The MPAA and the Trouble with Movie Ratings

If you grew up in the 90s, there’s a good chance you’ve seen this poster hanging in the lobby of your local movie theater. The Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) rating system has become as linked with the movie experience as soda and popcorn. We’re all familiar with that little box that appears before every movie trailer that tells us what audience it’s rated for: G (general audiences), PG (parental guidance), PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned), R (restricted), and NC-17 (no one under 17 admitted). But what about the people who give those ratings? What exactly is the MPAA?

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For a group whose purpose is simply to educate parents on a film’s content, the MPAA cloaks itself in an extraordinary amount of secrecy. They operate in the shadows of Hollywood, exerting their control over the film industry with an iron fist. The identities of their members are a closely guarded secret, their chain of command is unclear, and the reasoning behind their decisions is dubious, to say the very least. Needless to say, they’ve been criticized by people both inside and outside the film industry for years, not least of all for what many have come to see as consider an inconsistent and completely biased rating system. Although we’ve come a long way from the censorship the films of the early 20th century experienced, the MPAA isn’t so different from its predecessors. Originally known as the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the MPAA was established in 1922 by the major film studios to protect Hollywood’s financial interests and limit the amount of censorship the government could impose on films. At the time, the landscape of film was rife with controversary; celebrity scandals were rampant there weren’t many restrictions on the content films were allowed to show. It was a fertile environment for filmmakers, ripe with creative potential, where progressive voices flourished. The films of this era were known for being bold and representative: taboo subjects like suicide, prostitution and drug addiction weren’t off the table in mainstream films, but neither were topics like feminism, gender roles, and social injustice. Even LGBTQ characters could thrive without consequence on the silver screen — an example being Morocco (dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1930), which featured cinema’s first lesbian kiss.
But this changed as films became more accessible. Religious groups began protesting the content in films, feeling that they were immoral and a corrupting influence on the American public. As moral panic spread, people even began to petition the federal government to step in and “rehabilitate” the film industry. This is where the MPPDA stepped in. In their early years, the organization was actually opposed to censorship. Their first president, Will H. Hays, believed that the film industry could self-regulate its own content. To this end, he approved the Motion Picture Production Code, later known as the Hays Code: guidelines penned by conservative journalist Martin Quigley and Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord that outlined offensive material filmmakers were restricted to use. Many of the rules had Catholic undertones and were primarily focused on combating the immorality films could seed among the American public. As the document argued: “Art can be morally evil in its effects. This is the case clearly enough with unclean art, indecent books, suggestive drama. The effect on the lives of men and woman is obvious.” (Doherty, 348)
However, the film industry itself was more concerned with the financial benefits a set of moral guidelines could offer. When the Hays Code was created in 1929, movie censorship was handled on a state-by-state basis by local censor boards who determined if a movie was appropriate to be shown in theaters. Distibutors found that it was cheaper and easier to appease the censors instead of fighting them, which resulted in heavily edited movies that sold poorly with audiences. Faced with bad publicity, low theater turnout, and a struggling economy generated by the Great Depression, studios became pressured to make films with mass appeal. The Hays Code was the answer to their problems: it helped studios protect their profits by giving them the ability to self-censor their movies, allowing them to bypass the censors and placate the public. Hollywood began to seriously enforce it, and by the end of the 1930s, it became the industry standard and would remain as such for decades.
But the Hays Code couldn’t keep up with the changing times. Even though the studios supported it, it was never popular among filmmakers. Some directors like Otto Preminger tried to fight it by creating films that deliberately violated the Code’s rules, like Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959). These critically acclaimed films were box office hits, and their success only served to highlight how outdated the Hays Code was becoming. The MPPD, now rebranded as the MPAA, searched for a replacement that would provide filmmakers with more artistic freedom while still keeping audiences forewarned of certain content in films. In 1968, they introduced the film rating system we all know and love, and the rest is history.
Surprisingly, very little has changed with the MPAA since then. Apart from the addition of the PG-13 rating in 1984, they’ve been using the same scale and descriptors to grade film content for fifty-three years. Unlike the Hays Code, the MPAA’s rating system is voluntary, aimed at providing information to viewers instead of restricting filmmakers. Their current Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) board consists of anonymous parents who describe their goal as “giving advance cautionary warning to families about a movie’s content” and “affording parents the tools they need to make informed decisions on what their children watch.”
All of this sounds reasonable, and in theory, it is. Films are a business and people have the right to know what kind of content they’re paying for. Parents should be able to know if the film their ten-year-old child wants to see contains adult content like violence or sex and use that information to make savvy parenting choices. It also wouldn’t make financial sense to waste money going through the process of buying tickets and all the movie theater accoutrements like snacks only to discover that the movie you paid for isn’t what you expected.
A rating system should be able to help audiences make good movie watching choices without negatively impacting them or the filmmakers. However, the MPAA isn’t exactly transparent with how their rating process works. When determining film ratings, they use ill-defined terms like “thematic elements” and “disturbing imagery” and the ratings themselves are inconsistent. They’ve also shown biased thinking against certain content, heavily scrutinizing things like language and nudity over violence. It’s easy to imagine a movie like American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron, 2000) that centers around the daily life of a serial killer being rated R for depictions of murder and torture. But gore didn’t give American Psycho its R. Instead, it was a three-way between lead actor Christian Bale and two prostitutes. Another strange example of the MPAA’s bizarre logic came in 2010 when the historical drama The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper) was given a 12A rating in the United Kingdom, the equivalent of a PG rating. In the United States, it was rated R. Why? Because of a single improvised scene in which Prince Albert (Colin Firth) goes off on a profanity-laden tirade
The MPAA has also been criticized for having a strong gender bias and holding films with LGBTQ content to a higher ratings standard than content in other movies. The film Boys Don’t Cry (dir. Kimberly Pierce, 1999), which was based on the life and death of a young transman named Brandon Teena, was originally rated NC-17 by the MPAA. When Fox Searchlight refused to distribute the movie unless it was rated R, director Kimberly Pierce was forced to make cuts to several scenes, one of which was a love scene between Brandon and his girlfriend Lana. The MPAA took issue with this scene, deeming it problematic that Brandon wiped his mouth after performing oral sex and that Lana’s orgasm was too long. When Pierce questioned why this was an issue, they replied: “Well we don’t really know but that’s offensive.” (“15 Times the MPAA Got it Wrong”) The 2014 drama Love is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs), centered around an older gay couple, was also rated R despite having no nudity and violence. It’s a mystery why this film sits in the same category as movies like Joker (dir. Todd Phillips, 2019) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1974), but it leads one to wonder if the MPAA judges films with queer characters and themes more harshly than ones with a heterosexual focus.
Limiting accessibility to certain films isn’t the only way the MPAA flexes its power over Hollywood. Reminiscent of the relationship the studio system once shared with the Hays Code, they have an almost symbiotic relationship with the film industry. In the current landscape of the industry, ratings play a fundamental role in the business of filmmaking. A rating isn’t just a label slapped on a film poster; it’s a marketing tool that sells the movie and determines how it will be advertised. Since it’s part of the film’s business model, filmmakers need to know exactly what kind of rating they’re going to get before they begin production. In attempt to maximize their profits, studios will often limit the content a filmmaker can use in their films, or force them to make edits to ensure that the MPAA gives it a PG or PG-13 rating.
This is the situation the long-awaited Deadpool 3 is allegedly in. Despite Marvel’s claims that the Deadpool franchise would continue to remain rated R even after the Disney-Fox acquisition, there are whispers that Disney has been pushing for a PG-13, even considering creating two different versions of the movie. Other future Marvel projects like the reboot of Blade — previously an R-rated series distributed by New Line Cinema, now expected to be rated PG13 with Disney‘s involvement — has also raised eyebrows from many a concerned fan. Many argue that the MCU’s formula is proof that franchises like Blade and Deadpool don’t need an R-rating to be successful, but that misinterprets what made those series so unique to begin with. When Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller) was released in 2016, it was a breath of fresh air, demanding to be noticed and daring to be different. Instead of watering the character down, the film elevated Deadpool by allowing him to be the crass, violent force of nature he was in his comic books, opening a door of limitless potential for the stories you could tell with him.
A PG-13 Deadpool would performed well financially no matter what from brand recognition alone, but it’s doubtful that it would have made as much of an impact on audiences, or became the highest grossing R-rated film of all time — until 2018’s Deadpool 2 (dir. David Leitch) stole the crown. Characters like Deadpool and Blade need to be in films that allow them to be themselves, otherwise they become indistinguishable from their competition: toothless, uncomplex, and worst of all, boring.
Films shouldn’t have to change to follow a rigid and subjective standard of morals, nor should they be altered to appease the money-hungry studios. The MPAA in its present form only enables studios to continue enforcing practices that deter filmmakers from following their creative vision. The faceless committee behind it claims to have the best interests of the public at heart, but their bizarrely reactionary behavior and flimsy justification helps no one, not least of all the children they claim to look out for. Even though their nonsensical methodology puts filmmakers and audiences in a frustrating place, the MPAA’s own position couldn’t be more ideal: how can an organization with no public appeal process, list of members, or clearly defined rules be held accountable for their actions if there’s nobody and nothing to hold accountable?