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Will The Masses Bully The MPAA Ratings System?


The documentary titled Bully releases to theaters this week and it's riding a wave of publicity with its director Lee Hirsch and The Weinstein Company challenging the R-rating it has been handed by the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA).

The restricted rating will not only prevent audiences under 18 from seeing the film in theaters, but may also present a problem to school districts who will undoubtedly want to show the documentary but might have provisions prohibiting the exhibition of R-rated movies in their classrooms.

Harvey Weinstein himself, along with Alex Libby -- one of the bullied children featured in the documentary -- appealed to the ratings board to reduce the rating. The final numbers fell one vote short of what was required to make the change. After a few more weeks of wrangling, petitions and media coverage The Weinstein Co. has decided to surrender their rating from the MPAA and release the movie as "unrated" -- a rarely used option.

In my two decades of writing about movies from a family perspective, I have never felt as torn over a rating as in this instance. Allow me to explain just a few of the reasons for my quandary and what the consequences for the denied appeal may bring...

I viewed Bully a few days ago and while I feel the movie is amiss in one area (no analysis of what drives a child to be a bully), it certainly does an amazing job of illustrating some of the problems with this complex issue. It chronicles the lives of a few kids in different areas of the U.S. and shows just how frustrating and hopeless their lives have become. I liked their choices of subjects -- most are boys who have a variety of conditions, appearance or general makeup that, for some reason only known to psychologists, attracts the negative attention of other kids. The one female teen identifies herself as gay and while she has been subjected to various torments, including a deliberate assault by a minivan driven by another student (she laughingly talks about bouncing off the windshield), she appears to have the best self-image of the bunch.

Bully received the R-rating for one reason: Profane language. There are a handful of mild profanities scattered throughout the movie but in two scenes, in which young Alex is being verbally abused, "the" sexual expletive is heard a total of six times. Otherwise there is no other content that would not easily fit into a PG-13 classification.

The MPAA ratings board has long had a clause in its ratings rules that perfectly suits Bully. According to the guidelines, "More than one [sexually derived] expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context." (Ever noticed how virtually every PG-13 movie has one "f-bomb"? As a reviewer I like to play a game with myself to predict which character will get the honor.)

Bully's six sexual expletives easily push it into an R-rating. However, the next sentence of the same paragraph outlining sexually derived expletives offers this exception: "The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used..."

There are also precedents, movies that have been granted the PG-13 rating with more than one sexual expletive. The most notable is another documentary, Gunner Palace, which released in 2004 and presented over 40 reported uses of the sexual expletive. Originally rated R, its appeal granted it a PG-13.

Other movies with far less altruistic motives have also seen an increase in sexual verbiage, a fact the media took notice of during last summer when films like The Social Network, The Tourist, The Adjustment Bureau, Iron Man 2 and more slipped in more than one sexual expletive. Other movies take even more creative routes, having characters partially blurt or mouth expletives or offer middle finger gestures.

In an August 2011 AP article, Joan Graves, head of the MPAA's classification and rating system, admits the additional sexual expletives in PG-13 movies is "hard to explain" adding that "sometimes they're in the same scene, just repeated twice." She also recognizes the partially uttered, mouthed or variations on the word are equivalent to having the word "peppered throughout the movie."

These precedents of mostly entertainment-oriented films with PG-13 ratings that include multiple sexual expletives, along with the exception rule available to the MPAA, make the ratings system more confusing to parents when a film like Bully doesn't receive the same favor.

Finally I am concerned the MPAA's decision to hold to the R-rating may create societal pressure that will erode the ratings system. The incredible media coverage resulting from the lost appeal will place additional pressure on the ratings board to question the relevance of restricting access to a movie based on a profanity that is heard far too frequently on elementary school playgrounds. As well, now that The Weinstein Company has convinced theaters to exhibit an unrated movie, will they go down that path again if they don't win the rating they are seeking? Will other studios follow?

I encourage parents to view Bully with their children. I also suggest teachers show it, with parental permission, in their middle school and high school classrooms. And I encourage the MPAA ratings board to be as diligent applying ratings to this summer's crop of action films as they have been to Bully.


Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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