Regulating Hollywood: A Decent Proposal to Change the MPAA Rating System

In the aftermath of the massacres in Aurora, Colorado and outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we are all searching for answers. What could we have done as a nation to prevent these tragedies and how can we stop them from occurring in the future?

Much of the policy discussion that has occurred since the shootings has centered on one very powerful lobby that some argue has prevented government regulators from taking action that would curb this type of violence. That lobbying organization is, of course, the National Rifle Association. But recently, the respected Capitol Hill publication National Journal published an op-ed suggesting that there is another powerful lobby that also plays a role in perpetuating violent behavior: Hollywood. Here is some key information from that article:

Time Warner, the parent company of Warner Bros., the studio that produced “The Dark Knight Rises,” has given almost $22 million in campaign contributions since 1989, mostly to Democrats. And that’s just one of the six major studios. The NRA, by contrast, has given almost $19 million, mostly to Republicans, over the same amount of time. George Clooney’s Hollywood fundraiser raised almost that much in one night for President Obama.”

So it’s clear that Hollywood is far more powerful, at least in terms of dollars contributed, than the NRA. But where is all that money going? What is Congress lobbying Hollywood to do exactly? Lately a lot of it has had to do with copyright law. The MPAA and its chief lobbyist, former Senator Chris Dodd, were the driving forces behind the most one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in 2012, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). When major websites like Wikipedia and Google banded together to defeat SOPA, Hollywood retreated. But have no fear: they are already planning to reintroduce and pass SOPA in the 113th Congress.

Still, the Hollywood lobby has more in their legislative portfolio than intellectual property law. The MPAA and the Hollywood studios use their lobbyists to protect the industry’s bottom line, and, as is the case with all industries, they favor deregulation. What would regulation mean as it pertains to Hollywood? One word: ratings.

The MPAA film ratings board is one of the biggest factors in determining a movie’s overall box office, and it has been changed in the past to help violent films find an audience. In the early 1980s, PG-rated movies like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Gremlins” shocked parents with more violence than they were expecting. Apparently, they were not expecting an anatomy lesson. In 1984, MPAA President Jack Valenti (former aide to President Lyndon Johnson) created the PG-13 rating for movies with too much violence for a PG but not enough for an R. The first film to be released as PG-13? That would be “Red Dawn,” a feature that doubled as a recruitment video for the U.S. military starring Charlie Sheen and Patrick Swayze.

The PG-13 rating continues to reap rewards, and an R rating has become a liability. Perusing the list of top-grossing films of all-time, you have to go all the way down to #68 to find an R, and that film – “The Passion of the Christ” – had a built-in audience with an enthusiasm level that cannot be measured using current technology. The 7 highest grossing films of all-time are all rated PG-13.

So we see that the MPAA is protecting the profits of its studios and ignoring its responsibility to society. And look, criticizing Hollywood is easy sport; people have been doing it for as long as Hollywood has existed. When politicians wade into those waters, however, it becomes a far riskier game. For Democrats, the risk is in alienating one of their biggest sources of fundraising. For Republicans, the risk is simply that most Americans like going to the movies, and those movies with violence and sex, the two areas of content that are most susceptible to criticism, are usually the most popular ones. And so despite evidence that violence in the media plays a role in inducing violent behavior, neither political party has even suggested that the MPAA Ratings Board needs any federal oversight. Given the massive amount of funding that federal elected officials get from Hollywood, this is not likely to change anytime soon. And we certainly should not expect anything on this from President Obama.

Meanwhile, the ratings system is barely enforceable, anyway. As a teenager, I routinely got into R-rated movies. Either I would simply not be asked for an ID, a lax parent of a friend would offer to take us, or we would simply buy a ticket for one movie and and walk into a different theater. Now with Netflix and the prevalence of pirated movies online, it is easier than ever for a teenager to see just about any movie he or she wants. So the new rules that I have proposed below aim to prevent teenagers and children from seeing movies with explicit violent and sexual content in the theater.

Why just in the theater? As we have already established, there is no reasonable way to prevent teenagers from seeing movies with explicit content at home. But also, we are far more open to suggestion when we are in a movie theater –  we let our guard down during an overwhelming sensory experience. Thus, if you accept the premise that a violent movie can cause violent thoughts and or behavior in viewers, you understand that those viewers will be more open to receiving those messages in the theater, and it is more important that we discourage them from seeing it there. And, quite simply, you have to start somewhere.

Logically, this new, more restrictive rating system will provide a financial incentive for movie studios to make films that do not contain this kind of content. We all know that teenagers are a hugely important demographic to movie studios. This new system will ensure that if studios want to get teenagers to buy tickets, they will have to provide them with morally constructive content.

So here we go. The overarching concept is that the NC-17 rating will be massively expanded and the R rating will be drastically reduced to reflect restructured priorities in content. As a reminder, NC-17 means that no individuals under the age of 17 can be admitted to that film, even if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. Here are the particulars:

Rule #1:

Any film that contains a murder or attempted murder of a human being onscreen (or just offscreen) will receive an automatic NC-17. This will not include killing in self-defense but will include killing in the context of war.

Depending on how a filmmaker frames the onscreen murder, children or teenagers watching the film in a theater could have a few different reactions. They could A) be immediately traumatized by the event, which would certainly mean a negative and destructive impact. They could B) be deeply emotionally impacted by the event, which could be a good thing. If they truly feel the impact of the loss of life, they might be deterred from violence. But most films with violent content shy away from depicting the full impact of killing, either through simple editing (cutting away from the most brutal and ghoulish moments in a murder) or through omissions in the story (ever wonder what happens to the families of the nameless cops who are killed in “The Dark Knight Rises”?). Without fully exploring the impact of such a death, an emotional reaction will not last.

Lastly, there is the possibility that C) the murder will be treated superficially and without any respect for the loss of life. In these movies, like some by Quentin Tarantino, who was responsible for a new era in the aestheticization of violence, the murder scene is only meant to entertain. Maybe the killer holds his gun in a new and interesting way or says something cool after the murder (as in QT’s new “Django Unchained,” in which his lead character says: “I like the way you die, boy.”) This is by far the most destructive type of onscreen murder, as it plays to a child’s need to tear down authority – a violent instinct but a natural part of being a teenager – without providing anything to fill the void that is left.

Many will say that films about war should be excluded from this rule. They will argue that death on a battlefield has a different moral context than a murder in the civilian world. But I was at a movie theater in February, and I saw that several parents had brought their toddler-aged children to see “Act of Valor,” a narrative feature starring real-world Navy SEALS. This seems a bit much. Paul Tibbets, the U.S. pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, defended his actions by stating, “There is no morality in war.” He was likely quoting John Cory, who added that “war is only death and destruction. Morality is the privilege of those judging from the distance.” Let us ensure that our children maintain that distance for as long as possible.

Impact: If this rule were enacted, films like “The Dark Knight,” in which the Joker kills numerous characters, would receive an R rating.

Rule #2:

Any film that contains a depiction of animal cruelty or attempted animal cruelty will receive an automatic NC-17. Any film that uses an animal’s pain and suffering for humor will also receive an automatic NC-17.

The FBI has found that a history of cruelty towards animals is one of the traits that regularly appears in its computer records of serial rapists and murderers. A study done by Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that people who abuse animals are five times more likely to abuse humans than those who do not. According to, 30% of convicted child molesters and 48% of convicted rapists admitted animal cruelty in their childhood.

Further, it is no urban myth that many serial killers began by torturing and killing small animals. Ted Bundy was known to torture animals. Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, was known to catch stray dogs and cats, lock them in boxes, and shot arrows through them. Jeffrey Dahmer, as a teenager, used to kill dogs, frogs, and other small animals, and impale them on stakes. Luka Rocco Magnotta, the Canadian porn star who murdered his roommate and was recently captured, used to post videos online of him suffocating kittens. The list goes on and on. There is no reason why any children or teenager needs to see this depicted in a film.

But it is not enough to discourage willful cruelty towards animals. Killing or torturing animals as a child is an early warning sign of antisocial personality disorder, characterized by the American Psychological Association as a “pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” We would all agree that an animal has a right not be tortured by a child. For this reason, it is necessary to discourage the depiction of animal suffering used for humor because this is a way of distancing the audience member from the suffering experienced by the animals. A teenager who was exhibiting early symptoms of antisocial personality disorder, as most of those serial killers listed above likely were, could very easily be inspired by the cruelty onscreen.

Impact: If this rule were enacted, it would affect movies like “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” a PG-13 comedy that contains a scene in which a dog is kicked off of a bridge.

Rule #3:

Any film that contains a rape or attempted rape will receive an automatic NC-17.

This should not require very much debate. I cannot think of a movie that contains a rape or attempted rape scene that has not already received an R, but why stop there? We know that teenagers and children will find a way to see movies if they want to, and I strongly believe that most teenage minds are ill-equipped to process such a scene.

The sad truth is that rape scenes that are highly sexualized. Rape fantasies are not uncommon among men, and scenes like the those in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or the original “Straw Dogs” will surely titillate some male viewers. For the teenage male, who is liable to become aroused at the very sight of a nude female, these scenes are downright dangerous in their depiction of sexual and violent behavior. A study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that one in 5 high school students had experienced rape, and if changing the ratings system prevent a single rape, I doubt a single person would argue it is not worth it. Except maybe some libertarians.

Impact: If this rule were enacted, the two movies listed above would receive NC-17 ratings.

Rule #4:

In terms of violent or sexual content, there will be no difference between a PG-13 and an R.  An R rating will be differentiated from PG-13 only for excessive use of profane language. Any movie with violent or sexual content that exceeds that of a new PG-13 will receive an NC-17 rating.

Profane language is usually considered a matter of context within the MPAA, but with certain notable exceptions. They have the famous F-word rule, which stipulates that if a film uses “one of the harsher sexually derived words” one to four times, it will receive a PG-13 rating. If the word is used in a sexual manner, not as a simple expletive, it can receive an R rating. There have been numerous silly examples of this, such as when “The King’s Speech” received an R rating based on the scene in which Colin Firth practiced obscenities with his speech coach or the famous controversy over the documentary “Bully,” in which real-life bullies are depicted using the word.

Researchers at Brigham Young University found that the use of profanities by teenagers can cause aggression, but studies on the matter are limited. In fact, BYU might not be the most objective source on the matter because they have an honor code that asks students and staff not to curse on campus. Further, this study only looked at video games and television, and it has been criticized by others in the field. At this point, the research is inconclusive, and, until more research has been completed, most of the language policies at MPAA seem reasonable to me.

So that’s it. I know that overhauling the ratings system is a monumental task, and we certainly cannot ask Hollywood to make this change of its own volition. For reasons explained above, we will also not be expecting Congress to do it. And recent attempts to overturn the MPAA’s ratings decision and change the rating of even a single film have failed quite miserably. The movement to convince the MPAA to change its rating on “Bully,” for example, had the backing of Harvey Weinstein, numerous celebrities, and more than 500,000 Americans, and the MPAA still would not back down.

But this is a problem that refuses to go away, and I for one remain unconvinced that stronger gun laws alone would have prevented the massacres in Colorado and Wisconsin.  Much like with teenagers and movies, if a person wants a gun, he or she will find a way to get it. The problem is that we have a culture of violence in this country, and our movies both reflect and perpetuate that culture. Changing it will take time, a groundswell of support, and a true grassroots movement, and this simple change in the way we look at film, America’s most popular form of media outside of the internet, could have a monumental impact. Sadly, the movie industry is making too much money right now to make any changes on its own. I offer these suggestions as a way to begin the conversation, and I hope that you will continue it.

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