The Motion Picture Association of America: A Dynasty of Censorship and Corruption

As many of you know, I am an angry person when it comes to certain things. Ann Coulter makes me an angry person. MTV makes me an angry person. Facebook, yes, makes me an angry person. But there are two things I hate in this world more than God hates sin. Censorship and hypocrisy.

Thus bringing me to my newest rant about the MPAA, aka The Film Rating People. This is the first time my animosity toward this cabal of cinematic puppeteers has appeared in The Zephyr Lounge and probably won’t be the last. I’ve put them off for far too long, and thanks to some light reading last night, I’ve decided to rectify that.

I’m issuing a warning right now. Even though I know many of you aren’t language sensitive or anal retentive about what content you’re exposed to — shit, you read this damn blog — I’m going to go ahead and give this post a rating. If for nothing else, it helps with my point.

The following rant has been rated NC-17 for foul language, exposing the MPAA’s bullshit, condemning “traditional family values”, name-calling, causing trouble and other shenanigans, threatening the moral fabric of America, generating online terrorism, and many other things that can be summed up as “hateful”, “spiteful”, “brash”, and not for the faint of heart.

Even though this post’s purpose is for me to rant about the secretive bullshit of the MPAA, I feel that we must first go over the history of film censorship. But before that, even though I’m sure most of you know what the current film ratings are, I’m going to over them in a little more detail than most are aware of.

The Rating System

How parents "educate" themselves on film content.

How parents “educate” themselves on film content.

While I understand the idea of making people aware of film content, especially as it pertains to some families who strive for a more “wholesome” upbringing for their children, there is one glaring issue with the current rating system. It isn’t totally accurate and the parameters on how films are rated are inconsistent. I will go into more detail on this a little later.

Why do we have film ratings? Well, believe it or not, there was a time when any filmmaker could put anything they want in a film and it would be acceptable to a general audience. Case in point, during the silent era, there was very little in the way of “unacceptable content”, albeit by today’s standards, Hollywood wouldn’t touch most of those films. Here are some examples:

Blatant racism.

Blatant racism.

Rape and forced prostitution.

Rape and forced prostitution.

Cecil B. DeMille's magnum opus. Was last referenced in American Horror Story: Asylum.

Cecil B. DeMille’s magnum opus. Was last referenced in American Horror Story: Asylum.

These are just three examples of the many films that came out before the Hays Code that contained content that would have had them raped by the Motion Picture Association of America. Especially Sign of the Cross. Which, actually, was raped. Hard. Especially since it pissed off a lot of Catholics.

So, what happened? Why did Hollywood all of sudden start censoring films when it was making such a killing with unedited reels?

The Hays Production Code

Well, Hollywood was looked at by many as Cardinal sin. The amount of risqué content and scandals involving actors and actresses kept pissing off the moral majority of the United States. Studios began to lose funding, political pressure was mounting, states were legislating on which films were allowed within their borders, and Hollywood was just really in a state of chaos. So, enter Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays.

Hays \hayz\ (noun) Someone who destroys films.

Hays \hayz\ (noun) Someone who destroys films.

Hays’ objective was to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image, which at the time was, as I said, sin. Hays drafted a chart, so to speak, of what imagery was permitted within cinema and what wasn’t. Hays’ code consisted of the following “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls”:

The Don’t List (aka Reasons Why Will H. Hays Hate Movies) <— my translation.

Note: My commentary on each parameter of the Hays Code will be italics.

  1. Pointed profanity — by either title or lip — this includes the words “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell”, “damn”, “Gawd”, and every other vulgar and profane expression however it may be spelled; (You know, this is what happens when a religious figurehead is brought in to fix shit.)
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity — in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture; (You mean to tell me that I can’t see Jean Harlow’s or Claudette Colbert’s tits on-screen anymore? That’s fucked up, man.)
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs; (Well, that destroys any chance for a legitimate film that takes place in Chicago to be made.)
  4. Any inference of sexual perversion; (Bye-bye “Sign of the Cross”.)
  5. White slavery; (I don’t recall there being any films featuring white slavery, but go on…)
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between white and black races); (You’re not very progressive, are you?)
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases; (Well, there goes any documentary about syphilis. Congratulations Hays, you’ve condemned thousands.)
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth — in fact or in silhouette; (Of course, I mean, you’ve killed boobs, why not go all the way?)
  9. Children’s sex organs; (The fact that you even put this in there makes me wonder about you…)
  10. Ridicule of the clergy; (Damn, even the Catholics?)
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race, or creed. (Damn, even the French?)

The Be Careful List (aka Things Will H. Hays Likes in Movies, But Must at Least Acknowledge So God Doesn’t Think He’s of Low Moral Character) <—again, my translation.

  1. The use of the flag; (You just killed D.W. Griffith’s career, Hays.)
  2. International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry); (Again, you just killed D.W. Griffith’s career, Hays.)
  3. Arson; (So, fire bad?)
  4. The use of firearms; (Basically, I’m not allowed to make a film where someone is murdered. Right?)
  5. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron); (You know, Hays, in the future, the term “moron” is slang for someone who is too dumb to understand how to commit these acts, regardless of seeing them on-screen. But of course, this is the 1930’s. You still say “queer” in regular conversation.)
  6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness; (Come on, Hays. You’re taking all the fun out of movies.)
  7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method; (I can’t even have someone die on-screen because someone else made them OD on water?)
  8. Methods of smuggling; (No films about immigration, too?)
  9. Third-degree methods; (… No more good cop, bad cop.)
  10. Actual hangings of electrocutions as legal punishment for crime; (Yet, we can still read about that in the paper. You’re slipping, Hays.)
  11. Sympathy for criminals; (What if they didn’t actually do it? Does that count? I mean, for part of the film, they’re still a “criminal”.)
  12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions; (Damn, now I have to throw out my screenplay for “Taft”.)
  13. Sedition; (Fine, I didn’t want to direct a film about the Civil War anyway. Fuck you, Hays.)
  14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals; (“Bullet for the Romanovs” has officially been scrapped.)
  15. Branding of people and animals; (You know, people’s ignorance about cowboys in on your hands, Hays.)
  16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue; (So, nothing about paramour rights?)
  17. Rape or attempted rape; (This is on the “Be Careful” list? You misogynist!)
  18. First-night scenes; (So, it’s okay as long as they just have a quick kiss, then go to bed together, right?)
  19. Man and woman in bed together; (Dammit, Hays! They have to be in separate beds, too?)
  20. Deliberate seduction of girls; (So, now we have to put off high school teen movies for fifty years, huh?)
  21. The institution of marriage; (We have to be careful showing people getting married? Can I have some of whatever illicit drug you may be consuming, Hays?
  22. Surgical operations; (Well, since no one can be shot or anything on-screen, fuck it, why the hell not remove any reason why someone could get hurt?)
  23. The use of drugs; (Thus bringing up into an age where antagonists are laughable.)
  24. Titles of scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers; (There goes every cops-and-robbers type film.)
  25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”. (So, now we can’t produce “Bonnie and Clyde: The Musical”. Johnson, inform William Powell and Myrna Loy that the project is canned.)

Isn’t that some shit? All of a sudden, entertainment left, and films became just a hollow shell of what they used to be. For the next three decades, this code was strictly enforced, creating the “Golden Age” of Hollywood filmmaking as a neutered medium.

Of course, while Hollywood became a G-Rated empire, its former cinematic glory was making its own impact and creating its own legacy as an alternative medium. I’ll talk more on that at a later date.

Replacing the Hays Production Code

Jack Valenti — President of the MPAA in 1966 — deemed the Hays Code to be out of date, since major studios had success with films such as The Pawnbroker (1965) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), both giving the code a big “fuck you” and containing crude language and nudity. So, in lieu of condemning a film or making significant cuts a requirement, Valenti and the MPAA teamed up with the National Association of Theater Owners (the other NATO) and the International Film Importers & Distributors of American (IFIDA) to create a voluntary rating system.

Jack Valenti \jack val-en-tee\ (noun) A man who kicks Will H. Hays in the nuts.

Jack Valenti \jak val-en-tee\ (noun) A man who kicks Will H. Hays in the nuts.

Note: Valenti’s decision to abandon the Hays Code was not only inspired by “The Pawnbroker” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. I mentioned a moment ago about the alternative medium that was running alongside neutered-Hollywood and creating a legacy of it own? That off-shoot had a lot to do with it as well.

The initial rating system:

  • Rated G: General Audiences (Suggested for General Audiences. Note: In 1969, the wording was edited to ‘General Audiences — All Ages Admitted)
  • Rated M: Mature Audiences (Suggested for Mature Audiences. Viewer Discretion Advised)
  • Rated R: Restricted Audiences (Persons under 16 not permitted without Adult or Adult Guardian)
  • Rated X: Adults Only (Persons under 16 will not be admitted)

Despite the introduction of a rating system being progressive for American cinema, the U.S. was a little behind when it came to it. Countries like Australia and Great Britain had film rating systems in effect since the early 20th century and those systems proved to be successful, you know, to the point where they didn’t need to bring in some God-fearing, misogynistic moron to figure out a way to do parents’ jobs for them.

Pictured: The aforementioned God-fearing moron.

Pictured: The aforementioned God-fearing, misogynistic moron.

The Evolution of the MPAA Rating System

Of course, no new frontier is perfect from the get go. Amendments and changes needed to be made to the MPAA rating system over the years. More often than not, it was because the ratings caused confusion among movie-goers. One of the most common instances came in the form of the “M” and “R” ratings. Apparently, not many knew which one contained more objectionable content. So, in 1969, the MPAA Ratings looked like this:

  • Rated G: All Ages Admitted — General Audiences
  • Rated GP: All Ages Admitted — Parental Guidance Suggested
  • Rated R: Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian
  • Rated X: No One Under 17 Admitted

In 1970, the minimum age of “R” and “X” rated moviegoers was raised to 17. By 1972, parents began really voicing their opinion that the “GP” rating wasn’t indicative of a film’s true content, so as a way to quell the growing concern, the MPAA, once again, changed the system and introduced the “PG” rating. From 1972 to late 1978, the board looked like this:

  • Rated G: General Audiences — All Ages Admitted
  • Rated PG: Parental Guidance Suggested — Some Material May Not Be Suitable for Pre-Teenagers
  • Rated R: Restricted — Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian
  • Rated X: No One Under 17 Admitted.

By late 1978, the wording on the “PG” rating was changed, with the term pre-teenagers being replaced by children, thanks to confusion by parents who wondered if it was okay for children under the age of 13 to watch “PG” films. This confusion would directly influence the next major change in the system.

In 1984, the ratings system fell under its most intense scrutiny to date. Because of the success of films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Poltergeist, Gremlins, and Clash of the Titans — all containing explicit violence and the entire novelty blood supply of most studio special effects groups — cinematic guru Stephen Spielberg proposed a new way of rating film to Valenti. The “PG-13” rating was designed for films that contained too much content to be an actual “PG” film, but not enough for an “R” classification. So, on July 1, 1984, the MPAA charts looked like this:

  • Rated G: General Audiences — All Ages Admitted
  • Rated PG: Parental Guidance Suggested — Some Material May Not Be Suitable for Children
  • Rated PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned — Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13
  • Rated R: Restricted — Under 17 Must Be Accompanied by Parent or Adult Guardian
  • Rated X: No One Under 17 Admitted

The MPAA rating system would look this way until 1990. Of course, in keeping with the theme of this rant, I must inform you all that none (get that, zero, nada, zilch) of Spielberg’s films were re-classified.

Steven Spielberg \stee-vehn speel-berg\ (noun) Someone who is above guidelines he himself sets.

Steven Spielberg \stee-vehn speel-berg\ (noun) Someone who is above guidelines he himself sets. See racial slang: Jew.

NC-17

Even though the “X” rating had been a staple of the system since it’s inception, the pornographic industry ended up ruining its public perception. Classic “X” films, such as A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Last Tango in Paris (1973) were just a couple of many “X” rated films with adult content that wasn’t considered pornographic. Since the pornographic industry used the “X” rating — which wasn’t trademarked — as well as the hyperbolic “XXX” rating, it soon became a synonym for pornographic films, something that the adults of the Reagan/Bush eras wanted nothing to do with.

Yes, there actually is a big difference.

Yes, there actually is a big difference.

I must also point out that this is the time period when art-house films began to suffer at the hands of the MPAA. In 1989, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer were released. Both contained adult content, but were critically acclaimed across the board. Both films — rated “X” — could not obtain an “R” rating without explicitly damaging the story of the film, so their commercial distribution was destroyed.

Because of the mounting controversy, the MPAA designed the “NC-17” rating as a way to distance itself from the growing pornographic market. So, from 1990 to the end of the decade, the MPAA rating chart looked like this:

  • Rated G: General Audiences — All Ages Admitted
  • Rated PG: Parental Guidance Suggested — Some Material May Not Be Suitable for Children
  • Rated PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned — Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13
  • Rated R: Restricted — Under 17 Must Be Accompanied by Parent or Adult Guardian
  • Rated NC-17: No One Under 17 Admitted

Despite the change, the NC-17 rating has been deemed “unmarketable”, thanks in part to a few NC-17 films that obtained wide theatrical release panning horribly at the box office. The most notable example would be Showgirls, which was heavily marketed — along with its $45 million budget — throughout American theaters. Also notable, is that the primary character of Nomi Malone/Polly Ann Costello was played by none other than Jessie Spano from Saved By The Bell. Despite being shown in 1,388 cinemas simultaneously, Showgirls flopped, reinforcing the stigma that NC-17 films are commercially untenable.

And now, the fact Slater stopped fighting with Zack over Kelly makes perfect sense.

And now, the fact Slater stopped fighting with Zack over Kelly makes perfect sense.

There have been many films that were initially given an NC-17 rating, but thanks to the clause that allows film studios the right to challenge the MPAA ruling, many had been changed. Among them:

  • Blue Valentine (2010)

220px-Blue_Valentine_film

The Weinstein Company challenged the MPAA’s ruling when the film was submitted, prompting the MPAA to give the film an “R” rating instead — for the same cut. No editing to the film was done to achieve the amendment. Actor Ryan Gosling, who starred in the film, noted that the NC-17 rating severely cripples advertising for films labeled as such, and since major movie theater chains like AMC and Regal refuse to show NC-17 films, many will never be accessible to people who live in areas without an art-house theater.

Gosling summed it up perfectly.

  • Scream (1996)

220px-scream

Wes Craven’s Scream was given an NC-17 because of its graphic violence (even though it was really no more violent than any other slasher films, before and after). Miramax Studios, who funded the film, refused to release it because of the rating, so Craven had to fight the fight of his life to get the project an “R” rating. He heavily cut the film and screened it a second time, making sure the members kept an open mind to the humorous subject matter. Craven got his “R” rating and Scream went on to become a box-office success. Ironically, the original home video release of the film was the unedited version, making it one of the first films to be released as the “director’s cut”, something commonplace in today’s home video market (now called the “unrated” version).

  • Requiem for a Dream (2000)

220px-Requiem_for_a_dream

For anyone who has seen Reqiuem for a Dream (and if you haven’t, I highly suggest it), its definitely an NC-17 film. Director Darren Aronofsky refused to edit the film and Artisan Entertainment — his studio backing — stood behind him, eating the cost so the film could be shown in its entirety. It was only later that an “R” rated cut of the film was released to wider distribution.

  • Saw (2004)

220px-Saw_poster

Saw is without a doubt one of the most disgusting, gory, brutal, and disturbing horror franchises in history. A pioneer of the so-called “torture porn” sub-genre of horror, when Saw was submitted to the MPAA, it was given an NC-17 rating. Upon further deliberation, however, they decided to give it an “R” rating, as to make it more commercially visible. The same process had occurred with three of its sequels.

In the late 1990’s, the MPAA slightly modified the NC-17 rating, rewording it to state that no one 17 or under could attend a viewing. With that landmark decision, the NC-17 rating fell by the way of the old “X” rating, reinforcing the pornographic stigma that had chased “X” away from Hollywood. Once again, there was no difference.

What Factors Into the Film Rating?

There are four major factors that assist in determining a film’s rating in the eyes of the MPAA — violence, language, drug use, and sexual content.

  • Violence

A film can skirt on a “G” rating if the violence is cartoonish and infrequent. Most Disney films, for example, fall into the “G” rating for this reason, despite some of the other subject matter that may be contained alongside it (see here for example). If the film contains more than fleeting instances of someone getting hit in the head with a skillet, then it begins treading the waters into “R” and NC-17 ratings.

  • Language

Explicit language has become common in film these days. It’s almost like you can’t even make a film without using words like “damn”, “hell”, and “shit”. That’s why it takes five or more instances of a “harsher sexually derived word” such as “fuck” or “cunt” to constitute an “R” or NC-17 rating in a film. So, in theory, a film could probably get a “PG” or “PG-13” rating if it contains a character named Damn-Danny McShit-Slinger whose dialogue consists of nothing but the words “damn” and “shit”. So long as he doesn’t use “fuck”, “cunt”, “motherfucker”, or any other vulgar, sexually derived term, the film would be suitable for audiences aged 13 and younger.

Interesting, no?

Of course, the appeals clause has been used for language discourse. The documentary Gunnar Palace contains over forty usages of the word “fuck” — including a couple of uses in sexual connotation — and the documentary The Hip Hop Project contains almost twenty usages of the word “fuck”. Both were given “R” ratings that were overturned into “PG-13”. Somehow.

  • Drug Use

References to drugs, such as marijuana, subject films to receive “PG-13”, “R”, or NC-17 ratings. Interestingly, the ratings regarding drug use have been subject to debate, most notably in the story of Whale Raider. The film is essentially a “PG”, but because of a short, minuscule scene in which drug paraphernalia is briefly visible, the MPAA cited the film for “PG-13”. The late Roger Ebert was heavily critical of the MPAA over Whale Rider, calling it “a wild overreaction”.

Tobacco placement has even become a hotbed issue. Disney movies, for example, used to have characters polluting their lungs all the time, and while Disney has deviated from allowing smoking in their films, at least recently, many of its iconic characters have been smokers, including Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmations, which even in it’s 2008 re-release did not censor de Vil and protagonist Roger Radcliffe’s smoking habits.

It’s also interesting to note that if smoking is a factor in a film’s rating, the home video release will feature an anti-smoking ad before the film starts.

In 2011, the Nickelodeon-animated film Rango generated a lot of controversy from anti-smoking advocates. Despite its “PG” rating, they argued the film contained over sixty instances in which characters were smoking, which were, of course, unsubstantiated.

  • Sexual Content

The different degrees of nudity and sexuality in films determines how the MPAA chooses to classify films. Brief nudity, such as a bare back or bare legs constitutes a “PG” rating. A bare ass or bare chest — like the top side of breasts, for example — or a bare stomach where the pubis isn’t visible will get you a “PG-13” rating. Full-nudity is “R”, and NC-17 films contain explicit sex and on-screen sexual assault and rape.

Of course, as with everything else the MPAA deliberates, the degree of what is explicit and what isn’t is subject to controversy. Especially since the MPAA is pretty sketchy in the first place.

The Windowless Room of Deliberation

Okay, we’ve had our history lesson. Thank you for sitting through it. Now, here’s where my inner aggression really comes out.

Despite my attitude toward censorship (which, in a nutshell, is that censorship is artistic treason), I do agree with a rating system. I don’t look at it as a bad thing, so long as it’s used correctly and thoroughly. That means there is no room for personal convictions, which brings me to my next point.

In 2004, the horror/comedy film Dead & Breakfast was given an NC-17 rating because of “strong horror violence/gore and language”, which isn’t really aligned with the public perception of the NC-17 film. However, 1997’s Saving Private Ryan — in which the first 45 minutes of the film is a graphic, bloody, and disturbing invasion of Normandy — got an “R” rating. Here’s the difference. Dead & Breakfast was directed by Matthew Leutwyler — who’s resume is about 90% full of movies I’ve never even seen — while Saving Private Ryan was directed by Steven Spielberg, who as we all know, is a figure in Hollywood that rivals the majesty of God.

Sorry about the terrible quality. I only had YouTube to go on. Anyway, this is what “R” rated violence is like… in Hollywood anyway.

Myself, and many others, have scrutinized the MPAA for a “masterpiece exception” that they seem to exercise when rating films. Legal scholar Julie Hilden stated it best, citing that “this exception is troubling because it ignores context and perspective in evaluating other films and favors conventional films over edgier films that contribute newer and more interesting points to public discourse about violence.”

Exactly! This blatant inconsistency and favoritism is no more prevalent than in the aspect of violence. If a major Hollywood figure wants to blow millions of dollars and create a war epic or an action film, then his/her green light to create the film guarantees that the content will not be rated any more severely than “R”, but God-fucking-forbid a more independent-minded director shoots a film about inner-city violence and racism, then has to contend with an NC-17 rating and poor choices for exposure. Not even a larger “indie” film studio, such as Lionsgate, can keep the NC-17 pestilence away without slashing, hacking, and burning copious amounts of footage.

It begs the question: Why is graphic content okay for some, but not for others? Why can Spielberg or George Lucas behead someone and get an “R” (or even a “PG-13”) rating without edits, but Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead had to be rated NC-17 in 1994. Hell, even its remake that came out last weekend had to be cut to achieve an “R” rating.

The late Roger Ebert has been very vocal about how the MPAA seems to be harsher on depictions of language and sex in film, but tends to look the other way when it comes to violence. Well, except when the debate between major studios and independent studios comes up. He and other figures in filmmaking have viciously attacked the MPAA for their major studio bias. For example, 2000’s Scary Movie, which was released by Dimension Film — then a division of The Walt Disney Company — was rated “R” for “strong crude sexual humor, language, drug use, and violence”, including images of ejaculation, an erect penis, and a tree smoking one of the characters like a joint. By way of comparison, 1997’s Orgazmo — written and directed by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone — was given an NC-17 rating for “explicit sexual content and dialogue”, despite the fact the only penis shown was a dildo.

As I’ve stated before, the MPAA’s controversial nature isn’t just restricted to the ratings the films receive, but also the manner in which they’re rated. No detail is as controversial as the fact the MPAA’s standards for film rating aren’t public. In fact, the MPAA is like the Illuminati of Hollywood. They outright refuse to make their standards public knowledge, instead just referring people to certain polls that state parents find the MPAA ratings helpful. In the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Critics such as Matt Stone have said that it only means that parents find the ratings more useful than nothing at all. The documentary (which I also highly recommend) goes into further details about how the MPAA will not reveal any information about who rated the film and why it was rated the way it is, and that the MPAA won’t even tell filmmakers what scenes in their films need to be changed as to obtain a more marketable rating.

mpaa-emblem

The Motion Picture Association of American — Hollywood sketch.

About Robert L. Franklin

Ah, the About Me section - social networking's excuse for you sounding like an elitist prick. Hmm... what to say? What to say?
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