First, let us discuss the MPAA to set the stage. Theoretically, a PG lets you know that Parental Guidance might be needed for young children to see a film. A PG-13 , which came about when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s controversial content caused an outcry, bridged the gap between relatively tame fare and media meant for adults. Restricted rating films, on the other hand, require a parent/guardian to even watch in a movie theater. None of these are legally binding, but all of them place labels on a film’s content based on a pre-existing moral standard. Good thing, right?
Well, you might wonder what standard, and that’s when we descend into a philosophical rabbit hole. General trends indicate that violent content in general (for the United States, anyway) doesn’t receive as high a rating; just take a look at The Dark Knight, which often hit the border between PG-13 and R in the most conspicuous way possible. How many PG-13 films do you know where someone takes a pencil to the head? Or, say, beheadings of humanoid creatures in Lord of the Rings? Depends on how much money your movie can make!
Yet, on the other hand, any film that might display even a hint of sexual content whatsoever automatically gets an R-rating. Certain sexual acts, by default, get a film an NC-17 rating – tantamount to a blacklist on the film’s financial success. Whether or not I agree that such things should appear on mainstream film, an NC-17 rating isn’t a neutral stance on the possible content within it. Horrific violence gets an R-rating, but almost never an NC-17, while the exact opposite is true for any sexual content whatsoever.
Remember that an NC-17 rating basically turns your product into total market poison. Wal-Mart, for example, won’t sell any sort of adult content, and that goes for pornography as well as for films that might contain subversive themes of any kind. If the MPAA doesn’t like it (and it toes the line), they can force you to change your film and meet their standards. Sometimes, that standard does not exist. The South Park movie had offensive content, was given a NC-17 rating to change things, and then they added worse things and somehow got an R. Frankly, it seems clear to me that a South Park movie wasn’t going to be restricted by the MPAA due to its viability in the marketplace at the time.
So what does this tell you? A certain standard was set in place, not so much by an objective board of detached observers but by general cultural response to media products. Companies use it, on the other hand, to sell you some products and not others. Violence is fine for your children I guess, but sexuality is not. You could make an argument either way, surely, but do you really believe that there’s a clear guideline in this case? No, I highly doubt it. Ratings seem based merely on a whim and a feeling rather than objectivity. Sometimes, they’re based on getting rid of independent film competition as the Big Six film companies collude to crush them. What one parent considers mature content may be perfectly fine for another child – the variation is endless, yet it’s obvious they are foisting a particular view of morality on the consumers of film. Why do this?
First of all, the MPAA is a highly secretive organization that refuses to show its members, its decision-making process, and anything else it does. Since 1968, investigative journalists and amateurs sleuths the world over tried to find out who is even a member of the organization itself, and could only turn up one name. Their workings just don’t appear in the public eye, and even then we find out that most of the board is pretty darn incompetent when it comes to their supposed objective – protection of “youth” from bad imagery or what have you:
When Kirby researched the MPAA, he found that there was no sort of test or evaluation for membership. None of them are experts, or even trained in a relevant field…And not only are parents rare on the board, but there are no child development experts (which all of the European systems have) involved in the process at all.
None of this sounds weird, right? The only people with regular contact with the MPAA comes from, surprise, film companies! Furthermore, the head of the MPAA (whoever becomes the current chair) has total veto power on what the final rating will be. Much of it just looks like it appeals to interest groups, and especially Congress members, who desire a particular rating based on political gain or make a lobbying deal for legislation purposes (say, copyright law). In many cases, the ratings have absolutely nothing to do with the state purposes – that is, monitoring the content for younger audiences and turning movie choice into something more convenient for the consumer. Instead, it remains a manipulative series of processes to expand profits and control, more often than not.
So basically, the MPAA promotes a rating system with no oversight, clearly manipulated for political purposes, and often makes no sense. That sounds like a success story! And the root of it all came from moral controversy. People do not want to learn things; they want information and knowledge handed to them. Tranferring authority to an outside sources makes your life “easier”, sure, but it also means you relinquish control. The same thing happened with the MPAA as with the ESRB – both took advantage of a controversy, to show that an industry cared about its consumers. Instead, the ratings systems turns into a bludgeoning tool to determine what is and is not appropriate for us, and furthermore to determine what films we should and should not see.
I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist pointing out the shadowy cabal of cinema raters, but this just exists as a reality. An initial moral panic turned into a form of invasive legislation or forced an industry to “self-monitor”. That system, in turn, allows the companies involved in said rating systems (the people who basically control the industry, when all’s said and done) restrict content to the products which will make them money. Moral panics of many kinds often do this; whether started for real reasons or just as a reaction to shifting cultural trends, the powers that be will readily take advantage of new systems of control. Bureaucracy loves new bureaucracy, and for whatever reason we think that an external authority will govern us better than ourselves – I think we can cite a million situations where this didn’t work, and the MPAA shows you that this doesn’t work.