Going to a theater is the best way to watch a movie. The seats are always comfy, the candy is always way too expensive and watching a film with a crowd, together, always feels inclusive. The best part of going to the theater are the trailers that open the film. These advertisements are always fun, prepping a popcorn-munching audience for their next trip to the movies. At the end of each of these is its rating, mandated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Unknown to everyone in the audience, that rating will make or break the film, and its impact on the film industry is unparalleled to anything else.
Movie ratings began as early as the 1920s. Under the strict Hays Code, many films were banned, kept out of theaters or highly censored to fit the image of prosperity, goodwill and conservatism that concerned parents wanted in the movie palaces of the day. Fast forward to today’s standards, and films are still heavily censored, the ratings system is completely backwards and many of films get unfairly rated because of biased opinions.
Children are the ones who are supposed to be protected by these ratings. That’s why there are age restrictions on all of them. G is for everyone and is rarely seen in films not made for children. PG is a little more graphic, for older children. These are needed so parents know exactly what their kids are being exposed to when they stream, rent or buy any film. PG-13 is helpful when showing films to teenagers and keeping them from seeing films that are violent or unsavory. Sadly, this rating, and the R rating, have many problems with their criteria, and a comparison between films in recent years shows a disconnect between what should or shouldn’t constitute a certain rating.
In 2007 two films were released with the same rating. One of them featured a woman’s belly being sliced open with a scythe while dangling upside down by a rope. The other featured two musicians who fall in love but go their separate ways. “Hostel 2” and “Once” were both deemed too obscene for the likes for the thirteen-year-old kids traipsing into theaters—the former for grotesque displays of violence and murder, the latter for several curse words. Curse words often kill films that deserve very low ratings, and these words, though technically obscene by definition, are not detrimental to childhood development and don’t influence children as much as any conversation they would hear in the home or on the playground.
Another “sin” that gets films rated more mature is the inclusion of nudity of any kind. The human body does not affect children and is not bad for them to see, yet a couple topless scenes always inevitably bump up a rating. Showing sex in any context could be scary for any kid, whether it’s violent or very graphic. Most sex scenes in films are not realistic nor relatable to any movie watcher. Scenes that show authentic sex are often bumped up to an NC-17, though this rating has long since been attributed to the past X rating, which denotes pornographic material. Films that show explicit things such as an erect penis, cunnilingus and other displays of female sexuality will fall into the NC-17 rating, though they’re not detrimental to an adults, who watch R-rated movies. If there are scenes of explicit homosexual content, it will also make for a more mature rating. Films that carry the explicit NC-17 rating are often banned from distribution in theaters, in rentals or even online, sometimes getting censored for public consumption. Instead of protecting children from explicit content, we are censoring ourselves from seeing every day experiences.
The disconnect between this country and others is especially strange. In Europe sexuality is often downgraded to watchable, even by small children, but violence is heavily rated. Here, the opposite remains true. While any trace of semen or ejaculation onscreen is expressly forbidden, and given NC-17 ratings, any 17-year-old with a parent can see a parody film like “Scary Movie,” where a man is speared in the head by a fake erection, or a torture porn film like “Saw,” where people cut through their bones with saws. Protecting younger viewers is very important and directly changes what they may fear later in life, but when we fear even letting ourselves watch it, there’s a major problem.
The MPAA is made up of people chosen randomly who rate films every day. They cause filmmakers to make cuts and change the content we see. Their opinions are biased, their system is flawed, and yet a film cannot play its trailer in a theater unless it has been rated by the MPAA. They’re not regulated by the government nor are they mandated, but they exist and therefore need to be changed for all the people who still sit in movie theater seats.