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A lot of media criticism has been directed at the movie-ratings system this awards season in reaction to a string of decisions described by some as unfair and out of touch and by others as tantamount to censorship. Just as there are disagreements among those whose job it is to assess the artistic merits of a film, there are differing views about our ratings decisions and the rules under which we operate.
The ratings system exists for one purpose: to inform parents about the content of films. Our ratings reflect how we believe a majority of American parents, not just from large cities on the coasts but everywhere in between, would rate a film. It’s a responsibility we take very seriously.
When we assign ratings to films, we do not make qualitative judgments; we are not film critics or censors. We are parents who ask ourselves the same important question during every screening: What would I want to know about this film before I allow my child to see it? The board makes ratings decisions based on the film in its entirety, not by comparison to other films.
Decisions are guided by established criteria for each rating category, which include a few rules that trigger an automatic rating. For instance, any depiction of drug use results in at least a PG-13.
The restrictive ratings, R and NC-17, are not a judgment or punishment. The ratings simply convey to parents that, in the case of an R, a film has elements strong enough that parents should learn more about them before taking their children. In the case of an NC-17, the rating is unequivocal: The movie is patently adult. We are not saying adults can’t and shouldn’t see these films.
There’s a sentiment in our industry that a film judged as “good,” “worthwhile” or “acclaimed” by critics and audiences should be given a less restrictive rating so more people — namely children — can see it. But it’s important to note that rarely, if ever, do we hear from parents that a film given an R or NC-17 should get a lower rating so it’s more accessible to their children.
It concerns me that NC-17 isn’t a more viable rating because it is crucial to the system to utilize a category that clearly indicates a movie is for grown-ups. The NC-17 does not signify the content is bad, gratuitous or pornographic.
I have received a lot of feedback from parents over the years. We know parental concerns about depictions of sexuality, violence and the use of strong language are as diverse as the films we rate, which is why so many parents make choices based on the descriptor included with each rating that explains why a film received its rating. Many parents will take their kids to see an R-rated film if they are not concerned about the particular elements for which the film received its rating. Plenty of parents, for example, took their children to see the R-rated Billy Elliot, despite a language advisory.
Ratings assigned to a couple of documentaries last year further amplified criticism of the system. Filmmakers and media critics charged that R ratings meant children were inherently prevented from being exposed to important, educational films.
As with any R-rated film, a parent must decide whether the content is appropriate for his or her own child’s individual sensibilities. Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and The Passion of the Christ — films that were critically acclaimed and considered historically significant — were rated R, but that certainly didn’t prevent children from seeing them. Not only did parents take their older children to see these films in the theater, but also they were screened in high schools and religious institutions throughout the country (with parental consent in most cases).
Controversy surrounding ratings decisions is not new. Indeed, it is often orchestrated by a film’s producers or distributors as a clever marketing tactic. Our most important job is consistency: Whether a film is educational, delightful, terrible or insightful, ratings are applied based on the level of content in a film.
We welcome these debates as valuable opportunities to help refine our understanding of evolving societal values and, in particular, parental attitudes.
Joan Graves is chairwoman of the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Administration. She has been involved with the rating system since 1988.
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