By Rod Bastanmehr
Around his scarred neck is the bear trap covered with hypodermic needles. He’s sitting in a chair, covered in blood, screaming in unimaginable pain. He can either open up his kidney with a knife, take out the key, and unlock the deadly gizmo, or he can wait until the clock strikes and the bear trap closes on his face, killing him instantly. One way or another, the outcome is cringeworthy.
It’s moments like this from Evolution Entertainment’s 2004 release Saw that caused the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to give the film its R rating. Originally rated NC-17, Saw was re-edited to get its R-rating. So, what’s in a rating?
“It baffles many. It really does,” said Gary Susman, a contributor at Pop Watch Blog, an online extension of pop culture magazine Entertainment Weekly. Susman, who has conducted countless interviews with various studio executives and industry analyzers, has seen just how odd the idea of the ratings system is. “[The gory and gruesome footage] some films get away with is preposterous.”
The flaws in the ratings board extend beyond the bureaucratic nature of the rating process: MPAA ratings reflect American social standards that willingly accept violence, but see sex as taboo.
“I view this as a major message about our nation — about where we are as a society,” said Diane Finering, a former human sexuality professor at UC Irvine. “If we can’t see sexuality as natural in art, then how can we accept it normally in life? I think this is what makes the art world so important – it helps us notice these things … it’s brutally honest, even if we can’t take it.”
Finering said that art is the most effervescent element of our culture, transforming the mundane into something more extraordinary. In order for art to thrive and remain significant, it needs to represent all aspects of culture. In other words, what scares us in art scares us in life.
According to Entertainment Weekly senior contributor Mark Harris, the art of film brings this fear to the social forefront.
“What we present in films, paintings, songs, books, etc. all speak loudly of what we’re thinking, doing, or most importantly, fearing,” Harris said. “At the end of the day, the only thing more powerful than what we say through art is what we don’t say.”
Has this fear and silence penetrated the American population, or does sexuality have a chance of survival in entertainment?
A new study presented by the PEW Research Center found that 66 percent of film and television programming has “an overabundance of violence.” A staggering 77 percent of families stated that they would rather have that instead of any form of sexual content. When shown these statistics, Finering was shocked. “What are we trying to prevent, murders and robberies or teenagers having sex? What is more threatening? That’s the question.”
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report conducted in September of 2007, 60 percent of families were “very concerned about the amount of sexuality that is readily available to teenagers,” while only 35 percent balked at the amount of violence in television and films. And the remaining 5 percent? This group actually trusted the current ratings system.
Finering, on the other hand, wasn’t too surprised at the level of resistance to sexuality. “When students would try and take my [Human Sexuality] class … they would meet all kinds of opposition. Parents would want them to drop and switch to something less ‘risqué,’” she said.
In contrast, Finering noted that another course at UC Irvine called “History of Modern Warfare” was always quick to fill up.
“The debate is over,” Finering read aloud from a study published by the American Psychiatric Association. “For the last three decades, the one predominant finding in research on the mass media is that exposure to media portrayals of violence increases aggressive behavior in children.”
Although there’s an influx of gory content on the silver screen—particularly controversial for younger crowds—the films’ profits speak for themselves.
“The ratings system really seems to have a bias, and that resides in the eventual box office gross,” said Director Kirby Dick. Dick’s 2006 documentary, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” takes aim at the movie ratings system as a whole. Dick argues that the MPAA’s secrecy-shrouded ratings board lacks accountability, and it doesn’t adhere to clear rules that explain what is and isn’t permissible to show on screen. The MPAA doesn’t abide by a universal standard when rating both mega-budget studio productions and cash-strapped independent films, which according to Dick means that MPAA ratings can be weighted in favor of certain films.
“The ratings system tends to be more beneficial for films that are bound to be big hits,” Dick said. “A film guaranteed to bring in audience members can slide by with a PG-13 [rating], regardless of the sheer amount of violence. If a film being distributed by an independent company has the same amount of violence, there is no doubt in my mind that the film would have to fight to get that [PG-13 rating] … and it would still probably get an R rating.”
But the issue at hand is more than just problems with the MPAA’s rating system—like the fact that theaters across the country don’t aggressively regulate ticket buyers according to the age restrictions set by MPAA ratings.
Glickman, the MPAA chief, said that Dick’s film “made it clear that we [the MPAA] probably haven’t done as much as we can to explain how [the ratings system] works,” he said. “Things really need to change – we see that now.”
Glickman’s first noticed that the MPAA ratings system was inadequate in 1999, when public outcry blamed violent film content for real-world violence, like the school shooting at Columbine High School. “[The films] that were blamed really opened our eyes as to what our obligation was to the public,” he said.
After legislative battles and numerous public complaints, the industry vowed to approach violence with more sensitivity. “We targeted the wrong thing,” Glickman said of why rampant violence infiltrated so many films. Violence wasn’t put on the editorial chopping block, he said, because sexuality was there in its place.
Dick’s documentary was a major factor for causing the MPAA to acknowledge flaws in its system. As a result, the MPAA is finally including the National Association of Theater Owners in the film rating process. This marks the first time in nearly 40 years that any organization has been invited behind the closed doors of the ratings board.
Andrew Essex, a contributing writer for Pop Culture News, an extension of PopCultureMadness.com, said that the connection between heightened violence and stifled sexuality prevalent in popular films is a topic that doesn’t really get enough credit. “When you look at how we’ve evolved as a society, and what has gone from forbidden to accepted, it’s a wonder to think that sexual freedom has taken such a drastic step back,” he said.
A film like 2007’s Hostel: Part II, for example—with “sadistic scenes of torture and bloody violence, terror, nudity, sexual content, language, and some drug use”—is able to slide by with an R rating.
“In practical technicalities, this rating is truly no different than a G rating,” Harris said. “The only thing that an R rating mandates is that a child cannot see the film alone – as if the presence of a grown-up ‘guardian’ magically renders a movie more appropriate for grade-schoolers. The MPAA could easily have restricted this film to all children, but [then] the money wouldn’t come in.”
Of course, the MPAA does have a rating cap in their arsenal, the NC-17. A rating that has been around for about 40 years, the NC-17 is essentially the kiss of death for a film’s profits and its chances for mass public exposure.
According to Kirby Dick, the hypocrisies of the ratings system are anything but new: Indies are less likely to pull a big gross have it harder in the ratings game than studio tent pole releases, film’s portrayal naked men as naughtier than naked women, and almost any type of sex on screen is worse than all kinds of violence.
For Dick, the fault lies in the fact that there has never been a clear distinction of whether or not the MPAA’s job is guidance or actual rule making. As a result, the four ratings – G, PG, PG-13, and R – are simply advisory. Only the fifth rating, the NC-17, carries the full force of law. While an R rating demands anyone under 17 to be accompanied by an adult, the NC-17 rules that no one under 17 is admitted, regardless of adult accompaniment. As of now, it’s the only stage where the rater’s judgment overrules your own.
“Today, it essentially protects nobody,” said Susman. “[NC-17] serves more a loophole for executives and parents. It aids in idealistic tendencies to justify actions because of other routes the action could have taken.” In short, parents can feel safe allowing their children to see R rated movies, because if they were all that bad, somebody would have rated them NC-17.
Cultural conservatives are itching to step in, Harris said, but congressional intervention is, aside from being a First Amendment violation, a rather large waste of time. At the end of the day, reform is up to the industry.