The International Writers Magazine: FIlm Censorship in America
- An essay
Vultures of Culture"
M. C. Wood on cultural censorship
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
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
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 its 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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