Ratings controversies come and go, but most of the time the only thing at stake is studio profit. A good movie will find an audience, regardless of its rating. “Midnight Cowboy,” for example, was rated X but still managed to receive an Academy Award nomination. While there is a good discussion to be had about the power of the ratings board as it relates to censorship and our first amendment rights, most ratings controversies only arise when a studio doesn’t get the rating that it thinks will bring in its target demographic.
Right now, a different kind of ratings controversy is brewing. “Bully,” a documentary on teen bullying that will be released on March 30, has been given an R rating by the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), and anti-bullying advocates are rallying support to urge the MPAA to overturn their decision and change its rating to PG-13.
These advocates make a strong case. The film, which portrays five families whose children have been the victims of bullying, does not contain much in the way of explicit content, mostly just extreme language used by actual bullies. The language is not sensationalized or made to look cool. Instead, the film shows how powerful and hurtful those words can be. Those advocates, which now include major Hollywood stars and Member of Congress, argue that an R rating would prevent teenagers, the demographic for which the film is intended, from even getting into the theater.
A group of two dozen lawmakers have now sent a letter to former Sen. Chris Dodd, now president of the MPAA, urging him to overrule the ratings board’s decision. Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-CA) told the Los Angeles Times that she thinks the MPAA is failing the American public. “This is a movie that’s all about protecting kids, and the fact that they would offer a rating that won’t let kids see it seems really counterintuitive,” she said.
I don’t think the rating makes much of a difference in this case. The practical difference between an R and an NC-17 is significant. Most major movie theater chains won’t show an NC-17. But an R rating doesn’t prevent teenagers from seeing the movie. First of all, teenagers don’t usually have much of a problem sneaking into movies. I snuck into “Striptease” when I was only 15 (at the time, it was totally worth it). Of course, parents can also bring their children to any R-rated movie that they please. Just two weekends ago, I saw a number of young children on line with their parents for “Act of Valor.” Furthermore, if a teenager wants to see “Bully,” they can just wait until it’s on DVD, On Demand, or cable.
But I can’t imagine a lot of teenagers will even want to see it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Hollywood, but teenagers aren’t so fond of documentaries. I can’t imagine many bullies would go see a movie that aims to confront them about the impact of their behavior, and if I were a bullied student, I would not be caught dead at a movie like this for fear of further persecution. The target audiences for this movie are parents and teachers, for whom there is little difference between an R and a PG-13.
Still, this controversy raises good questions about the mission of the MPAA. Dodd has responded to advocates by noting that the MPAA does not make qualitative judgments, instead relying on a set of objective criteria to determine a film’s rating. Having seen the 2006 documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” I’m deeply skeptical of such a claim. In that funny and illuminating film, documentarian Kirby Dick highlights numerous hypocrisies and inconsistencies in the rating system.
Dodd is just doing his job, but in the process, illuminating the moral flexibility of legislators who become lobbyists. He was an original co-sponsor of S. 3390, the Student Non-Discrimination Act of 2010. The bill, which aimed to crack down on anti-LGBT teen bullying, died in committee, but Dodd, as an original co-sponsor, signaled his strong support for federal action on bullying. Now in his new role, he has put that conviction aside. His statements indicate that his only concern is for maintaining the power of the MPAA, not for kids who suffer bullying and need protection.
But those advocating for a ratings change are not making the right argument and are thus making Dodd’s decision too easy. I don’t think Dodd can change a rating based on the potential impact a film might have on society. If he overruled the MPAA’s “objective criteria” based on the film’s benefit to society, it would open the door for numerous other filmmakers to make the same case. Imagine Quentin Tarantino beating down their door, arguing that “Pulp Fiction” should get a PG-13 because of its anti-drug message. Producers of “300” could have argued that their film offered a history lesson and the MPAA should have forgiven them the brutal gore and violence.
Advocates would have a better case if they pointed out that the MPAA has always considered the context of their so-called objective criteria. Nudity, for example, only leads to an R rating if it is in a sexual context. Nudity in a non-sexual context can mean a PG-13 rating or even a PG. Wes Craven had to dial down the violence in “Scream” several times before its release to achive an R. Meanwhile, the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan” is one of the most gruesome committed to film, yet Spielberg was never in danger of receiving an NC-17.
I side with the advocates on this one because context should and does influence the MPAA’s decisions. “Bully” should receive a PG-13 rating.