The MPAA: The Silent Oppressor of Today’s Film Industry

The current film rating system may seem annoying to a fourteen-year old when they are trying to watch an R rated film, however, the plight of a fourteen-year old is nothing when compared to the predicament directors are put in when their film’s content is censored just because it contains imagery and ideals that the MPAA does not agree with. This problem has been faced by countless filmmakers for over a century, whether it be due to political or sexual content, the MPAA has systematically restricted movies based on their own personal morals that do not always match the public’s (Jones, Liberty Voice). This problem has persisted from the creation of the MPAA in the ‘20s to the current day. It reflects America’s longstanding problem with letting go of the past and moving towards the future. The MPAA’s outdated ideals have a profound effect on the popularity and profits of movies, but they choose to overlook this fact which subsequently leads to a disproportionate amount of R rated movies earning significantly less than corresponding PG-13 movies (Conway, MPAA Ratings’ Effect On Revenue). Although, the MPAA can claim it does not directly censor movies, the very threat of getting an R rating, or even worse, an NC-17, pushes many directors to change, or cut out entirely, scenes that include themes that do not meet, according to the MPAA, the criteria for staying in the PG-13 range. However, the MPAA’s ruling is entirely subjective and is often the source of ridicule from film viewers, critics, and makers. One of the areas that the MPAA has been called out for having a clear bias is regarding open sexuality, whether it be straight or gay sex (Harris, “MPAA v. Sexuality”). The MPAA has repeatedly given movies that portray a nontraditional sexual relationship, anything other than straight sex within a marriage, a higher rating. Unmarried straight sex is often given an R rating if it is considered too graphic, which means that the actress acts as if she is “enjoying” the sex. The ratings are even more extreme for gay sex scenes; when compared to straight sex scenes, a movie with gay sex scenes has a much higher probability of receiving an NC-17 rating. This disconcerting fact is eerily similar to the treatment of on-screen sexual activity involving non-white actors and actresses in the later years of the second MPAA code, The Production Code. All being said, the modern day rating system is a weak excuse for modern day censorship; based on outdated ideals, it is a sad reminder of our society’s treatment of minorities, and both the MPAA and its rating system must be replaced. The Motion Picture Association of America began in 1922, under the title of the Motion Pictures Distributors and Producers of America, as a way to control the rising provocativeness of early cinema (Encyclopedia Britannica, “MPAA”). They began their crusade against content with the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls List,” written by William Hays, the poster child of Conservative Postmasters, in 1927. This list was widely ignored by filmmakers, which angered the MPPDA, and caused the creation of the Production Code, a slightly more detailed list of rules outlining what is and what is not permitted to be shown on screen. Despite the more detailed writing than the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls List,” these rules were also often disregarded. In an effort to crack down on Hollywood’s evergrowing debauchery, the Catholic League Of Decency threatened to boycott all movies that did not meet the criteria of the Production Code. As the years progressed, the Catholic League of Decency began to lose its luster, and their power subsequently faded. In an effort to stay relevant, the MPPDA changed their name to the MPAA, or the Motion Pictures Association of America because they no longer wanted to only cater to movie executives; instead, they wanted to be considered an organization for the people, by the people. Without the backing of a strong organization backing their rules, the MPAA needed to make a big change, and they had to make it quick. In 1968, they began to implement their third code, this time it came in the form of a rating system (MPAA, “Film Ratings”). Originally the system consisted of four different ratings: G, meaning suitable for general audiences; M, meaning for mature audiences; R, meaning nobody under 16 permitted without adult supervision; and X, meaning nobody under the age of 16 is permitted into the movie. Throughout the years following the initial rating system many changes to the original ratings occurred, included in these changes is the M rating becoming PG, the addition of the PG-13 rating, as well as the X rating being called NC-17. One of the major ideas pushing the rating system forward was that, unlike the two codes before it, it was not a form of censorship. The concept of the rating system being a form of censorship was very controversial seeing as the then President of the MPAA, Jack Valenti (President from 1966-2004), is quoted as saying that the old codes had an “odious smell of censorship” and vowed to put in place a new set of rules that kept for away from censorship. Despite this, a movie’s rating has a drastic effect on its profits, which subsequently relates to a movie’s awards nominations and sequels. Because film ratings have major effects on revenue, directors and producers often self-censor in an effort to gain more revenue as well as to gain notoriety through nominations. The Ridley Scott quote, “The question is, do you go for the PG-13, or do you go for what it should be, which is R? Financially it makes quite a difference,” shows what runs through the minds of many directors when choosing what scenes are put into and taken out of their movies. The major area of conflict between revenue and rating is between the PG-13 and R ratings. In 2012 movies with the PG-13 rating collectively received the highest revenue of any film rating (Conway, MPAA Ratings’ Effect On Revenue)it is estimated that the average PG-13 movie earns $15-34 million more than the average R movie. Often these R rated movies contain content similar to the PG-13 movies except for a slightly more explicit take on sexuality or violence. However, there are people who argue that the only major difference between the two ratings is the increased involvement of sex or innuendo (Harris, “MPAA v. Sexuality”). One of the more sexist and polarizing unwritten rules of the rating system is that of the body language of a female during a sex scene, it is implied women are not supposed show that they are enjoying sex or else it will likely result in a higher rating. The MPAA also has a bad history with sexuality expressed via advertisements, they chose to ban a poster for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) featuring Eva Green in a robe (Jones, “MPAA: Censorship in America”). They claimed it showed a bit of her areola even though it only showed under boob. This proves the MPAA is more concerned with keeping up the more conservative values of their early years than keeping up with the more progressive values in today’s society. Despite its issues, today’s MPAA still does a much better job of staying away from full on censorship when compared to the early and pre-MPAA times. There are many examples of movies being banned for including an “unsavory” topic, like infidelity, as seen in the case of The Branding Iron (1920). The movie had a scene in which a woman was bathing in a lake, however she was never seen completely nude. Later, after the scene was cut, the state film censorship board of Pennsylvania decided to ban the movie for portraying a cheating man as being “indecent” (PHMC, “History of Penn. Film Censorship”). It was common for states and cities to have their own censorship boards, this happened to be legal based on the Supreme Court ruling of Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission Of Ohio, (1915). Which determined that film was solely a business commodity, and not a form of art. This meant movies cannot be protected under the First Amendment, and that government sponsored organizations are legally allowed to ban films based on their view of the film’s content. In a few instances, such as in Chicago, police departments held screenings of films, and they discussed how they felt about the movie. The major issue with this style of censorship was the sole fact that these police officers had different ideals, let it be religion or political views, there were countless things that they could have disagreed with. If the police officers chose to ban a certain movie for expressing a more “progressive” point of view, they could end up creating an atmosphere in their community where the only perspectives its citizens know how to express are what the censors allow to be shown in the films they choose. Thankfully for us the Supreme Court’s decision was overturned in the Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson case (1952), which decided that film is an art form that is legally protected under the first amendment. In the early nineteen hundreds homosexuality was not widely accepted. This was true in terms of the MPAA’s first two codes, in “The Don’ts and Be Carefuls List” it was not allowed do to its inference of “sexual perversion,” which was the common view of homosexuality. In the Production Code it is stated that sexual relationships outside of marriage were forbidden to be shown on screen, and during that time same sex marriage was illegal. You would expect that, as homosexuality became more and more accepted, the MPAA would remove the restrictions of on-screen homosexuality from the code. However, they only allowed it to be shown when the newest code, our modern day rating system, was introduced in 1968. In 2013, the MPAA announced it was changing its rules to be more transparent with what exactly led to a film’s R rating. Unfortunately, this rule was designed to only be implemented in cases where violence caused the movie receiving the R rating (Associated Press, “Change in MPAA Ratings”). What the MPAA needs to do if it is to retain its credibility as the definitive rating system is to be completely honest with what led exactly to the R rating, especially in cases where the deciding theme is not only violence. However, we have already let the MPAA get away with too much for too long, and they must go. The United States Government must intervene and create its own rating system that uses credible outside sources to make sure that there is no bias hidden within each rating. This action would mitigate self-censorship, and increase creative expression on screen, therefore exposing the American Public to more ideas than those of their own.