Home > Editorial > The MPAA, the NC-17 Rating, and Me: Part I

The MPAA, the NC-17 Rating, and Me: Part I

Blue Is the Warmest ColorPosterThe buzz out of Cannes this year surrounds the Palme d’Or winner, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, not only for having been selected by a panel led by Steven Spielberg, but also because of the film’s subject matter – an intense lesbian relationship – as well as a steamy (from what I’ve read) and lengthy lesbian sex scene.  This has reignited (or at least exacerbated), the debate about the MPAA ratings system and its NC-17 rating, which got me thinking about a three-part piece I wrote for the the first website to ever let me write a column, Man I Love Films, entitled The Scarlet Rating, when Shame was released in 2011.  Since the controversy is back in the forefront, I thought I’d take the opportunity to republish each part here over the next three days.  All of the text is the same as when it was originally published; only the images are different.

The Scarlet Rating, Part I: The Devil You Know

Steve McQueen’s sexual addiction drama, Shame, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, has been a darling of this year’s festival circuit, and has been on the Oscar short-list of many awards prognosticators. That is, until it was given a rating of NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).


Oh sure, it’s still the festival darling it always was, but now its Oscar hopes are in jeopardy.

My original intent was to write specifically about the issuance of the NC-17 rating to Shame, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that this issue isn’t just about why Shame received an NC-17 rating. It goes beyond that.

The following is the first of a three-part look at how we perceive, and react to, the MPAA ratings system as a whole.


So, another film got an NC-17 rating. Enough with the hand-wringing, already.

There seem to be three primary complaints that flare up every time a film lands precariously close to X.

The first complaint is that the ratings system as we know it stinks.

Don’t be fooled. The ratings system as we know it doesn’t stink.

The MPAA film rating system was born in 1968 as a replacement for the antiquated Hays Code and, by 1972, had settled into that familiar, four-rating system: G, PG, R, and X. In 1984, PG-13 was added (at the recommendation, so the story goes, of none other than Steven Spielberg). In 1990, NC-17 replaced X (which was ultimately relegated to all things pornographic).


And that’s it. Forty years. Two changes. With none in the last twenty.

And this is exactly why THIS ratings system DOESN’T stink. Time and consistency have proven that it works. Sure, it isn’t perfect, but nothing is. And if you don’t believe it works, and if you think it’s so bad that it needs to be wholly overhauled, invent a new one yourself.

It’s not that easy. I’ve pondered a new ratings system for years, and I can tell you from experience that the current system works for the very reason why so many people seem to hate it: because it’s subjective.

Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964 that he couldn’t define pornography, but he would know it when he saw it. That suggests a reliance on instinct. The same holds true for the members of the MPAA who rate films. They use instinct to be their guide because clear-cut “rules” are impractical. Any other process that is less subjective becomes encumbered by measurement, comparison, and the quest for absolute equality.

Consider the following questions in the context of a less-subjective ratings system (be it yours, mine, or anyone else’s):

Which dirty words might change a rating? And how many? Plus, is there some foul language exchange rate? How many damns equal one shit? How many shits equal one fuck? And what is the price of the C-bomb? And don’t forget context. Is there a greater price to pay for the word fuck as a verb or noun as there is for the same word used as an interjection or idiom?

What about nudity? Are four topless females any different than one? What if the setting is in a gynecologist’s office versus a locker room? What about full-frontal female nudity vs. full-frontal male nudity? Is there a difference and does context count there? And if there is a difference (as there appears to be today), how many full-frontal females equal one full-frontal male?

Shame Sex Scene2 LTBX

Let’s talk about sex (baby). If we assume that the explicit sight of any sort of penetration sends you straight to X (do not pass Go, do not collect $200), which simulated sex acts carry more weight than others? And does it matter if the partners are same-gendered? Or married? Or teenagers?

And then there are the seemingly limitless degrees of violence, from over-the-top action-flick bullets-and-bombs to gory and explicit horror fare. I won’t continue with great specificity, but I will ask you this: would you rate a film differently if someone lost their fingers to a horror film psycho versus losing them to a grenade in WWII? And if you did, which would be worse?

And when it comes to drug use, is pill-popping different than pot-smoking, and is that different than smack-shooting?

Whew! Ok. You’ve answered all of the questions and you have some kind of scoring system in place. Now what? What will the actual rating be? A number? A letter? A combination? And does the number/letter/combination you FINALLY issue mean it’s a film heavy in violence or heavy in sex? And what if, in one film, there is mild sex, mild violence, mild language, and mild drug use? Is it a mild film? Or do you combine all of this so-called “bad” behavior and call it a much more mature overall picture?


You see the challenge.

The ratings system as we know it isn’t perfect. But on the whole, it works. And on the whole, the ratings system as we know it is a devil-you-know vs. devil-you-don’t situation. And let’s face it. We’re ultimately okay with the devil we’ve got.

Next week: But What About the Children?

  1. February 15, 2016 at 14:38

    I’ll immediately grab your rss as I can’t to find your email subscription link or newsletter service.
    Do you’ve any? Please permit me know so that I may just subscribe.

    • February 16, 2016 at 06:43

      Sorry John. I have no email or newsletter services set up. Thanks for asking, though!

  1. June 1, 2013 at 14:13
  2. June 2, 2013 at 13:09

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