The Motion Picture Association of America was founded forty-two years ago by its longtime head, Jack Valenti. Since then, the MPAA’s standards for rating sexuality in movies have not changed significantly. American cultural values, on the other hand, have shifted and subjects which were once verboten are now considered blasé. Violence is rampant in the media: we see it on the television, in the news, in video games and splashed large across two story screens to the rat-a-tat beat of semi-automatic guns in movie theatres. Human intimacy, on the other hand, is dealt with almost shamefully, in cut scenes and R or NC-17 ratings. Two individuals engaging in a consensual pleasurable act is considered pornographic whereas an action movie hero’s stunningly high body count as he shoots, strangles, and slices life from person after person with no apparent remorse is considered appropriate for most audiences. It is clear that bias exists on the part of the MPAA against displays of sexuality, and queer sexuality especially.
Consider the MPAA’s treatment of movies which include queer sexuality. As noted in Censuring the Censors, the documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated splits its screen to show similar sexual scenes, with gay ones on the left side, straight on the right…. Each time, the gay scenes received an NC-17 rating while the straight scenes got an R.” The MPAA is biased against displays of queer sexuality, which reinforces the antiquated notion that queer sexuality is shameful. Queer sexuality is therefore rarely even touched upon, and it is even rarer still that a movie about queer sexuality gets wide distribution and rave reviews. When was the last time you saw a feel-good boy-meets-boy movie with an all-star cast?
The MPAA’s primary concern appears to be how much money a given movie will bring in. As Richard Corliss says in Censuring the Censors:
All national film ratings systems are supposedly created to protect impressionable children from adult content. But the U.S. scheme differs from the ones in other countries in several major ways…. The U.S. system, founded in the mid-’60s, is controlled not by a government agency but by the very industry that manufactures the product — to be precise, by the six major studios that constitute the MPAA.
The MPAA is unique in that it is an advisory board which is not comprised of neutral outsiders but is instead controlled by those who are most intimately concerned with the outcome of the ratings – the major movie studios. The Motion Picture Association serve as gatekeepers to the American public; if film makers produce material which the MPAA considers especially objectionable, it is rated NC-17, which means that the movie will not be seen in most movie theatres, will not be advertised in newspapers and will be denied exposure to the American audience at large – thus denying the ability of film makers to make the same kind of profit they would if their film were rated R. Film makers know this, as do the producers who back them and whose bottom line is the profit a film turns.
When the MPAA was first founded in the 1960s, its primary goal was not to advise parents as to whether a movie was appropriate for their children or not. Instead, its focus was on the censorship boards which still existed in many cities across America. These censorship boards had the power to ban any media which they considered immoral, and the movie ratings system was imposed by the movie studios to give the censorship boards an idea of what kind of material the movies contained. Censorship boards no longer exist, yet the MPAA is still going strong. Since the original purpose of this organization is extinct, it is curious that the MPAA has not been taken over by an outside party but instead remains in the hands of the studios who are not so much concerned with whether a movie is appropriate for a given audience but with how much they can profit from its release.
Money is a driving force for the MPAA’s rating system, and the MPAA has determined that displays of sexuality would not garner them as large a profit as violence. Their initial categorization of queer sexuality as shameful has not changed notably since its foundation over forty years ago. In Valenti Defends the Movie Rating System, the MPAA’s founder Jack Valenti speaks to its definition of appropriate intimacy, saying the following:
When I designed the rating system in 1968, I retained two social scientists from different universities. I asked them to put to paper the precise demarcations between rating categories so we would have specific guidelines. For example, what is too much violence for each of the categories? Much as the Supreme Court to this hour cannot define “pornography,” these professors were unable to mark precisely where the lines should be drawn. Like Justice Potter Stewart’s musing about pornography, the raters can say, “I can’t define it but I know what it is when I see it.”
Time and again, the raters define queer sexual acts as pornography where comparable heterosexual scenes are labeled as appropriate for mass distribution. In this again the MPAA differs from its foreign counterparts. Corliss reports that “in Europe, scenes of sexuality that would be proscribed in the U.S. often get a pass…. Conversely, foreign ratings boards are tougher on the most extravagant forms of movie violence, to which the MPAA board is so famously indulgent.”
Why is sexuality met with such stiff resistance, when the portrayal of violent acts against other human beings is not? There exists in this country a fear of sexuality which becomes outright terror when the word queer is tacked on to it. This can be seen across the board: from the stiff resistance on the part of conservatives towards gay marriage to the ban of queer couples adopting in several states, avenues where queer sexuality may be displayed, whether overtly or not, are met with prejudice. The MPAA reflects these regressive attitudes, and one might say that they are only upholding the status quo. However, is it not also the responsibility of the MPAA to be open to helping engender positive change? As the self-proclaimed guardians of what is appropriate for the movie-going American, shouldn’t the MPAA’s first concern be the message delivered by the movie? Roger Ebert calls out the Motion Picture Association, saying that “the MPAA should have changed its standards long ago, taking into account the context and tone of a movie instead of holding fast to rigid checklists.” It is clear that the MPAA needs to revise their standards of appropriateness and consider the entire message of a movie instead of getting hung up on whether a girl having sex with another girl is morally acceptable.
The Motion Picture Association could make a beginning in this by revising their rater selection and training process. Criteria for serving on the deciding board for the MPAA include marriage and children under the age of seventeen. While This Film Is Not Yet Rated noted that these criteria are not always followed, the majority of the members have children, and all but one of the members as of filming of the documentary were in heterosexual marriages. The film also mentions that the board’s chair, Joan Graves, who is a registered Republican, has a personal hand in hiring every member of the MPAA rating board. Given that the stiffest resistance to queer rights comes from the Republican Party, and given that Graves would be most likely to hire those who would best reflect her interests, is it any surprise that the MPAA displays a homophobic bias?
The training of movie raters, Corliss notes what a former rater for the MPAA has to say about the process in This Film Is Not Yet Rated: “‘there was no rater-training process,’ Jay Landers, a former member, tells Dick. ‘People were hired, they were put into the screening room, put into the rating chair and started rating films.’” Entirely lacking a set of standards, raters are left to arbitrarily decide based on their feelings of what is appropriate. Criteria for rating movies based on previous judgments are entirely absent. Training that might positively expose movie raters to different social or cultural values does not exist. Instead, the criterion used – which is kept secret by the MPAA – is presented to the rater while the film rolls, and the public suffers for it. Instituting some form of training for raters which includes cultural and social awareness training would be a positive step to changing the ways in which queer sexuality is viewed. As the raters gain a deeper understanding of people different from themselves, they will be less likely to judge queer sexual acts as immoral. By giving scenes of queer intimacy the same consideration as their heterosexual counterparts and rating them by the same criteria, they improve the public’s access to positive portrayals of queer individuals. As the public’s positive exposure to queer people and queer sexuality increases, so will their attitude change for the better.
The Motion Picture Association of America is the gatekeeper for the positive portrayal of queer people in film. As long as they continue to treat queer sexuality as shameful, they will impede the acceptance of queer people in society. This Editorial is Not Yet Rated notes that “an MPAA spokesperson said in “This Film Is Not Yet Rated”: “We don’t set the standards, we just reflect them.” I challenge the MPAA to step up and take responsibility for the message they’re sending. Stop engaging in biased rating practices towards queer sexuality. As the deciding board for all mass-distributed films in the United States, the MPAA, however flawed and self-interested the board is, has the power to be an arbiter of positive social change. It is their civic responsibility to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution of genuine acceptance for every person, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Corliss, Richard. “Censuring the Movie Censors.” TIME.com. 2 Sept. 2006. Web. 8 Feb. 2011.
Ebert, Roger. “Getting Real About Movie Ratings.” The Wall Street Journal. 10 Dec. 2010. Web. 08 Feb. 2011.
“This Editorial Is Not Yet Rated.” The Los Angeles Times. 14 Oct. 2006. Web. 8 Feb. 2011.
Valenti, Jack. “Valenti Defends Movie Ratings System – Latimes.com.” Los Angeles Times – California, National and World News – Latimes.com. 18 Oct. 2006. Web. 8 Feb. 2011.
This paper was originally written for Professor Denning’s Writing 223 E class at Marylhurst University, Winter Quarter 2011.
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