The MPAA, the NC-17 Rating, and Me: Part II
With the NC-17 discussion once again on the lips of many of those who have seen, or want to see, this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, I was reminded of a three-part series I wrote in 2011, about the MPAA ratings system and its NC-17 rating, for my first opinion column home, Man I Love Films. The series was entitled The Scarlet Rating and was inspired by the release and rating of director Steve McQueen’s Shame. Since the controversy is back in the forefront, I thought I’d take the opportunity to republish each part here over a three-day stretch. Today offers Part II and, as was the case with Part I, all of the text is the same as when it was originally published; only the images are different.
The Scarlet Rating, Part II: What About the Children?
Steve McQueen’s sexual addiction drama, Shame, was recently given a rating of NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
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.
The following is the second of a three-part look at how we perceive, and react to, the MPAA ratings system as a whole.
Last week, in PART I: THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, I addressed the ratings system itself, its flaws, and the challenges of designing something new.
This week, I want to consider why the MPAA ratings system bothers us in the first place.
Perhaps the most common complaint I’ve heard (and one that I happen to share) about the MPAA ratings system is that films with gratuitous violence – for example, Hostel – routinely receive R ratings, while films with sex that would be considered (at least by me) less than gratuitous – say, the “controversial” Showgirls – receive an NC-17 rating.
I have a theory.
From childhood, we are exposed to violence. Consider our (sometimes) daily dose of “kiddie” entertainment: Looney Tunes. Violent. The Three Stooges. Violent. Ultraman (and his kin). Violent. Reruns of the old Adam West Batman series. Violent. The Mighty Heroes. Violent. We know violence from an early age, and even though it’s not Hostel-like violence, it’s violence nonetheless, and our exposure to it has accumulated over years of viewing. If the members of the MPAA are like us, they might be desensitized, at least to a certain degree, to violence.
Sex, on the other hand, is another story. There is no sex-based equivalent of violence available to us at that age or in those forms. Inherently, this seems to make “us” more sensitive to sexual content due to a lack of continued exposure. It doesn’t make the MPAA right in their lack of parity, nor does it make us (or them) right for thinking that way, but I think the combination makes the disparity a little more understandable, at least.
The next complaint I’ve heard is that the rating system is a form of censorship. This is a complaint I do not share.
Censorship is about forbidding expression, not classifying what the expression is.
With that, the ratings system isn’t censorship; it’s a guideline to help viewers make choices about seeing a film (or letting their kids see a film). It’s also a guideline to help exhibitors make choices about showing a film, and if a theater doesn’t want to show a film because of its rating, that theater isn’t censoring the film – it’s making a business decision.
This is no different than Walmart refusing to stock its shelves with Playboy Magazine. Walmart isn’t censoring Playboy, Walmart is telling you that you simply can’t get Playboy in its stores, so go look somewhere else. The same applies to NC-17 films.
And I think THIS reflects the real root of the cries of foul: not censorship, but inconvenience.
If you want Playboy Magazine and Walmart doesn’t carry it, chances are pretty good that another store within your standard radius of travel does carry it. But unless you live in a metropolitan area, chances are also pretty good that your movie options – even with the quantity of screens at the local multiplex – are limited enough that NC-17 films aren’t an easy theatrical option, if an option at all.
That’s not censorship, that’s the breaks.
The third complaint I’ve heard, and this is my biggest head-scratcher, is that because the NC-17 rating carries with it an absolute denial of entry for anyone under 17 (presuming the theater enforces the rules), the MPAA is telling the American people what their children can and cannot watch, and there’s not a chance in hell anyone is going to dictate what Junior can and cannot watch unless it’s Mom and Dad.
So … if Mom and Dad say Junior should be unrestricted in his consumption because they say it’s okay, should Junior also be allowed, while on his way home from just having seen Shame in the theater, to stop by the 7-11 for a pack of smokes, swing by the liquor store for a case of beer (and a lottery ticket), and then finally hit the sex shop for a little Debbie Does Dallas old-school porn and some … you know, accessories?
I ask this for two reasons, and those two reasons are motivated by the “What about the children?” contingent.
The first reason is that this contingent tends to be quick to point out the flaws of the system, yet fails to acknowledge that the system is doing the best it can, and actually works a lot of the time. This contingent also tends to forget that there are parents out there who rely on the system to help them make choices about what their kids should and should not see, and that those parents have neither the time … and I would bet in a lot of cases, the money … to see a film in the theater before allowing Junior to see it.
The second reason is the absolute hubris it takes to say, “What about the children?”
It’s a movie.
It’s not education, or healthcare, or clothing, or food, or shelter.
It’s a movie.
Seeing Shame in the theater is not a right, it’s a privilege. And guess what? In the same way you can scoff at the rules and buy Junior the smokes and the beer and the lotto and the porn (with accessories) if you think he’s up for it, then for the price of two theater tickets you can ensure Junior sees Shame when it’s released on DVD in about three months.
Where’s the great denial of access in that?
There is something about the NC-17 rating that creates this angst. There isn’t great debate when a film fails to land a PG rating and instead takes its PG-13. There isn’t an overblown sense of entitlement when an R-rated “art house” film fails to find even one screen at the multiplex. And when you think about it, the only people affected by the ratings are the children – so, other than for curiosity (or perhaps a zealous moral streak), no grown person making decisions for himself should even care what the rating of a film is.
Next week: Kiss of Death or Suicide Pact?