Movie ratings doled out by MPAA trade association censor artists

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There are often battles between government agencies and free speech advocates over what should be allowed and what is punishable by law. You can swear all you want, but if it creates a public disturbance then you can get reprimanded for it. And yes, it is illegal to yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theater.

Movie theaters, however, have hundreds of other more subtle regulations that are neither well- defined nor transparent to the public. What’s worse, these rules are not checked by any sort of governmental agency — they are not created by the government at all, and while they are not legally enforceable, they have been adopted and enforced by the movie theaters themselves.

In 1966, Jack Valenti signed on as president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). This is a group made up of the “big six,” a collection of major Hollywood studios: Walt Disney (Buena Vista), Sony Pictures, Paramount Pictures (Viacom, DreamWorks), 20th Century Fox (News Corporation), Universal Studios (NBC), and Warner Brothers (Time Warner). Collectively, these groups own most of Hollywood, all the way from movie production to distribution. Valenti, in an attempt to “revolutionize” movie watching, formed what we know today as the MPAA film rating system.

You see them everywhere: in movie trailers, before movies, after movies, and in every advertisement for any movie that wants to have a fighting chance at the box office. This rating system is “voluntary,” and is allegedly designed to protect children from being corrupted by evil movies. By voluntary, of course, this means that if you want any major distributor to pick your film up, it has to be rated by the MPAA, and if you want any major theater chain to play your movie, it has to be rated by the MPAA, and if you want anyone under the age of 18 to see your movie at all at almost any theater in America, it has to be rated by the MPAA. But, of course, you don’t have to get it rated if you don’t want to.

Like Communism and campus bikes, the MPAA’s rating system sounds good in theory. Making it harder for children to be exposed to excessive violence and other influences deemed morally corrupt by our society sounds like it could only have positive effects. Unfortunately, the rating system as it stands today hardly does the job it claims to do, and does the jobs it doesn’t want to admit to very well.

How does one quantify the violence in a movie? How many times can someone say “shit” on the big screen before it starts to adversely affect a 13-year-old child? The MPAA’s answer is to not have a definite answer: Instead they have a secret board of raters who decide what America’s youths need and doesn’t need. There are hardly any concrete rules for justifying the rating a movie receives, and when rules are put into words, they just sound ridiculous: Frontal nudity for a woman is okay as long as no pubic hair is seen, and the “F word” can be used once in a PG-13 movie as long as it’s not referring to the action of sexual intercourse.

The MPAA handpicks the people for its ratings board, and injects itself into society as a necessary entity so that it can retain power. No one else has any say in what the MPAA does. Not even the people it is supposedly protecting.

Over the last few years there have been many legal battles between the MPAA and the rest of the U.S., mostly over copyright issues. But recently the MPAA did something that really caught my attention. After Dark Films, a partner of Lionsgate films, recently put up controversial billboards in Los Angeles and New York City that showed graphic scenes from its upcoming torture-themed movie Captivity. Graphic, in this case, means close-up pictures of Elisha Cuthbert’s frightened face meant to market the movie as a terrifying horror flick. Usually there’s nothing wrong with putting up advertisements that will negatively impact youth in a city — there are alcohol ads, gambling ads, and countless ads featuring distorted, “perfect” female bodies sexed up to the point of demeaning running rampant through every major city. This ad for the movie Captivity, however, had not been approved by the MPAA. The line had been crossed.

The MPAA has now suspended its rating of the movie until May 1, and even after that the movie “will be given no priority scheduling,” according to an MPAA press release. Furthermore, they have required that every single piece of Captivity’s advertising go through the MPAA for each specific advertisement location. The film was originally scheduled for release on May 18, but After Dark Films may have to delay it while they wait for the MPAA. Without an R rating (instead receiving an NC-17) and with Hostel II (a similar torture-themed movie) being released on June 8, Captivity has little chance of success. Its only option at this point is to apologize profusely to the MPAA and agree to all of its demands. Then the producers might at least make their money back. And this in a day when Wild Hogs can be top at the box office.

I would rather not have censorship at all. The world is an utterly disgusting place, with its human inhabitants equally as disgusting. It is the job of those who raise the pure and innocent to protect and adjust them to the harsh realities they face. But if censorship is deemed necessary in certain cases, like not allowing a billboard with suggestive, disturbing images to be placed in NYC where schoolchildren might see it, I can accept that. What I cannot accept is that this censorship is unregulated, run by a monopolistic group of multi-billion-dollar corporations whose agendas are decided politically and monetarily, with no regard to who they claim to protect — parents and their children. The MPAA goes beyond Orwellian. It isn’t even the government that’s censoring artists. This is a trade association, more powerful than the government, imposing and enforcing its own rules on an entire society.