The MPAA’s rating system is a lot more complicated and systemic than the letters would suggest.
When Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was released in 2014, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rated it “R”. Was this because of the film’s short scene depicting the pre-teen protagonist looking at a magazine filled with women in lingerie? Or was it when, in a hazy moment of confusion and fear, the abusive step-father stumbles out of the house through the garage to, what is assumed, hurt the mother? Or was it was the entirety of the film, which follows a boy from adolescence into adulthood, that made the MPAA give it an R rating?
Though this film follows the 12-year span of a boy’s life, and covers the many intricacies and nuances of growing up, Linklater doesn’t very often go explicit on these elements. Puberty is thrown right into the audience’s face, but teenage romances never result in sex scenes, nor does the violence from the step-father directly affect the protagonist. Both are afterthoughts, insinuated by small visual cues. So why is Boyhood rated R?
This is only one of various times when audiences and filmmakers have found the MPAA to make incorrect decisions when it comes to rating films. The MPAA’s job is to rate films and, according to their content, decide which audiences the film is appropriate for. It chooses these ratings based on the level of nudity, violence, drug use, or language in the film. The problem that many find with this system is the certain bias shown when it comes to nudity on screen. Nudity in films is limited to PG and above, brief nudity constitutes a PG-13 rating and films with sexually oriented nudity will usually receive an R rating. NC-17 ratings are given to films with explicit content directed towards adults.
The MPAA, however, is ambiguous with films that contain nudity. Scary Movie (2000), a bigger budget film by Dimension Films was rated R for strong crude sexual humor, language, drug use and violence, and had scenes showing images of ejaculation and an erect penis. Orgazmo, a porn spoof much milder by comparison, and an independent release by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, was given the harsher NC-17 rating for explicit sexual content and dialogue — even though a dildo is the only penis seen in the film. Hollywood’s infamous gender bias also comes into play here; male nudity will almost always receive an R rating or higher, while female full frontal nudity is allowed and even common in R films. Male nudity, being less common, will warrant a rating of NC-17. This normalization of female nudity allows the film industry to proliferate a gender-based bias that fulfils and defines much of crowd-pleasing, big budget films.
Sex, too, will always be rated more harshly than violence. Films with LGBT+ romances or storylines in particular, sexual or not, have been rated more harshly than heterosexual sex. The tame 2013 film GBF — a teenage audience-oriented comedy about popular high school girls in search of “gay best friends” — was rated R for sexual references. This rating gives no indication that there is actually no sex, violence, or nudity in the film. Darren Stein, the film’s director, has been openly critical of this rating; “Perhaps the ratings box should more accurately read ‘For Homosexual References’ or ‘Too Many Scenes of Gay Teens Kissing.’ I look forward to a world where queer teens can express their humor and desire in a sweet, fun teen film that doesn’t get tagged with a cautionary R.”
Films with excessive violence, on the other hand, will often receive more universal ratings than those with sexual elements. The Dark Knight series, for example, which includes various situations of extreme peril involving children and a psychopathic villain who stabs a pencil through a man’s eye, was given the PG-13 rating. This is likely because of the popularity of the Batman franchise, as young boys are a target audience. Even the earlier movies in the Harry Potter franchise, with elements of violence also involving children, received PG ratings because the target audience, like the books, was children. Had the films been less popular, lower budget and released by independent studios, they may have received higher ratings.
Rating films with strong language has also been inconsistent. The MPAA often will count the number of F bombs dropped rather than the context in which they are used — or if an F bomb is used in a sexual way, the film will be more likely to be rated more restrictively. The King’s Speech, a story about facing adversity and overcoming your inhibitions, was rated R for language. Just language — not strong language, not sexual language, not even brief strong language. Just language.
There are two scenes in this movie that the MPAA thought were reason to give it an R rating. The story follows King George VI (Colin Firth) in the World War II era. England needs a strong ruler, with threats from foreign enemies and a vicious war in its backyard, and Albert needs to fulfil this role. However, he struggles to overcome his speech impediment — a stutter that renders his speeches uninspiring to a people whose hope is all but lost. Albert consults with a speech therapist; in one of their meetings, he spews a series of naughty words — ones so vile and foreign to the mouths of thirteen year olds — and the MPAA’s decision was made.
The MPAA, of course, is just a guide. Parents have the option of taking their children to see R rated movies because, ultimately, it is up to them what their children see. But parents often react immediately to the labels they see, judging the movie strictly on its ratings rather than on its story. The MPAA could take a note from the European film system, which takes a more balanced approach when rating films. (The King’s Speech was given 12A, and equivalent to the MPAA’s PG-13.) The cultural differences between the U.S. and Europe obviously play a role here, — wherein Europe nudity is less stigmatized and violence more condemned — but these differences do not pose a hindrance on progress and change. In shying away or even vehemently opposing showing children films like The King’s Speech or Boyhood, kids may lose out on a story that perhaps will inspire them to overcome their own obstacles or know that they are not alone in the challenges inherent in growing up. Both things are, of course, not limited by the F word or by teenage romances.
Arleigh Rodgers, staff writer, is a first-year English major who still hates watching sex scenes with her parents in the room. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.