Content, Context and Ratings

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kings speech.JPGLast week brought word that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s independent studio, The Weinstein Company, is suing the Motion Picture Association of America for its ratings of two of the studio’s upcoming films. The King’s Speech, a docudrama about how Britain’s King George VI overcame a speech impediment, earned an R-rating for its (presumably) multiple uses of the f-word. Meanwhile the sex scenes between a married couple in Blue Valentine have earned that film the dreaded NC-17 rating, usually the kiss of death as far as wide distribution and box office revenue are concerned.

The Weinstein Company’s lawsuit is based on the argument that these ratings are unfair when compared to those doled out to many other films. “While we respect the MPAA,” Weinstein said, “I think we can all agree that we are living with an outdated ratings system that gives torture porn, horror and ultraviolent films the same rating as films with so-called inappropriate language.”

Now, my first reaction to this story was a cynical one, because very few people know how to whip up controversy—especially as it relates to films considered Oscar bait—like Harvey Weinstein. Of course he’s going to argue his films deserve more lenient ratings, because, well, why wouldn’t he?

I didn’t give it much more thought until I read some additional quotes, printed in The Hollywood Reporter, from other people involved with both films that, perhaps surprisingly, illustrate an important principle Plugged In has often made about movie ratings: that they’re subjective, not objective, assessments.

Talking about the profanity in The King’s Speech, director Tom Hooper:

I hope that language can be judged by its context just as violence is currently judged in context. The f-word in The King's Speech is not being used in its sexual sense, or in its aggressive sense, but as a release mechanism to help a man overcome a stammer in the context of speech therapy, in a scene that is also very funny. … [It's] used in the context of speech therapy. I hope that in the light of this context the R rating for the movie can be reconsidered.

Likewise, the stars of Blue Valentine also believe that the context of their sex scenes should influence how that content gets rated. Said actor Ryan Gosling:

You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-dominant society, which tries to control how women are depicted on screen. The MPAA is OK supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torture and violence for entertainment purposes, but they are trying to force us to look away from a scene that shows a woman in a sexual scenario, which is both complicit and complex. It's misogynistic in nature to try and control a woman's sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film. 

Co-star Michelle Williams added,

The MPAA's decision on Blue Valentine unmasks a taboo in our culture, that an honest portrayal of a relationship is more threatening than a sensationalized one. Mainstream films often depict sex and violence in a manner that is disturbing and very far from reality. Yet, the MPAA regularly awards these films with a more audience friendly rating, enabling our culture's desensitization to violence, rape, torture and brutality. Our film does not depict any of these attributes. It's simply a candid look at the difficulties couples face in sustaining their relationships over time. Blue Valentine opens a door for couples to have a dialogue about the everyday realities of many relationships. This film was made in the spirit of love, honesty and intimacy. I hope that the MPAA will hear our pleas and reconsider their decision.

weinstein.JPGFor its part, the MPAA has responded to the controversy by reiterating the standard it tries to apply when rating each film: “Every film is screened by a group of raters who are parents, who apply the standard of what the majority of American parents would rate the film.”

I haven’t seen either of these films, nor have many other people, for that matter. I don’t know whether the MPAA’s R and NC-17 ratings, respectively, represent a fair assessment or some kind of cinematic injustice, as these movies’ makers suggest they are.

But that’s not really the point here. I think what’s most interesting is how this story reminds us that a movie’s rating is, ultimately, a very subjective thing—regardless of what the MPAA would have us to believe. That’s because different people, even different parents, will respond to the context of objectionable content in different ways. In other words, one person’s NC-17 is another person’s R.

And that, in turn, serves as a potent reminder that any film’s rating is nothing more than a limited starting point—not the definitive answer—when it comes to determining whether or not it’s appropriate viewing material for ourselves or for our families.