The drapes got pulled last week on one of the most absurd aspects of major media culture—the MPAA’s movie rating system. The MPAA’s Film Ratings Board, the people who attach the G-PG-R-NC17 ratings on mass-distributed films, have designated the documentary Bully with an R rating. At least hypothetically, this means that no one under the age of 17 will be allowed to see the movie unaccompanied by an adult.
Movie ratings have been around for almost as long as there have been movies. In the late 1920s, civic groups (mostly connected with the Catholic Church) began railing about racy movies, movies that glorified gangsters and the like. Rather than risk obscenity lawsuits, picketing, or worse, the incursion of the federal government, the movie industry agreed to an “independent”(and Catholic-dominated) film-code board that “sanitized” movies coming out of Hollywood. Many states and cities also had film boards. These local boards also busily cut, compromised and sometimes banned films deemed to be an affront to public morality. I’m told that the New York State Museum has one of the world’s most complete collections of Hollywood film scripts from the 1920s to ’60s, all the original scripts and the notes of the state film board that butchered them.
A series of free-speech rulings in the 1950s and ’60s pretty much knocked the stuffing out of these boards, and in 1968, the MPAA, citing fear of government intervention and public disapproval, unveiled the current rating system. The board, appointed by the MPAA and theater owners, consists of purported “ordinary citizens” who operate in secrecy, and make odd and capricious decisions that can affect not only a film’s content, but often its commercial viability. Certain words can only appear so many times, shots of naked bodies can’t linger, some sex is OK, some sex is not OK. Violence, on the other hand, is generally fine and dandy in most any form.
An NC-17 (formerly X) rating is the designation of death. Time was when X-rated films (not to be confused with XXX, which was a marketing ploy used by the porn industry) were nearly mainstream, played in normal movie theaters and cineplexes, and could reap big profits. Between theater consolidation and the Christianistas, however, an NC-17 rating now means that a film may not be distributed at all, and if it is, it definitely won’t get shown in a vast majority of mainstream theaters. The film dies. Directors are routinely sent back to the editing room to remove a couple of “fucks” or a fleeting glance at genitalia—micro-edited by “ordinary citizens” with no training, no discernable standards and bad attitudes. If you want to see a disturbing, revealing, and hysterical look at the MPAA Film Ratings Board (and one filmmaker’s quest to unmask it), get 2005’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated (no rating); I show this to all my art-and-entertainment law classes, and the students uniformly gasp in astonishment throughout.
So along comes Bully, a new documentary that follows several vulnerable high school children and documents what happens to them at the hands of their classmates. Bully is, by all reports, wonderful, a must-see for all teenagers, which appears to be the target audience of the film. And, because the f-word is dropped a few too many times, the Ratings Board demanded some f-words get taken out, or else the film gets slapped with an R rating.
Now, we all know that, at least around here, an R rating is rarely enforced. Most of the teensploitation films (you know, the Another _____ Movie phenomenon, etc.) tend to have R ratings because they tend to be wall-to-wall boobies, drinking, swearing, sex with apple pies, drugs, etc., and these movies are shown everywhere and somehow make millions from teenage audiences who wouldn’t go to the theater “accompanied by an adult” on a dare. So maybe this is why the R-rating thing hasn’t been much of an issue until now.
But the considerations for Bully are different. With an R rating, it won’t play in high schools anywhere, and in the depressingly ever-growing Bible Belt regions where the R rating is enforced, kids will be shut out. And why not take out some “fucks” and get the PG-13 rating? Because these were words actually spoken, unscripted, by real teenagers. This is the real world, and the notion of shielding that from our nation’s youth is delusional. The filmmakers, god bless them, are taking a stand.
So amid all the rancor (there’s been more written about the ratings system this week than in the previous five years), the film’s producer announced that Bully would be released without a rating, and mega-theater owner AMC, ditching its ban on unrated films, has agreed to show it, and admit any teenager who brings a downloadable parental consent form. More theater chains, I’m guessing, will follow.
And the pantloads at Christian “family” advocacy groups and the MPAA are bleating that all this will destroy the ratings system.
Paul Rapp is an art/entertainment /IP attorney in Housatonic, Mass., who prefers to use his gifts for good, not eeee-villll. He can be reached through his website paulrapp.com.