So, I saw a screener of the Sundance-darling documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated with Kerry last week—and my first thought was “not so much rated as overrated.” There are many good points about the capriciousness and opacity of the MPAA rating system, but it’s probably a better op-ed than a film. I’d have preferred if they’d gone heavier on the interviews with filmmakers about the effects of the ratings and skipped—or at least skimped on—the needlessly drawn-out scenes in which a PI tracks down the (formerly) anonymous members of the ratings board. But the movie did leave me wondering about two things.
First, it seems to be universally acknowledged that an NC-17 rating is the kiss of death for a film. Most mainstream theatres won’t touch it, and many DVD retailers won’t stock it—so filmmakers end up effectively constrained to avoid anything that would push a movie into that category. But why, exactly, is this such a killer? There are plenty of serious and successful films released each year for which I’ve got to assume people under 18 make up an insignificant portion of the audience. Not that it would’ve necessarily been improved by Paul Giamatti going the full monty, but how many high schoolers were queueing up to see Sideways? Presumably the logic here is that people see “NC-17″ and think “porn film,” in which case there’s a kind of vicious circle: People will in fact think “porn film” because serious non-porn films, responding to the fears of theaters and retailers, will generally do whatever it takes to get down to an “R” rating, so that “NC-17″ is mostly reserved for porn. But it seems like it needn’t be that way. (Actually, what I’d really like to see is a blurring of the porn/non-porn distinction to the point where we get talented screenwriters and directors doing the sort of narrative-centered erotic flicks that—if I can gender stereotype for a second—your girlfriend is more apt to enjoy watching with you.)
The second thing I found myself mulling had to do with one of the film’s central complaints: That the MPAA has a skewed set of criteria that generates more restrictive ratings for sex than for graphic and gratuitous violence, and in particular that gay sexual situations are routinely judged to require more “parental guidance” than exactly parallel situations involving heterosexuals. This is, of course, irrational* and discriminatory. But I’m also pretty sure that the modal American parent is, in fact, irrationally and discriminatorily more concerned about discharges from a penis than a firearm, and more squeamish about explaining tops and bottoms than birds and bees. If the point of the ratings is to provide useful information to parents, then it seems as though it’s got to reflect the actual concerns of most parents, however unenlightened—and I use the term here without shame or irony—those concerns may be.
This may, incidentally, explain the legendary opacity of the ratings system. While the current crude gradations the MPAA uses arguably have the virtue of simplicity, I think it would clearly be better and more helpful to have more specific content warnings of the kind that precede many television shows: strong sexual content, brief nudity, profanity, and so on. (Of course, we can and do have that kind of detail provided by more narrowly tailored competing ratings systems catering to, for instance, particular religious groups, but it’s handy to have a single system that’s well understood and can be expected to show up on the movie posters and adverts.) The thing is, if the kind of parental preferences I’m assuming here are indeed common, then they’re going to want categories like “strong gay sexual content,” which would provoke justifiable outrage. Of course, as the film reveals, something like that category is already feeding into the MPAA rating system, but covertly, so it’s not quite so obvious that this film got an R while that film got a PG-13 because one had two men in bed while the other had a hetero couple.
*As a footnote, I should acknowledge that I can think of one plausible reason for caring more about sex than violence. To wit: Shooting, stabbing, and otherwise perforating your fellow human beings is sufficently clearly frowned upon in our society that parents resistant to moral panics might conclude that even fairly glamorized depictions of such behaviors are unlikely to spur little Timmy to imitate them. They might be less confident about positive depictions of casual sex, and especially the cumulative effect of many such portrayals.