Features and Columns · Movies

The Brief and Scandalous History of the X Rating

What was its purpose and why was it so infamous? Let’s sneak a peek, shall we?
X Rating
By  · Published on February 19th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about what happened to the X rating.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that all “X” rated films are for perverts. After all, the rating’s accidental collision with the porn industry is, in part, what led to its demise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Motion Picture Association of America — now known simply as the Motion Picture Association, or MPA — was founded in 1922. It was primarily a public relations campaign, a muscle of the larger moral sweep overseen by its first president, William Hays. In 1966, then-MPAA president Jack Valenti replaced Hays’ infamously strict Production Code with a system of voluntary film ratings. The goal was to limit government censorship of Hollywood films while still protecting children and informing parents.

Introduced in 1968, the “X” rating designated films strictly for adults. And in its inception, films with an “X” rating were understood to be “not for kids” but unpornographic and suitable for the general public. As the video essay below explains, this allowed for a thriving creative space that complimented the tumultuous social shift of the late-’60s. X-rated films were even nominated for Oscars for goodness sakes!

So, what went wrong? Well, I’ll let the video essay explain. But suffice to say, the MPAA’s failure to trademark the “X” or officialize it with a seal was a big mistake. A stigmatizing kiss of death that still reverberates today in the “X” rating’s successor, the NC-17.

Watch “Whatever Happened to the X Rating“:

Who made this?

Entertain the Elk is a video essay channel that focuses on breaking down film, television, and everything in between. They are based in Pasadena, California. You can follow them on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Meg has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.