The Motion Picture Association of America is made up of representatives of six major Hollywood studios, but it is an independent branch of the organization that has rated films for decades. Parents and schools nationwide depend on the MPAA, as do movie theaters, with big chains refusing to screen unrated films. Despite the case-by-case basis used to rate movies, the outdated and secretive system is plagued by poor management and an inability to keep up with social progress, and is undeserving of its relevance.
Few details are known about the ratings process, though a 2006 documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” revealed many of the dealings behind closed doors. The MPAA says it typically hires parents of children 5 to 17 years old for the ratings board, and that members do not serve longer than seven years. However, the documentary discovered that many of the members were either childless, parents of kids who were out of the age range or were serving longer than allowed.
Also concerning was the lack of diversity among the group. One Catholic and one Protestant member must be on the appeals board, and a new member was recruited simply because he was a neighbor of another. The boards are also criticized for their members’ friendliness with studio executives, who worry about the implications of film ratings on profits. With such a disorderly system and an unfair makeup, the board is bound to face condemnation on its decisions.
Easily the most criticized antic of the MPAA is its sensitivity to sexual content and language. While children witness gratuitous violence on-screen from an early age, rarely does a film rated less than R contain a long sex scene or use the f-word. Labelling intimacy between two people as inappropriate — while gore is freely permitted — projects the wrong message to the nation’s youth. It is also bizarrely unrealistic. For example, the 2011 film “Bully” was originally rated R for language, even though it documented bullying of children in American schools. The highly-regarded movie suffered as it became inaccessible.
Even more antiquated is the board’s uneasiness with LGBT themes, evidenced by how difficult it is to find a G-rated movie with a non-straight romance. By no means can one expect the MPAA to set social standards in American society, but it must acknowledge its influence and keep up with progress.
The MPAA, as a private organization, is free to operate as it wants. However, when movie theaters and public schools rely on this antiquated system, they are effectively adopting the prejudices of the board and granting them legal status. At the very least, a more transparent MPAA would benefit everyone, including studios unaware of the reasoning behind a rating. Without proactive reform, this backwards, “mommy-like” system dictating cinema will harm children, the very group it is in place to protect.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 16 print edition. Email Akshay Prabhushankar at [email protected]