Is the MPAA Rating System Broken? A Brief History of Sex and Violence in American Films
Imagine you’ve made a beautiful, real film about a teenager's nuanced life, but since you dropped the F-bomb more than once, you’ll get slapped with an R rating. Meanwhile, some PG-13 blockbuster about kids killing each other with futuristically medieval weapons is the teen flick of the summer. We take a look at the long history of film ratings and censorship, which started with the Hays Code. Below, how we got the MPAA Film Rating System, coupled with figures recently published on violence in films over the last thirty years, might leave filmmakers asking, what the frack?
Two studies came out at the end of last year from the Annenberg Public Policy Center stating that violence has been steadily growing in the PG-13 category. The main point in the first Annenberg study conducted with Ohio State University, published in the December issue of Pediatrics, was that violence in PG-13 films had nearly tripled since 1985. As The Hollywood Reporter broke it down:
Of the 420 movies studied since 1985, 396 films (94 percent) had one or more five-minute segment containing violent sequences. Those sequences were coded for the use of guns, focusing on using weapons to harm or kill a living being, excluding violence that was not intended to harm and acts like hunting.
The second Annenberg study, this time with the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out violence was increasingly combined with other risky behaviors -- 47.2% of films having violence occur within five minutes of sex and alcohol. (Did I miss the Syd Field screenwriting chapter about how all violent plot points should happen within five minutes of chugging a bottle of Jack Daniels?) Both studies seem to advocate tighter censorship for teenagers, ending with a cautionary statement that the researchers have “serious concerns about the effectiveness of the MPAA rating system for allowing potentially harmful co-occurring content in youth-accessible films.”
So what does this information mean to filmmakers? Before we run screaming to pull our kids from their freshman field trip to the new Hunger Games sequel, let's look at how we got the MPAA system to begin with.
An Abridged Journey to PG-13
1915 -- The Supreme Court rules (in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) that First Amendment protection of free speech does not apply to motion pictures, upholding the Ohio law that landed you in the clink if you showed a movie the State didn't like! Film censorship boards popped up across the country.
1927 -- A list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” is approved by the Federal Trade Commission after "pre-code Hollywood" comes out with several boundary pushing films in the roaring twenties. According to the list, films should not depict sympathy towards criminals, childbirth, and ridicule of the clergy, among many other things.
1929 -- Concerned about the effect of the new Talkies on children’s feeble, sponge-like minds, a more direct code of standards is created by a Jesuit Priest and the Catholic editor of the Motion Picture Herald. Needless to say, on-screen mixing of races and extra-marital relations were forbidden; as it said in the newly dubbed Hays Code, art could be "morally evil in its effects." Scarface made it through just before the code got it's teeth, with Hughes shouting "Screw the Hays Office, make it as realistic, and grisly as possible!"
1934 -- Since previous codes went largely unenforced on a national scale, the Production Code Administration is set up, requiring all films to now pass the Hays Code in order to be released. The first issue for the PCA to take up? Tarzan's loincloth!
1934 to 1968 – All films that hope to be released to mainstream theaters in America must submit to and pass the Hays Code.
1952 – When the New York State Board of Regents tries to ban part of Rossellini film L'Amore, the Supreme Court overrules its 1915 decision (in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson) stating that motion pictures are in fact covered under free speech. Hooray!
1968 – The Hays Code starts losing its grip when new films like Some Like it Hot and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf become hits. Under new MPAA president Jack Valenti, the code is finally struck down and replaced altogether by the MPAA Rating System. There is no legal backing to the Rating system. Rather, it’s enforced by the movie theater owners who agree to only play films with appropriate ratings to appropriate audiences.
In 2012, The MPAA was in the news over the controversial decision to give an R rating to the documentary Bully -- a film geared at creating awareness amongst teenagers about bullying. (The Weinstein Company eventually agreed to tone the profanity in the movie down to get the MPAA to give it a PG-13 rating that would let teenagers get access to it.)
Then last month there was an outcry when the two Annenberg studies were published about violence, sex, and alcohol in movies for teenagers. So where does that leave the MPAA Rating System today? Frankly, I would love to keep more teenagers out of movie theaters -- for purely selfish reasons -- they are loud and leave popcorn everywhere. On the other hand, the history of film rating and restriction is already full of silly mandates. To play devil's advocate with the Annenberg studies, if R rated movies are being restricted to viewers for no statistical reasons related to violence, sex, and alcohol, why not show them less censorship and let all teenagers see them?
What do you think about censorship and film? If filmmakers could rewrite the MPAA rating system, how would we fix it?