Could The ‘Bully’ Controversy Help Avoid Future Movie Rating Debacles?

It’s easy to say you hate censorship in any, or at least most, forms. I don’t think anyone, except the most strident social moralists would explicitly endorse systematic censorship, if only because it is so very hard to agree on what the standard of the common good is. I’m not trying to make a hierarchy and say that censorship of artistic expressions is in any way worse than censoring political speech (both forms are unacceptable), but what particularly enrages and by extension frightens me, is when censorship becomes arbitrary.

And I can’t describe the decision by the ratings board of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) to give an R rating for language to the documentary Bully (Lee Hirsch, 2011) by any other words than censorship and arbitrary. The film portrays a group of people who have strong stories to tell about bullying, and it is in that context that the offensive language is uttered. Deservedly, there has been a long-running campaign to get the ratings board to change its decision to PG-13, not least because that is the main target audience of the issue the movie deals with. I know I might now be playing up exactly the kind of societal factors that I otherwise think should be kept at a distance from the ratings business (see below), but it is enraging how this movie is kept from exactly audience that by all estimates would have the most to gain from getting to see it.

I should say that I haven’t seen the movie. I had the chance, at the Bergen International Film Festival last fall, but, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, the material seemed just too depressing for me to buy a ticket. However, my issue with the ratings controversy surrounding the movie is bigger than this one instance. In fact, I wrote about my displeasure with the MPAA in one of the very first posts on this blog (a brief post entitled Who’s Afraid of a Naked Torso?), about the imperfect but timely documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006). While I had some problems with the Michael Moore-esque guerilla tactics of that film, it highlighted not only the convoluted way the ratings board itself operated, but how arbitrarily they judged films, based on criteria ranging from profanity to nudity to general suitability for a certain audience. Since then, the board has gone through some reforms, but the biggest problems remain. It’s rulings are still arbitrary, their stringent rules stil don’t seem to take context enough into account – if at all – when they hand down their judgment, and there still is not enough sunlight shone on the way they go about judging a movie.

If Bully is not enough of a clear-cut case for you of arbitrary rulings without sensitivity to context, consider the award-winning The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010). The movie was awarded an ‘R’ rating from the MPAA board (13:04) due to coarse language. So, what was the profanity that set off the alarm bells at the ratings board? A scene in which the severely stammering King George (Colin Firth) finally has a therapeutic breakthrough with his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) by unleashing a series of curse words to get out of the speech pattern that triggers the stammering. It should be immediately clear to anyone who has seen the movie that not only is it not speculative in any way; it’s also absolutely essential to the plot structure of the movie. It’s one of the movie’s funniest scenes, and one that clearly advances the plot. Luckily for The King’s Speech, the influential and often abrasive producer Harvey Weinstein sensed that he was sitting on awards-season gold, so he put his considerable might behind challenging the ratings board. One shouldn’t discount the fact that the controversy raised the profile of the film in the process, but it was definitely a necessary fight to have. It was and is simply unacceptable that the MPAA overlords could come in and slap an absurd rating on a movie like that, and apparently with no sensitivity whatsoever to the artistic merit of the – giggle – offensive content.

I may be more liberal than most on these matters – what business does a board have  with such vague pre-censorship of movies intended for adult audiences, anyway? – but the MPAA still irritates the hell out of me. And it’s not just the context-free language-police part, though that is certainly an atrocity. It’s also their meticulous policing of sex and nudity on film. One would think an advanced culture like the American would have come further than keeping itself with an at the same time stringent and arbitrary self-policing body like the notoriously sex-averse MPAA, but no. Sex is judged as harshly as profanity and, as it was pointed out in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, gay sex is treated more harshly than straight sex. If that wasn’t enough, it seems like it’s easier to get violence past the censors than both sex and rough language. I’m don’t by any means subscribe to cultural behavioralism – I think the effect of violence on young viewers is overhyped, and anyway, I don’t think the possibility that some viewers might be mildly disturbed by violent or sexually charged or profane scenes that they may be a little young to see, is reason enough to enforce a strict ratings regime affecting everyone else – but violence nevertheless strikes me as a qualitatively different matter and one more worthy of the MPAA’s attention than the other two categories.

The retort from the ratings board often is two-fold: 1) It has taken note of the criticism and is improving its ways; and 2) it’s better that the movie industry itself takes care of the ratings issue, than running the risk of a ratings/censorship regime dictated from the legislative branch. Well, yes, if that’s how you size things up, I’m inclined to agree. But on the other hand, if this was regulated by law, then perhaps it would be easier to challenge in court, with the faint hope that the broad concept of free speech in the First Amendment of the Constitution could actually lessen the constraints of today’s MPAA? Or maybe I’m living in a fantasy land, and that the opposite outcome, with a judicial branch hellbent on policing public morality is a just as likely outcome.

But perhaps the most worrisome tendency of all this, is if the arbitrariness of the ratings board leads to a pervasive sense of self-censorship in the creative process. To some extent, it’s already happening. For tent-pole movies, a respectable box-office showing absolutely hinges on the difference between a PG-13 and an R or  NC-17 rating, and producers and screenwriters freely admit that they try to tailor their movies to what they expect to be acceptable to the MPAA. And what about the movie that haven’t been greenlit or even written yet? Where’s the incentive to take creative chances or push boundaries if you don’t even know where the previous boundaries were? The MPAA is in need of fundamental reform, and if the Bully controversy if good for anything, it could be that it might hurry along that much needed development.


Update, April 6: Since the time of writing, the movie has been downgraded to a PG-13 rating.

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