Movie Ratings, the MPAA, and Bully(ing)

This blog post has been rated R for strong language.

Playing just once at last year’s Hawaii International Film Festival; Bully-a documentary that focuses on the problem faced by 13 million kids a year, is starting its theatrical run on Oahu this weekend. Documentary films don’t usually make it on too many moviegoers’ radars, but this one is notable for a few reasons. First, it deals with subject matter that’s quite relevant to anyone that works with or has children–bullying. The second reason, and perhaps the most publicized one, is the controversy surrounding the film’s initial “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America.

So a bit of backstory . . . in order for most films to be played in theaters nationwide, films must first be submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to rate a film’s thematic and content suitability for certain audiences. Though submission for rating is voluntary, most theaters refuse to play films that are “unrated.”

As I mentioned earlier, Bully was initially given an R rating–due to the F-word being used too many times in the film. The film’s distributor Harvey Weinstein of The Weinstein Company (TWC) and director Lee Hirsch appealed the MPAA’s decision of the R rating on the basis that the theme of the film is important for families with children to see, especially in light suicides that have been attributed to bullying in the past few years.

Long story short, TWC and the MPAA went to battle over the movie rating with celebrities, lawmakers, theater companies, and the public at large all having their say in the matter. When the dust finally settled earlier this month, both sides came to a compromiseBully would get a PG-13 rating, but did have to edit out or mute the use of the F-word in certain scenes. The PG-13 rating will allow anyone under the age of 17 to see the film without an adult present.

MPAA poster explaining film ratings.

With all of the controversy surrounding the film’s R rating it made me stop and think about just how important movie ratings are to me and the average moviegoer.

Does the spirit of a movie trump its content? Does the message a movie tries to convey make it more than the sum of its parts? Does the use of swearing, violence, sex, or things that some find offensive get in the way of communicating that message? In the case of Bully and its MPAA rating, I think the answer is no. A film like Bully shouldn’t be given an R just because it uses the F-word a certain amount of times. Now I’m not saying that the MPAA shouldn’t be any less strict or lenient when it comes to rating movies. However, what I think we do need is a better way for rating films that fits with today’s culture. Something that will take into account the theme of a film such as Bully.

Before we can change the system, we need to look at some of the problems that face it:

Clearer Context for Movie Ratings–Sure we all hear or see what the rating for a film is at the end of a commercial, but often times we don’t know why a film was given that particular rating. We don’t need a lengthy explanation about it, but we should have clear cut explanations that say why it did get that rating. What is it about this film that determined this? Having a rating without context for why it was given can give people the wrong message about a movie.

Sex vs Violence, Unevenly Weighted–Though no official criteria on how exactly films are rated is available, many filmmakers and film critics have noted that films that feature sex or even use profanity in a sexual connotation tend to receive a harsher rating than films that feature heavy violence.

To illustrate this point, the way the F-word is used in this sentence: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” (Die Hard, 1998)

Does not equal the usage in this sentence:
 “Don’t ever stop fucking me!” (Jerry Maguire, 1996)

The first instance is used in an explicative manner where as the second usage is used in a sexual manner. Is one really harsher than the other? Perhaps the best to way todrive this point home is with a line from the critically acclaimed movie South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut when one of the characters in the film says, “Remember what the MPAA says; Horrific, Deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words!”

Rating Basis on Profanity Word Count–It’s become common knowledge that PG-13 films can only have one instance of the F-word in it. Anything more than that will most likely jeopardize a film’s PG-13 rating. What is the difference between using the F-word one time and two times? Between using it two times and three times? Between three times and four times? Giving a film a higher rating due to excessive amount of profanity use makes sense, but how can you have a rule about a specific number of times profanity is used in determining a rating? At the point that you reach your limit will having one more profanity really make a film that much more harsher? If I had to say, probably not.

So how can we fix this? What could we do better? Mark Harris from Entertainment Weekly has some pretty good ideas in his article “5 Ways to Fix Movie Ratings” that answers some of these questions. His solutions are:

  1. Focus on content advisories, not ratings
  2. Abolish the supervisory role for theaters
  3. End R ratings for the use of one word
  4. Depoliticize the ratings
  5. Reform the board itself

Definitely check out the article to find out why each of the points listed above are valid.

When it comes right down to it, why do movie ratings matter? In the strictest sense movie ratings matter because they determine who can and cannot see certain films. It also matters because it advises moviegoers on whether or not films are appropriate for certain audiences. Most of all, movie ratings are important because sometimes the decision to see a movie, and maybe even the success of a movie, depends on its rating.

A film like Bully illustrates the importance of a film’s rating and also brings up questions of the system that is currently in place to rate them. I think we can all agree that bullying is a serious issue and because of that I feel that the theme of a documentary about bullying should definitely have some weight in determining who the right audience is for a film like this. Is the system for rating movies that the MPAA currently has in place the best we have? Or should it better reflect the life and times we live in?

The PG-13 rated Bully begins its theatrical run this week Friday at the Consolidated Kahala 8 Theatres.

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