Little Boy, Fifty Shades, and the MPAA's Inconsistent Ratings Standards

Written by PTC | Published April 22, 2015

Costco PollThe family-friendly film Little Boy contains only mild wartime violence, no profanity, no sex, and is filled with positive, family-friendly messages; but it has been rated PG-13 -- the same rating as movies containing far more extreme content. In 1968, Hollywood abandoned the old Production Code, which had actually required filmmakers to act responsibly in creating entertainment – and under which, the film industry had produced classics like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, The Maltese Falcon, High Noon, On the Waterfront, Ben-Hur, and literally hundreds of others. Instead, the industry switched over to the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie-rating scheme, under which -- like the farcical TV ratings system today – filmmakers were allowed to make any kind of content they wanted (provided they could obtain financial backing), with the burden of determining appropriate content dumped onto parents and viewers. While less than ideal, for many years the movie rating system worked well enough; but in recent years, the MPAA’s standards have slipped disastrously, with more and more explicit content being rated appropriate for young teens. As stated in US News and World Report, last year, two studies by the Annenberg Public Policy Center demonstrated the MPAA’s growing failure to accurately rate films. One study showed that R-rated levels of violence are increasingly appearing in PG-13 rated films. The other demonstrated that the violence in such films is frequently linked to other risky behaviors like sex, smoking, and drinking. And as was widely reported in the press, a recently-published scientific study in the medical journal Pediatrics found that gun violence in PG-13–rated films has more than tripled since 1985. According to the overwhelming majority of America’s parents, the MPAA is far too lenient in its rating of movie content. Joan Graves, the head of the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Administration, has admitted that, after reaching out to parents, “it overwhelmingly came back that they don’t want even one F-word in PG-13.” In spite of this, current MPAA policy is to allow one f-word in a PG-13 film, only imposing an R rating if the film features more. Or that is supposedly the rule; in fact, many movies of late have featured more than one f-bomb, and even more graphic violent and sexual content, and have still received a PG-13 rating. As proof, consider the following examples:
  • The MPAA has repeatedly lowered the rating on Hollywood boss Harvey Weinstein’s films, no matter how much graphic language they contain. In 2011, the ratings group lowered the rating on Weinstein’s documentary Bully from R to PG-13, even though it contained multiple f-bombs. Two years later, the MPAA lowered Weinstein’s Philomena from an R to a PG-13, again despite the movie’s repeated use of the f-word.
  • Also in 2013, filmmakers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deliberately larded their upcoming film This Is The End with unbelievably graphic sex scenes, including one between a human being and a demon sporting an enormous erection. They did this deliberately hoping to get an NC-17 rating. The two filmmakers confessed that their plan was to cram in excessive amounts of explicit content, and then, when the MPAA rated the film NC-17, to snip out a tiny bit of the content, thus obtaining a lower rating of R. But even the directors were flabbergasted when their movie was given an R rating right out of the gate.
  • In 2014, the football-themed film Draft Day was originally rated R by the MPAA for “strong language.” Yet rather than requiring the filmmakers to either accept the rating or cut out some of the foul language, the MPAA happily rolled over for the filmmakers when they asked for a lower rating. The film was re-rated PG-13.
  • Just last month, the MPAA gave a PG-13 rating to the teen “comedy” Barely Lethal. The movie, about a 16-year-old murderer containing sexual material, teen drinking, foul language, drug references, and graphic violence, was originally rated R; but the MPAA decided such content was ideal for 13 year old children, and once again lowered the rating to PG-13.
  • The most notable example of the MPAA’s utter lack of scruples regarding its rating system came this past Valentine’s Day, with the release of the unbelievably graphic bondage-and-sexual-torture film Fifty Shades of Grey. So explicit was Fifty Shades that the movie’s own screenwriter said that the movie should be rated NC-17. One of the film’s producers Dana Brunetti agreed – as did the British Board of Film Classification (the UK’s equivalent of the MPAA), which gave the film an “18 & Over Only” rating -- meaning that no one under 18 would be admitted to the film, even if accompanied by an adult. The BBFC cited the film’s “strong sex and nudity, along with the portrayal of erotic role play based on domination, submission and sado-masochistic practices” in determining the rating, as well as its “strong verbal references to sex practices and the instruments used.”
But surprise, surprise: the MPAA gave the film an R rating, meaning it considered Fifty Shades of Grey as perfectly acceptable for children under 17, so long as they were accompanied by an “adult” (even an 18-year-old friend). The entertainment industry often complains that Europe is more open-minded about sex in film than America; but that demonstrates just how extreme this decision was…yet it was a typical one for the MPAA. (Actually, given the organization’s tendencies listed above, the real surprise is that Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t also receive a PG-13 rating.) Given this history, one would certainly expect that a family-friendly film like Little Boy – one completely devoid of profanity or sexual content, containing only a few brief and mild scenes of men under fire during wartime, and promoting positive messages like the evils of bigotry, the need to do good to one’s fellow men, and the power of faith –should be given a rating of PG. And it definitely would never be rated PG-13, like Philomena, Draft Day, or Barely Lethal. But it was. As confirmed by The Hollywood Reporter, the MPAA decided that Little Boy had “too much violence” for a PG rating. After being told this, Little Boy’s producers diligently cut out most of the violent footage – but the MPAA still wasn’t satisfied, and stood their ground (which is more than they did when Harvey Weinstein appealed his movie’s ratings). The filmmakers then appealed the rating, which typically results in a lowered rating; but not in this case. While the MPAA, incredibly, claims that “violence” is the reason for Little Boy’s PG-13 rating, some believe other forces are in play. A major point in the movie is the unreasoning hatred and bigotry faced by Hashimoto, a Japanese resident of the town, during the virulently anti-Japanese sentiment of post-Pearl Harbor World War II. During the course of the film, to show this bigotry, Hashimoto is called “Jap” by other residents…though the film’s hero, the “little boy” of the title, befriends him and even defends him to the other townsfolk. With its ultra-sensitivity to racial dialogue (a sensitivity not shown toward use of the f-word), Hollywood’s self-appointed ratings barons are punishing a truly family film by denying entrance to anyone under age 13. Or the explanation may be simpler yet: unlike Harvey Weinstein or Seth Rogen, the makers of Little Boy are hardly celebrities or entertainment industry giants…but they are challenging Hollywood’s status quo of foul-mouthed, gory, and sexually depraved content with a film which uplifts viewers, encourages genuine tolerance, and actually sees value in matters of faith. "We set out to make a film that the entire family could enjoy together -- from kids to grandparents. Our goal from the very beginning was for it to be PG, and we honestly feel we have done that… Hollywood's idea of what is objectionable content is very different from the Americans I meet when I travel across America. The parents that I know are tired of having their kids saturated with sex, violence and disrespectful behavior. Our movie has none of that," said Little Boy’s producer Eduardo Verastegui. So: no matter how many f-bombs and s-words, how much violence or sex a movie contains, the MPAA will willingly lower its rating from R to PG-13; but a few uses of a racial epithet – even when the fact that bigotry is wrong is the entire message of the movie! – and the MPAA will force a PG-13 rating on a clearly PG film. Some might accuse the film’s producers of paranoia, were they to claim that the MPAA’s actions represent a deliberate vendetta against family-friendly films in general, and Christian filmmaking in particular. But given the way the MPAA consistently punishes clean content while giving a pass to f-bombs, pornography, and gore, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion.

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