Sexist, outdated MPAA movie rating system holds filmmakers back

Illustration by Aaron Logan

Have you ever seen “Black Swan,” “Blue Valentine” or “Showgirls?” If you have, you probably know what particular scene they all have in common: a woman being pleasured sexually by a man or another woman. Regardless of the films’ obvious differences, another thing they all have in common is that they were all rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.

The MPAA is a nonprofit organization that was first started in 1922 to advance the art of filmmaking and business around the world. The MPAA uses the Classification and Ratings Administration, or CARA, to administer ratings to new films when they are submitted. The ratings range from G, PG and PG-13 to R and NC-17.

According to the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” directed by Kirby Dick, the review board members of CARA are supposedly made up of 10 to 13 average American parents with kids between the ages 5 and 17, and they are rotated out every five years. It is also required that at least two be representatives of the Catholic and Protestant religions. Basically, the members are parents who represent the views of other parents to help shield U.S. children from content beyond their comprehension or maturity level.

However, the documentary revealed that as of 2006, nine board members did not fully meet those requirements. How can parents give a valid rating of a film if they haven’t been rotated out after five years, aren’t keeping up with the times and their children exceed 17 years of age? Why is it important that two members of the board are men of only two religions when we are living in a country made up of so many?

At the end of 2010, Harvey Weinstein, co-chair of the production studio Weinstein Company, stated, “While we respect the MPAA, I think we can all agree that we are living with an outdated ratings system that gives torture, porn, horror and ultraviolent films the same ratings as films with so-called inappropriate language,” according to a Dec. 4, 2010, LA Times article by Steven Zeitchik.

Compare the ratings between the remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Blue Valentine.” One received a rating of R and the other NC-17. R means “restricted” — kids under 17 require an accompanying adult or adult permission because these films have some adult themes. NC-17 means that the film has content only appropriate for adults 17 and older and, without exception, younger people are not permitted to view it.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” a film about a journalist trying to solve a 40-year-old murder, shows the rape of Rooney Mara’s character, a private investigator. She deals out her own brand of punishment on her rapist, then engages in a consensual sexual relationship with Daniel Craig’s character.

“Blue Valentine,” which is about a working class couple trying to live out their lives, has one scene in which Ryan Gosling’s character goes down on his wife, played by Michelle Williams. Which film got the NC-17 rating? It was not “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” — despite the nudity, violence, multiple torture scenes and crude language, the film only received an R rating.

The creators of “Blue Valentine” appealed the NC-17 rating. In a letter, Ryan Gosling wrote, “The MPAA is okay 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’s sexual presentation of self. I consider this an issue that is bigger than this film.” The creators won their appeal, and the film is now rated R.

What makes an NC-17 rating bad enough that most films make the effort to receive an R rating instead? Most movie theaters do not show films rated NC-17. The only NC-17 film ever to be widely shown in theaters across the U.S. was “Showgirls” back in 1995. The film is about a woman trying to make it big as a Las Vegas showgirl, doing anything and everything to become a star.

Although NC-17 doesn’t actually mean “obscene” or “pornographic,” those who have seen the unedited version of “Showgirls” probably can’t help but link those words with the rating. There are countless movies out there that cut scenes and change parts of their films just so they can have a chance at an R rating when they resubmit it to the MPAA.

How does this system advance the art of filmmaking when creators are forced to change their artwork just to be shown in theaters?

Lacy Siefkin is a junior in mass communications and digital media. Please send comments to