Shouting Match: Should We Overhaul the MPAA?

At Film School Rejects, we like to have the final word, even when we’re arguing with ourselves. Although mostly, we just like to yell the loudest. This week’s contenders? Rob Hunter and Cole Abaius. This week’s point of contention: The MPAA.

Opening Statements

Hunter: The MPAA’s film rating system needs to be burned, gutted, cleaned, and completely revamped. This includes the inconsistent rules, the anonymous members, and the flaccid ratings scale. The system was initially created to prove the industry could police itself and didn’t need state or federal regulation. That stated intention is a good one, and it’s fair to say they’ve succeeded in their goal. Over the years though, their target widened from simply preventing government intrusion to the lofty goal of providing parents with the tools they need to help raise their miscreants and rugrats in today’s dangerously immoral society.

This is where the MPAA has failed miserably. Their ratings system is ineffective at best and byzantine de facto censorship at worst. They’ve moved beyond simply providing information for rational people to digest and act upon, and have instead anointed themselves as moral guardians and arbiters of decency, taste, and what exactly constitutes normalcy in the bedroom.

Abaius: Thanks for speaking in generalities. It makes my job a lot easier. I get it – once or twice every year a movie that younger fans get really excited about has to battle with the evil, mean, nasty MPAA over their rating. This year it’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and it’s easy to see why. Hell – the title alone should be enough to warn parents without having an R-rating. Every movie should be so direct.

Asking for change is great, Obama, but what exactly are you proposing? The rules are not exactly subjective. For example, three F-bombs earns an R-rating. Aiming for PG? Only use “fuck” twice. Furthermore, what does knowing the identity of the MPAA members do exactly?

You said it yourself – the MPAA has succeeded in avoiding government intrusion into the arts. Maybe I need more guidance, but I’m not seeing the blurry line between judging a film’s content and being a moral guardian of taste. How does one go about judging the content of a film to be recommendable for children without dipping into the pool of ethics?

The Rebuttal

Hunter: Thanks for being a dill-hole. It makes my job easier too. I never said the MPAA was evil, mean, or nasty. I am saying they’re uptight, conservative pricks, though. Critiquing my argument is great, Palin, but I suggest you get your facts straights before doing so. Per the MPAA’s website, a single “fuck” automatically earns a PG13, unless it’s used suggestively which is an automatic R. More than one “fuck,” whether it’s sexually suggestive or a simple expletive, earns an R as well. And I would argue aside from that one rule of language, every other aspect of their decision is subjective. Every rating (aside from G) can have nudity, adult language, and violence… the differences come in quantity and type. What are the rules on types and durations? There are none. Because of this their ratings can be wildly inconsistent.

What’s the difference between “sexual content“, “a scene of sexuality”, “sexuality”, “sexual reference”, “sensuality”, “suggestive humor”, “sexual innuendo”, and “suggestive content” exactly? How about “violent action”, “violence”, “intense sequences of action”, “intense sequences of violent action”, “intense sequences of violence”, “violent content”, “creature violence”, “hockey violence”, and “violence and terror?”

Some specifics for you. Shark gets a PG13 for “shark related violence” and Shark Zone gets an R for “shark attacks.” Twister gets a PG13 for “intense depiction of very bad weather.” Alien vs Predator gets a PG13 for “slime?” And as far as the importance of knowing who the MPAA board members are, I’ll point to ratings for films like Visitor Q and Crash, both of which received R’s for “aberrant sexual content.” Who are these anonymous strangers deciding what is and isn’t aberrant? If fucking a gaping wound in a girl’s thigh or sharing your mother’s breast milk with your father straight from the tap is aberrant than I don’t want to be normal.

Abaius: So what you really want is more regulation. It sounds like you’re interested in having a hyper-detailed rulebook that dictates how many thrusts constitutes an R-rating, how many pints of blood from a shark bite will maintain a PG-13, what kind of sexual behavior equates to an NC-17. It would leave the MPAA as scene-counters, tallying up and doling out the mathematically agreed upon rating. That, to me, seems impossible given the nature of the game.

Of course there’s inconsistencies. With at least an hour and a half of content for every film, there are going to be contextual differences. How words are used, how sexual relationships come about, how violence is depicted. No system will ever be complete enough to create across-the-board consistency. Debates are still going to break out.

And from your own aberrant behavior, it seems to me that the MPAA is less “uptight” and “conservative” and more “mainstream.” After all, they only exist for the controversial films, which is why people only gripe when the movie they love with the leg-wound-coitus gets an R-rating. The MPAA doesn’t exist because of the better angels of our nature. It exists because the trailer for Forgetting Sarah Marshall declines to mention that Jason Segal’s penis plays a prominent role – and parents need to know that. Besides, the real issue seems to be that rating plays a direct correlation to ticket sales. It’s obvious that you want movies you like to do well at the box office, and their ratings have a part to play in that, but do you really think the mainstream would be comfortable taking a 13-year old to a film with wound-fucking? Be honest.

Closing Arguments

Hunter: Actually, I’d like less regulation, but in this litigious and blame-game society of ours I’d settle for more specific regulation if that was the only option. For the filmmaker trying to deliver a contractual PG13 who gets slapped with an R and then told it’s due to “violence” it would be nice to know what they need to edit to get the PG13. Instead they have to guess and resubmit the film blindly. Or how about the filmmaker who gets the R or NC17 for “thematic material” and has even less of an idea where to trim?

So since we can’t get rid of the MPAA all together, let’s go the literal route and actually have a checklist of what visuals or dialog equates to what rating. Yes, it seems silly but it would take the subjective nature of biased individual opinion out of the equation making it easier and less controversial for every one involved. If the guidelines were this rigid, the MPAA members wouldn’t need to be anonymous for fear of industry bribery or persuasion. This would also prove they’ve watched the film in question and paid attention during the screening. An example… A topless woman gets a PG. Topless woman being fondled gets a PG13. Topless woman being fondled by a dude thrusting into her rear-end gets an R. Topless woman getting fondled by a dude thrusting into her rear-end while she fellates a donkey gets an NC17. Besides clearing up the confusion for the filmmakers, this system would also make it explicitly clear to parents exactly what’s in the film before their kids see it. (It would also make it easier for me to find movies featuring Asian slip ‘n slide soap massage scenes.)

Of course there will still be debate… do prosthetic boobs and dicks count? How about if the swear words are in other languages? What about animal sex? When these things arise they can be debated, argued, resolved, and added to the list. Again, this is admittedly stupid, but the preferred alternative of no ratings will never happen, and the current system is so irrational and inconsistent as to be useless.

Bottom line, the current MPAA makes no sense. They’re protecting no one. Every kid under the age of 16 has already seen a hundred R-rated movies in theaters or on DVD or cable. The only value it currently serves is to prevent local or federal regulation. It can continue to do that and clear up the misconceptions, inconsistencies, and mystery surrounding their ratings process by making the whole thing more transparent. A filmmaker and studio would know based on the script what rating to expect, and it would be passed on or greenlit accordingly.

Abaius: Judging by your long-windedness, this is obviously a complex issue. But there is a bottom-line. What is the MPAA for? To give a guide to parents and to individuals about what kind of content a movie contains and whether the average individual would find that content bothersome. Does it achieve that goal? Yes.

What’s the “average individual?” Will parents actually use the guide? Can more specific regulation make a difference? These are all important questions. Possibly ones without clear answers.

Your problem seems to be that there’s no standard – something that removing the human element completely might fix. Or might not. In truth, you’re replacing regulation for another form of regulation so that someone else can complain that the regulation doesn’t work.

There’s no displayable negative consequence to the function of the MPAA beyond a few culture warriors getting up in arms twice a year when a movie with questionable material gets an R-rating instead of the wider-audience-making-higher-ticket-sales PG-13. At the end of the day, there’s going to be some regulation – to keep the government away – and it’s going to piss off someone. Probably still you. As long as parents out there find the system useful and trustworthy, that’s the bottomline. Afterall, the ratings system is built for them, not the guy that wants to see men in Nazi uniforms gang-bang a dead, underaged horse while snorting cocaine and cheating on their taxes.

Not only does the system work decently the way it is, but changing it doesn’t ensure the problems you find with it will be fixed.

The Final Verdict

A lot of words and no closer to an answer, and as usual, neither of us will back down. So we’re leaving the final verdict up to you: Should we overhaul the MPAA?