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The International Writers Magazine
: FIlm Censorship in America - An essay

"The Vultures of Culture"
M. C. Wood on cultural censorship

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) created a ratings board in 1968 as an arm of the Classification and Rating Administration to review films and rate them on content, which might be "inappropriate" for children and teenage minors. The president of the MPAA appoints members of the board, which is purportedly made up of people with parenting backgrounds. In addition, people from the seven major studios head the MPAA membership: Disney, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros.

PG13 / R18

Setting aside the fact that the studios' ability to self monitor is questionable given the amount of money to be made by films rated in a particular way, the board says they're merely advising parents, not advocating what movies children should or should not watch. This claim is a corollary to the one, made by studios in defense of intensely violent and sexual films, that the content of images does not influence children and teenagers' behaviors, mental states, feelings, or beliefs about the world. Though it is almost impossible not to advocate when advising, this feat of inconsistency is apparently accomplished with every rating.
The underlying assumption of movie ratings (and their siblings in television, music, and gaming industries) is that the criteria for ratings and the ratings themselves are "objective." The concept of objectivity, both in the individual who reviews a film in order to rate it and in the content of the film that is rated, is presumed a given of experience. "Common sense" and "facts" are the widely accepted reference points for supposedly unbiased, unprejudiced, and perceptually clear accounts of the world — in short, for objectivity. The idea is that the ratings board members can dispassionately view movies and determine what content is objectionable and what content is appropriate for young viewers. The presumption at work is that there are ideas, events, and situations that are intrinsically good or bad. That's how they can tell what content is inappropriate for young viewers. So, for example, female nudity is acceptable in most instances, but male nudity is not.

Given the disparity of ratings applied to films with similar content, it would seem that some sex and violence is appropriate for young viewers, other sex and violence is not. The ratings movies receive lead one to believe that what they are seeing is likely appropriate for viewers of a certain age. The "stronger" the rating, the less appropriate the content. Here is where the shift from any ostensible objectivity to an intense subjectivity occurs. Appropriateness is a value term, and regardless of whether or not values have any objectivity (go read your Plato and then your Postmodernists) the inconsistency of the ratings applied by the MPAA ratings board reflects a movement toward subjective, and perhaps arbitrary, decision-making. The current system is so vague as to be meaningless. It is similar to that famous comment about pornography, "I can't define it but I know it when I see it."

The ratings guide itself is of little help when compared to movies that have been released with, say, PG-13 and R ratings, but which have little discrepancy in actual content. In fact, ratings continue to stretch "to reflect the morals of the times," which may or may not have the objectivity we might want morality to have. In addition, the context in which a scene is placed influences the rating a movie receives. Context and objectivity are not intellectual bedfellows, yet they are forced to co-exist for the purpose of rating films.
What does it mean to be appropriate in one context and not in another? Nudity is not intrinsically good or bad, but sexually construed it supposedly is — unless it is female nudity in a sexual context, in which case it is appropriate for children to see. Apparently sexual objectification is part of the process of the objective reviewers. The defense of this practice is to assert that it is not possible to discern female sexual arousal, whereas male sexual arousal is obvious and so is not appropriate to be seen. Yet the fact that the typical context in which female nudity is shown is precisely sexual, and so arousal is implied if not entailed by the circumstance in which it is portrayed. Almost exclusively the female body represents sexuality in "entertainment." This is a reflection not only of attitudes about women and sex, but also the inheritance of history, the hundreds of years of art depicting females as sensual objects by male artists. So, such depiction is not viewed as a cultural artifact. Instead, this convention is viewed simply "the way things are," or another way of claiming objectivity. The fact that it’s arguably not objective is apparently not considered if the ratings standards are any guide.

Have children changed so much that content traditionally deemed inappropriate is now acceptable viewing? Is objectivity limited to cultural context? It may indeed be true that understanding context comes with experience, and since children have no experience to speak of, it is likely that they have no understanding of something in and out of context. And yet, since ratings seem to be based, in part, on what occurs in particular contexts, it seems at best inconsistent to assert that some movies receive a less market-share favorable rating than does another simply because similar content appears in different contexts — which brings us back once again to the problem of objectivity.

Movie ratings do not exist in the sphere of objectivity — except insofar as they perpetuate the exploitive objectification of certain people. But that's an equivocation on the term "objective". So what do the ratings board members think they're doing when they claim objectivity in their decision-making?

There are at least two problems with the board's claim to objectivity. One is that the reviewer is arguably not dispassionate about what he or she thinks is appropriate viewing for young audiences. The second, and related, problem is that the elements of a film are not mere facts — and yet facts are just what objectivity claims these elements to be. If, say, killing is always wrong, is objectively wrong, then the glorification of killing that some filmmakers are accused of achieving cannot be, in any objective sense, the case. If killing is indeed glorified, then it may just be the case that its moral rightness or wrongness is an open question, or that the filmmaker misunderstands the proper moral position. The most objective a film can be is to attempt to present a story or a character in such a way that the film is not commenting about it but is leaving the meaning up to the audience — yet the meaning is essentially what the ratings are meant to convey, so in effect, the ratings board tells people what is and is not meaningful movie fare. People viewing a film will be hard pressed to be objective about its content when that content itself is, arguably, not objective.

In order to judge what content is appropriate for people of all ages you have to have a coherent epistemological position. Even then, what we know and how we know it is still an open question debated by philosophers, scientists, theologians, and others. How is it, then, that the ratings board has managed to resolve such a conceptually sticky problem?

Since it is unlikely that ratings reflect a dispassionate evaluation of a film's content, perhaps we should do away with them in favor of a sterile enumeration of the film's scenes. There is no doubt in my mind that, while we denigrate film, television, and radio as mere entertainment, we also have strong opinions on the effect they have on culture, and in particular, on "impressionable" young people. If we took more seriously the idea that these are in fact powerful mediums we might begin to be more respectful about how we use them — even though they have been almost exclusively co-opted by business and corporate interests whose concerns are exclusively financial enhancement.

Regardless of what we think about the quality of film and television in America, the fact is that both mediums, in addition to the internet and radio broadcast, powerfully influence mainstream culture and the ideas we have about what it is to be a person in America. All kinds of morals, customs, rituals, traditions, and politics are infused into the images and stories we experience on a daily basis.

Ultimately, the ratings applied to movies are arbitrary, and worse yet, they're asinine. If I were to infer the intellect of the folks who rate movies I would likely find them unintelligent, unreflective, unimaginative, irresponsible, but nevertheless, and sadly, very powerful.

You see, the MPAA shows by its actions that it thinks the American Public to be severely lacking in decision-making skills. In short, they think we're obtuse. Maybe it's true. What we watch on television, listen to on the radio, and patronize at the cinema do not reflect well on our collective interests. Then again, we're not provided with much in the way of quality. The problem exists regardless of, whether or not we get what we want or we take what we get because it's all that's offered. Treated in this way, one is eventually worn down until, in fact, it becomes true that the American Public is a group of dimwits. Consequently, people who know what's best for us begin to decide what we should and should not experience.
That's why the ratings board claims that their system provides a useful tool for parents who want to monitor what their kids see. The criteria that determine what is and is not suitable for young viewers or the viewing public at large should not be constructed or discovered for us. The fact is, parents won't know if they want their child to see a film unless they see it themselves. Parents do not need parenting. If a movie is intense in any way for a young viewer it is the parents responsibility to discuss and sort out what the child is experiencing. How we process what we see is equally important to the formation of kids' ideas as what they see.

If we continue to believe that movies are mere entertainment, without lasting value or influence, then we'll never take them seriously enough to stop acceding to ratings. But the concept of entertainment is another topic for another time.

© M.C. Wood March 2004

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