The Keeper of the Sacred Flame
How I Learned to Love the MPAA
by Daniel Heath
illustration by Justin Wambult-Reynolds
There has been a recent fad among atheist, freedom-hating filmmakers to throw public tantrums about the perceived unfairness of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. Take the smut-laced 2006 hit piece This Film Is Not Yet Rated, for instance. “The rating system is homophobic,” the filmmakers whine. “It discriminates against independent and foreign films.” Well, why shouldn’t it? It’s not the Motion Picture Association of Uzbekistan, is it? And everyone knows independent films aren’t really films—can you really call it a movie if it didn’t cost at least 50 mil to make? I feel it’s my patriotic duty to remind us all what an invaluable service the MPAA provides for this great nation.
No one can dispute the sheer utility of the MPAA’s rating system for precisely calibrating the nature and intensity of an evening’s entertainment. We must never forget the profound loneliness and uncertainty of the bad old days, before the MPAA began specifying the reasons for its ratings along with the rating itself. Now along with the rating, we receive a succinct catalog of the essential components of a film. Violence? Sex? Exactly what kind and how much? “Rated PG for some mild peril and rude humor.” Those terse descriptive clauses, so vulgar and reductive at first glance, are utilitarian haikus that tell us everything we need to know.
“Rated PG-13 for intense depiction of wartime imprisonment and brief sexual content.” I’ll pass on that one, thanks. I get enough waterboarding with my evening news. “Rated NC-17 for strong and aberrant sexual content.” I’m going to have to let that one go, too; ball gags frighten the cat. “Rated R for vampire violence, sexuality/nudity and language.” Now we’re talking. Vampire violence: sexier than werewolf violence, more hygienic than zombie violence and less nerdy than Dalek violence. The rest of it is just gravy.
Ah, but we’ve got kids around the house—maybe they’re ours, or maybe we just rented them for the night. “Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.” Thematic elements? Those are worse than strong aberrant sexual content, if you ask me. Harder to explain. Which question would you rather answer: “What’s bukkake?” or “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?”
“Rated PG-13 for martial arts combat and some shootings.” There we go. Martial arts combat for the kids, some shootings for the grown-ups. Sure, we’d prefer a polite little dose of “some sexuality” thrown in there for the ladies, but you can’t have everything.
Critics have been known to mock the MPAA’s obsessive attempts to create pseudo-empirical tabulations of everything it imagines to be offensive. Directors who have been told to cut down on the number of humps in a sex scene wonder why exactly the secretive film raters of the MPAA are sitting in the dark counting humps in the first place. But if there is a fetishistic quality to the enumeration of the evils of the film, the MPAA must be forgiven. It is for our sake that it has stared into the abyss. Evil cannot be understood unless it is classified. The association counts instances of the f-word so we don’t have to.
The MPAA doesn’t make its exact tabulations public, but the precision of its wording, its careful use of a fixed hierarchy of modifiers (from “brief” to “some” to “heavy” and all the way to “extreme”) implies a careful score, tic marks for each nipple and blood squib. But that is the genius of the system, and if there is a kind of meta-pornography to it, that seems a small price to pay.
One need only venture farther down the road of cinematic taxonomy to see that the MPAA is comparatively restrained; there exist websites (take screenit.com as an example) where every innuendo, body part, obscene utterance or instance of undesirable behavior is precisely and extensively chronicled. Everything from “some men drink beer” to “some chopsticks are broken, placed in [a] man’s nostrils, and then jammed up into his head.” Every single instance of profanity in the movie is not merely tabulated, it is repeated in full, with only a single asterisk as a fig leaf for the offending word (vowels are apparently the genitalia of obscenities).
No catalog so complete could be compiled without prurient interest. You can sense the woman clutching at her pink twin-set as she pencils down the filth, pausing, rewinding. The pencil lead snaps against the page. She bites the inside of her cheek as she plunges the pencil into the sharpener, her lips mouthing the words that she can’t get out of her head until she writes them down: “Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.”
By comparison, the MPAA ratings are elegant and refined. Yes, in a small screening room somewhere in Los Angeles a father of three may be clutching the armrest desperately while Jason Statham gets shirtless and wrestles with another man on an oil-slick floor, but he distills his feelings into the poetry of a rating. “Violent sequences and…” He swallows. “Some sensuality.”
No One Needs to See That
Like most fruits of genius, the rating system appears obvious after the fact. But we must never lose sight of the enormous difficulty of reducing a complex cultural artifact to a single sentence of judgment. Many philosophical battles must be fought along the way, chief among them, “What is the nature of evil?” That question alone is Legion: “Are there degrees of evil? Can evil deeds serve good ends? How much evil can I get away with before I get the wrong kind of attention from the man upstairs?”
It’s not the shape of the nipple, you see; it’s the color. Bond girls can squirm in crisp silhouette, but light up that areola and you’ve crossed a line. Drop the camera below the woman’s waist and you cross another. And you’d better be ready for trouble if you show That Which God Intended to Be Covered With Shorts on a male.
These distinctions are not obvious; they merely seem to be, because the ratings board has created a hierarchy of nakedness and stuck to it. Skin is now flashed in precise coordination with how naughty a film wishes to be, and everyone’s vocabulary of naughtiness is exactly the same. Life imitates art—the hierarchies have shaped the discourse and the practice of real-world sexuality as well, structuring private interchanges that would otherwise be hopelessly unclear.
The core concept of the ratings scheme is that it’s not what you mean, it’s how you say it. Take violence, for instance. Violence is fine, as long as there’s no blood. Too much blood can bump you all the way up to NC-17. We don’t mind the death, we just don’t like it to be upsetting. We actively encourage setting up fantasy spaces where death is bloodless and bad guys fall down like cardboard ducks.
Fucking is OK, just don’t say “fuck,” don’t show the pink bits, and make sure that if anyone has an orgasm it’s not too long or intense. Especially girls and gays. Their orgasms frighten and threaten us in ways we would rather not talk about. Your movie can be as racist as you want, as long as you’re not too obvious about it. You’re not going to see a film “Rated R for artistically bankrupt stereotyping and some tokenism.” You won’t get slapped with “Rated PG-13 for product placement and commercial content.” And you’ll never see “Rated NC-17 for pervasive jingoism, militarism and some fascist images.”
If you hate America, you could quibble that the MPAA system steers films toward violent fantasies stripped of consequences. You could argue that it punishes trivial vulgarities while providing moralistic cover for the most pernicious effects of films on children. But if you reject the arbitrary tabulation of trivia, you throw yourself to the metaphysical wolves. Alone and friendless, you face the Big Questions: What is this film? How do I use it? Will it make me a better person or worse? And what about the kids? Your questions will echo in the void, and then what are you going to do? Watch the movie with your kids and talk to them about it?
Let us not forget, finally, what is perhaps the greatest service that the MPAA provides with its ruthlessly literal metrics of good and evil. Without its guidance, expletives and body parts would lose all meaning. Pokémon cartoons would feature triple penetration and words that I hesitate to type even in the jaded pages of this magazine. Obscenity would lose its shock, nipples would be twice as common as noses, and children would learn at far too young an age that everyone has an ass.
Not only does the MPAA part the theoretical mists of art; not only does it bring a strict taxonomy to the numberless evils of our time. It is the keeper of the sacred flame of obscenity, without which even our beloved “fuck” would lose its luster, and be just another word.
Daniel Heath is the son of a preacher man.