it.

Germany and the Netherlands are somewhat more restrictive by placing the line at twelve.

Singapore rated it M18, but it should be noted that there is a higher rating of R21 and some movies are outright forbidden.

That is quite a spectrum, but it is also a very interesting case, as we can quite easily isolate one variable here: The rating is largely based on how strong the language is as the movie doesn’t really have other content that would be seen as dangerous for young children. Of course, certain countries might object to the alcohol use, which does muddy the waters somewhat.

Robert Altman actually used the f-bomb rule to actively get an R-rating to his 2001 movie Gosford Park. In his mind he wanted the R to communicate to the audience that while this isn’t for kids in the sense that younger people might be bored by it. There’s six f-bombs. Just enough to make sure that if the board missed a couple, it would still be a clear R. Of course, this doesn’t work everywhere. In Finland it was K-11 at the time, but was later changed to 12., Norway has it similarly at 11, Spain and Sweden put it at seven, in Germany the limit is 12, but Netherlands went with something different and allows everyone to see it. Singapore is once again much tighter than the European countries with NC-16.

Let’s look at another kind of movie, A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a French movie from 2019. The main protagonist is Marianne, a painter in the late 18th century, who is contracted to paint a picture of Heloise in order for Heloise’s mother to convince a man to marry her. The two fall in love and for a short period are free to enjoy each other’s company and each other.

There is a strong implication of the two having sex regularly during this period and there is some female nudity portrayed in a very innocent and non-sexual way. I guess someone could also object to smoking a pipe and drinking wine regularly, but somehow I don’t think those have as much weight when the movie was certified in various countries.

In my native Finland, it received a K12. The website lists the reasons as one or more sexual scenes and plenty of references to sex, which would have been a great advertisement for the movie for me when I was twelve, but probably not before that.

In the United States it received an R for “some language and brief sexuality”. I didn’t even register any language someone might protest, but I guess I might just not be wired properly. However, this does lead me to believe that the brief sexuality is the true reason for the rating. Possible problems with the language could be easily ironed out with little tweaking in the translation anyhow.

On the positive side, I don’t think the homosexuality made a difference. The Downton Abbey movie includes as per IMDb “A scene at an underground dance club frequented by men is raided by police officers who reprimand the patrons for being “dirty perverts”. Many patrons flee from the club, however, some are arrested by police”, but is still rated as PG.

In regards to Portrait, returning to the other countries I listed earlier, Norway is still the most permissive with an A for all audiences. Spain, Sweden, Netherlands and Germany are on the same lines as previously as well, with Spain and Sweden rating it at seven and Netherlands and Germany going with twelve. Singapore gave it R21, which means that it can be shown only in licensed cinemas. This isn’t that uncommon. IMDb lists around twenty-five hundred titles which received this rating, which mostly appear to be TV shows.
How about another movie, which received an R specifically for nudity: This year’s Academy Award Winner for Best Movie: Nomadland. It contains one scene where the protagonist goes for a swim. She is nude, but the short moment is shot from far away and she is in the water the whole time. It’s very tame and non-sexual in nature. So tame in fact that the Finnish board decided to give it an S for sallittu, meaning that anyone can see it.

The boards in Norway, Sweden, Germany and Netherlands agreed with ours and let everyone see it as well. Spain is somewhat more careful at twelve and Singapore gave it M18.

Moving on to violence, let’s look at a movie I don’t need to recommend. You’ve either seen it or you are not at all interested: The Dark Knight. Here’s some quotes from IMDb on the violent content.

“It is implied that a man is burned to death on a pile of money.”

“The Joker slams a pencil into a man’s eye brutally. No blood or gore shown.”

“A man is shown to have a bomb sewn under his skin… the man can still be seen blowing up into a blood red smoke cloud.”

Despite these and many more violent scenes, the parental guide also states that “there is no real gore and there is very, very little blood.” This almost feels like someone defending the decision to give the movie a PG-13. I remember this being a somewhat controversial decision at the time, but now, over a decade later, it has become the norm.As long as you avoid blood, anything goes.

This isn’t new though. Films, such as Evil Dead 2, have in the past gone to weird lengths specifically to avoid getting an X rating, which was later replaced with NC-17. They used various liquids with different colors. It didn’t help, so they released it unrated, although it was later rerated as R. It does show, however, that filmmakers are willing to compromise their vision on a hope. Because the guidelines are so murky, you can’t really know.

In the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated – yes that is the name of the movie – the director Dick Kirby documents the process of rating the film he is making, as well as the appeal process. The movie is 15 years old, so things might have changed, but it is still revealing in many ways. For example, Matt Stone talks about his experiences both as an independent filmmaker and working for a studio, which were very different. While his independent projects were just given a rating and that was that, the studio projects received very detailed notes.

Stone also talked about their approach to Team America: World Police. The film includes a puppet sex scene, which they knew would be of interest to the ratings board, so they decided to negotiate by adding as much material to the scene as possible, so that the board could feel that they have had influence on it, when the scene would be more on the lines of the the filmmakers actually wanted. This kind of thinking leaves the filmmakers in a situation, where they have this one extra element they need to take into account.

But This FIlm Is Not Yet Rated shows another interesting angle, which isn’t talked about in the movie. Kirby interviews ten different filmmakers, three of whom were women or genderqueer. Now, in general, if we would choose a random people and this is the result, that would seem low but this is not a random sample. So, let’s look a little deeper even if we do have to remember that this isn’t a true sample as there is self-selection involved.

According to Inclusion Initiative by Annenberg Foundation, only three out of one hundred and twelve movies they looked at from 2007 were directed by women. While the situation is somewhat better now, MPAA might have been part of the reason this disparity exists. If women face problems with the ratings board much more frequently than men, they will have trouble not only executing their vision, but also in finding financing, because they are riskier investments. Kimberly Peirce, who was interviewed by Kirby for her (I hope it’s ‘her’ – I tried to check, but could only find articles using female pronouns) experiences with the rating of Boys Don’t Cry from 1999, has only been able to direct two movies since then.

Art informs our worldview and movies are one of the artforms we consume the most. So, MPAA is working to shut out the views of around half the population. Not that the industry in itself isn’t also to blame. On the other hand, is MPAA even distinct from the industry? MPAA might want to appear so, but self-regulation has been the industry way of avoiding being legislated. The earlier Motion Picture Production Code or – as it’s better known – Hays Code might have been concocted by outsiders, but the industry itself decided to follow them and only moved to the new system after realizing that international movies didn’t have to care about the sometimes absurd rules.

Of the countries I’ve listed the ratings for in this essay, the United States is the only one that is purely self-regulated. Germany doesn’t have an official ratings system and the system in use is voluntary self-regulation, but Germany also has laws regarding content.
Jack Valenti, the man behind the MPAA ratings system, wanted to avoid censorship, but I’m not sure he ever quite managed that. While MPAA doesn’t technically censor anything, it does encourage people with financial interest in the movies being made to push their filmmakers into following a combination of hard rules and educated guesses on what the board might feel about certain aspects of the movie.

This isn’t just a United States problem. It is a global problem. While there are many This small group of people, who are supposedly representing the norms of the population at large, are making decisions not only on what’s good for children to see, but also for adults. Most big hits are PG-13, so studios want to hit that sweet spot. With hundreds of millions being poured into producing and marketing movies, they need to maximize their audience.

But while the board is supposed to follow the norms, they are actually setting them. They have chosen a stance based on what they can convince politicians to find appropriate, because in the end their goal is to hold the power over the ratings. Valenti wasn’t just some guy managing this process. He was an industry lobbyist. He protected the industry from legislation or tried to push through legislation protecting the industry. When you work with politicians this way, you have to adhere to their thinking. And politicians as a group are older and more conservative than the population as a whole. While you do want people making the decisions to have some experience and thus it’s understandable that they skew older, but if MPAA needs to be able to sell their idea of a ratings system to older, more conservative people, can they really represent the opinions of the majority of American parents as they claim? Is the majority of American parents really more willing to show violence to their children than nudity or profanities?

Okay, admittedly I’m a little afraid that the answer is a ‘yes’. While China is growing fast as a market, the US is still the largest. As viewership has begun to realize that in order to be able to have their movies shown in China, studios are changing them. Well, studios were doing the exact same thing for the US and thus making decisions for us in the rest of the world, because most of the movies we watch are from those same studios. The rest of the world just can’t compete with the production values with a budget often just one hundredth of what Disney or WB can put into their projects.

When I was 16, we had a field trip to see The Schindler’s List. In hindsight, that was a pretty defining moment in my life. Up to that point I had found drama films boring, but The Schindler’s List was different. It was gripping and even if I understood even at the time that movies will embellish the truth, it still felt real. While I obviously was aware of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities, those were pretty much just stats for me. And while those numbers do hold a meaning, that single red coat will always haunt me in a way that will never let me forget what happened.

Anyhow, seeing movies such as this is important. Especially in our formative years. If a movie receives an R, what school or teacher is willing to show that movie to their students?

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a limit of some sort. Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of my favorite directors. I’m not even a big fan of his movies with the exception of Theorem, but what I do love about him is that he was never shy about being himself and expressing his opinions. I’m not going to claim I completely understand his views, as they were very specific to the context of post-War Italy, but he was openly gay, an atheist at least at various times in his life, very anti-organized religion and at least symphatized with the communist party. While he was never convicted, he was often charged with various victimless crimes against some arbitrary moral code.

Pasolini’s last movie, which was supposed to be the beginning of his Trilogy of Death in contrast to his earlier Trilogy of Life, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is based on the writings of de Sade. It is exactly what it’s reputation suggests: many, many scenes of sexual torture.

However, watching the movie does communicate something very different: The perpetrators of this atrocity are the four men who supposedly should be guarding their people from this kind of behavior. They represent the supposedly democratically elected leader of the small republic, the Catholic church, the hereditary nobility and the judicial system. You can read a lot more into what they are doing than simply using their status to sate their perversions. Is their marrying of each other’s daughters an attempt to keep their class separate from the lower classes? What is their complicated ceremony trying to convey about the nature of the Catholic church?

You might want your children to understand these lessons, but the works of Pasolini are probably not the right way to convey them and while I did see Salo at a very young age, I can’t claim I was able to see past the shocking imagery before seeing the movie again decades later.
But what about something like Cuties? MPAA didn’t even have to get into this one as their well-trained followers did the work for them. It caused some amount of controversy last year before most of the people involved would even have had any access to the movie and I probably would have dismissed it outright, as I usually do, if it didn’t still show a 3.2 user rating on IMDb. Apparently people took this one very seriously, because it is actually a pretty good movie.

It’s about an 11-year-old girl who is beginning to discover her sexuality. She joins a dance troupe of similarly aged girls, who perform dances which could be seen as provocative, but at the same time, these are just kids, who are just imitating their elders without a full knowledge of what they are doing. Is it an uncomfortable watch? Sure, at times it is very much so, but that is the point. Society is telling girls this is how they should act. That wasn’t a problem caused by the filmmakers. They have just identified something they want to feature in their work, because they feel it’s important.

So, why would we punish the person who raises this point by boycotting their work? Again, we are shutting down female voices. In this specific case, the boycott and review bombing were to stop a female artist from highlighting a societal problem by pointing out that the filmmaker has to do the exact thing she is criticizing.

The problem here is that now we can’t actually have a discussion on the topic at hand. Instead this becomes a “think of the children” kind of finger pointing when the writer-director is specifically thinking of the children. When we can’t have these kinds of discussions, the problem gets swept under the rug. We shouldn’t objectify anyone in this way, but especially not children.

While it can be argued the filmmakers didn’t look out for the young actors involved appropriately, they did have child psychologists on site to discuss all of this with them. You know who doesn’t listen to child psychologists? MPAA. They listen to an imagined typical parent and in their appeals process they listen to clergy from very specific Christian organizations (one of them being Catholics) and people representing the exhibitors. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be vigilant about protecting the children, but to discuss it is quite different from outright judging it as wrong.

The actual needs of the children or minorities are secondary to the facade of following “common sense” and of course the needs of the money. I, as a 44-year-old white atheist middle-class male, can’t really no about the problems faced by a preteen Senegalese-French black muslim girl from a poor family without sources like these.

Essentially, I am a curious person and there is no cure for curiosity, but I don’t want to learn simply to sate this trait in me. I want to learn so that I can be a better person and a better ally to those in need of allies. I might not be able to help each preteen Senegalese-French black muslim girl from a poor family that could benefit from having better opportunities, but just having an understanding of the very different situations people live in around the world gives me both tools and motivation to try to do something, even if that something isn’t as much as I would like.


Various IMDb-pages

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