Will The Masses Bully The MPAA Ratings System?
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).
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.
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
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
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.)
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.
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."
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?
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.
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.
and the Media by Rod Gustafson
Television Council -
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