Friday, May 20, 2011

How the Movie Rating System has Failed You

A friend of mine recently suggested I blog about my opinions on the current movie rating system, and I thought that would be perfect for the purposes of this blog. I grew up very conservatively when it came to movie watching, and I'm glad I did. My parents didn't watch R-rated movies, even when I wasn't around, and they watched PG-13 very cautiously, always ready to either fast forward (this was before DVDs) or turn off the TV if there was anything objectionable. Objectionable usually meant sexual. I don't remember my parents being too concerned about violence or even language. If I heard the F-word as a child, I had no idea it was even a curse word. But I'm sure my parents were careful about that too. I remember watching parts of The Mission and Dances With Wolves, both movies with violence in them. Of course, I remember watching only parts, so even violence was monitored for my age. But sex in movies was completely out, even for my parents, with or without me.

My views, tastes, and watching have become more mature, but at heart, these rules are still important to me. I once heard a father say he'd let his children watch sex over violence. I'm glad he wasn't mine. Our culture would most definitely say sex is safer than violence. That's reflected right in our rating system. Here's why I don't agree.

Violence is more physically harmful than sex, in most cases, yes. But extramarital sex is emotionally harmful in such a way that most people don't even realize they are being harmed. Sex pervades our culture's movies, books, and thoughts so much that our homes are filled with divorce and single parents, our schools are filled with pregnant teens, our leaders are caught in immorality and scandal. We've treated it so lightly for so long that it doesn't mean anything anymore. But just look around you and you can't tell me it's harmless.

As for violence, there are relatively few instances where teens commit violence because they watch it on TV or because they play violent video games. In fact, a young friend of mine had a rude awakening in the army when a gun was placed in his hands and he was told he was going to have to shoot people. It didn't seem real to him until then. Usually, when we hear about violent teens, the causes are numerous and more complex: family neglect or abuse, social ineptitude. A healthy kid doesn't want to go kill people, but he or she might easily be convinced that sex is no big deal.

The truth is sex is a huge deal. It's good and special and not meant for people who haven't already given each other everything else in marriage. It's the dessert, the icing on the cake, and it is the most vulnerable part of ourselves we give away. Of course, that's emotionally damaging when taken so lightly and carelessly.

My argument, then, is for a rating system that tells you exactly what you're getting. The MPAA might tell you a movie is rated such and such for this and that, but it's not an accurate picture. For example, The King's Speech is a brilliant movie, rated R. Unless your kid is home-schooled (and even then sometimes), I guarantee you he or she has heard the F-word by the age of 13. This movie could easily be rated PG-13. There's nothing more than a long string of curse words spoken in frustration by a man trying to learn how to speak publicly so that he can be a good prince and king. If you don't want your child to hear curse words like that at the age of 13, you're still allowed to use your own judgment and not let them go to the movie, but an R-rating is hardly necessary.

Then there's despicably graphic movies like Black Swan, another movie of the year. It's rated R, but I'm embarrassed to say I watched it. It definitely deserves a higher rating. The self-violence was creepy, but that was rated appropriately enough. The lesbian sex scene was sheer pornography. If it had been a man and woman, it would have been just as awful and disgusting. People really need to be warned about this stuff, and a simple R rating isn't enough. The King's Speech and Black Swan cannot possibly be rated the same, you would think, but they are.

It's no wonder my parents avoided R-rated movies, and I can understand why they avoid PG-13. Just about every romantic comedy out now is rated PG-13 and features a sexual relationship between two people, even if it isn't shown in detail. Sometimes, unfortunately, more detail is given. Since when is 13 a good age to expose teens to sex? I guess, since sex became part of teenagers' lives.

I'm definitely not accusing the rating system of creating the society we live in today. That would be ridiculous. But hey, it's sure not helping, is it? Just something to think about.

My parents would say this proves their stance right, and I don't knock them for that. Sometimes the best way to go is complete removal of the things that could tempt us. Fleeing temptation is always right. On the other hand, my artistic senses find lots of value in certain movies or books, despite the errant views and representations here and there. Will I cease to watch all R-rated movies? No. I don't feel that conviction. But I will watch carefully, moderately, with an awareness that I could be getting more than I bargained for.


  1. Your parents share a similar view to mine. I'm much more willing to tolerate other objectionable content than I am sex. I firmly believe sex isn't a spectator sport. Most of the time, such content doesn't serve the story, and even if it does, it doesn't usually need to be shown.

    However, some would argue that sex, since it is a beautiful thing, warrants just as much artistic expression and celebration as anything else. And just as the violence of the Holocaust was shown in grim detail in "Schindler's List," so should the violence of sexual crimes. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I wish to be consistent with my views, so this might present a problem. What do you think?

    Would certain content, whether violence or sex, be justified if it is presented in a negative light?

  2. Sex is a beautiful thing but very private. I don't think it ever needs to be shown unless, perhaps, in a documentary or teaching situation for a very specific group (ex: FBI). I would never want to see sexual crimes in a movie, even if presented in a negative light. I don't mind quite as much about crimes of violence, although I have a hard time watching that too. I don't think that's being double-minded, but that's just my opinion. You can show a lot without actually showing anything. Just watch a movie from the 1940's, and you'll see. If there is a purpose in having such things in a movie, best to keep it off-screen, I think.

  3. Your opinion that the ratings system is skewed more permissively toward sex rather than toward violence is the reverse of the vast majority of the opinions I've heard about it.

    The John Wayne vehicle Green Berets is an excellent example of an extremely violent movie that inexplicably received a G rating. Well, perhaps not completely inexplicably; it's also virulently pro-Vietnam War, which seems likely a factor in the rating it received.

    Besides, sex need not be harmful or immoral and indeed is necessary for the continuation of the species, whereas violence is precisely the opposite; unnecessary, immoral, and always harmful.

    1. I agree that my opinion is the reverse of many people's. That's partly why I wrote this commentary.

      I don't mean to say that there aren't violent movies out there with too low of an MPAA rating. It sounds like Green Berets is one of those. I think our rating system has gotten better than it used to be in regards to violent movies, though I'm sure there's room for improvement.

      And I totally agree that sex isn't harmful or immoral in and of itself. My point is more about who's having sex or being exposed to it too early. It's my belief that sex outside of marriage leads to problems, and I know that's counter-cultural.

      Most people recognize that violence is bad. What concerns me is that people treat sex like it's no big deal when, in fact, it creates an emotional bond between two people. That's wonderful in marriage but harmful to people who will eventually have to sever that bond. That, among other things, is why I find our culture's callous attitude toward sex more worrisome and dangerous than the depiction of violence in movies.

      But I also realize violence affects different people in different ways and should be rated appropriately.


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