After Philomena, just how relevant is the MPAA?

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As Big Harv Weinstein successfully overturns Philomena’s R rating, has the MPAA merely shown how out of touch it is?

In light of recent news that Harvey Weinstein successfully appealed against the R rating given by the MPAA to the Judi Dench-led vehicle Philomena, the perennial discussion of the inconsistencies and controversies of the US ratings system has been reignited yet again. Long story short, Philomena had been given the dreaded R rating simply because the word “fuck” was used more than the MPAA could have comprehended, the seemingly light hearted nature of the film notwithstanding. Nevertheless, the initial R rating was overturned (by a completely different committee containing industry people) after Harvey Weinstein decided to fight back and appeal for a PG-13 rating.

Is Harvey Weinstein overturning ratings a mark of a shift in the MPAA’s attitudes towards sex and bad language?

Incidentally, late last month, a New York cinema’s conscious decision to screen Blue Is the Warmest Colour – which was granted the even more dreaded NC-17 rating – to teenagers under the age of 17 was greeted with the chagrin of vexed parents. As the documentary This Is Not Yet Rated exposed, members of the MPAA are purportedly ordinary parents ‘plucked’ from the general public, or so they would have you believe. It is clear censorship is at play here – the NC-17 rating is simply misguided in itself. (Note: NC-17 films are rarely ever blessed with a wide release.)

Both of these stories parallel more than one would suspect as, seemingly, language and sex appear to walk hand-in-hand as two of cinema’s last remaining taboos. Is Harvey Weinstein overturning ratings a mark of a shift in the MPAA’s attitudes towards sex and bad language, or does he simply have that much power in the film industry? And just how relevant is the MPAA, particularly after the demise of former MPAA president Jack Valenti?

blue valentine

It has almost become redundant and tiresome to complain about the MPAA’s obvious high threshold for violence in mainstream cinema. But it is certainly a legitimate protest for arthouse filmmakers to get on their soapbox and bemoan the lack of control they get if they want to feature sexual imagery or colourful language. Of recent years, Blue Valentine is another example of a film that was slapped with an NC-17 rating. Why was it rated NC-17? Simply because of the depiction of cunnilingus. Yes, because Ryan Gosling goes down on Michelle Williams. And yes, sexual pleasure from the viewpoint of the female is considered more taboo than that of the pleasure of a man.

The MPAA can be reflective of values upheld in the United States. But it isn’t representative of the whole country

Blue Valentine precisely demonstrated how ideologically dated the MPAA board members are. Blue Is the Warmest Colour has been unfairly rated due to its erotically charged lesbian sex scenes. The scenes are extensive and graphic, but most importantly, they are simulated by two women, and with the ongoing international debate of same-sex marriage, it would come as no surprise to anyone that it is provoking such stirring emotions. Evidently, the comparisons between these films go beyond the titular primary colour and hypersexual content therein – they are both independent films, and as a study from Organization Science suggests, the MPAA is most likely biased against independent films.

Perhaps the MPAA is pandering to bible-bashing radical right-wingers, but its actions also do one thing: amp up the interest for everyone else. Just like sex, controversy sells. But this begs the question: Is the entire American populace as prudish as people are led to believe? Yes and no. To add to the ever-growing list of the inevitable controversies surrounding the film, Blue Is the Warmest Colour was also banned in Idaho. So when one collates all the articles surrounding the rating system, one could infer from these constant public outcries that the MPAA, indeed, can sometimes be reflective of the values that are upheld in the United States. But one mustn’t make the mistake of believing that it is entirely representative of the whole country.

blue is the warmest colour

Whilst scenes of cunnilingus and lesbian sex are being given the rating of death, violent action movies and glorified snuff films are continually given the pass. Even more shockingly, studies have proved that there are more violent PG-13 films than there are R rated ones; a nonsensical, if worryingly accurate reality. I am not one to believe in the idea that violence in movies is culpable for violent acts of destruction by viewers, but which would you rather subject your teenager to: a gruesome, gratuitous action flick or a compelling film that just happens to have some viscerally portrayed sex scenes? And no, not the kind of sex scene in which the female participant leaves her bra on (Knocked Up, anyone?).

Why exactly is violence more accessible to audiences than sex and bad language?

Why exactly is violence more accessible to audiences? Because, apparently, moviegoers are entirely comprised of teenage boys, and what sells more to adolescent kids than superfluously violent action flicks? And what exactly makes sex and language less accessible to audiences? Well, let’s just ascribe it to the perceived idea that sex is a perversion and any desire to discuss such a topic should be suppressed.

As for the language? Well, one could argue to the contrary that the youth of today probably acquired their potty mouths from their creators, ironically. But alas, in today’s digital age, there is more accessibility to films through the means of the internet (legally and illegally). And the MPAA, along with the BBFC or any other rating system across the world, could soon be rendered obsolete, if they haven’t been already.

 

Featured image: 20th Century Fox

Inset images: The Weinstein Company; Sundance Selects

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