This September sees the 22nd anniversary of the MPAA’s adoption of the NC-17 rating, a failed effort to replace the maligned X rating. That number is meaningful because the MPAA finally scrapped the X 22 years after it was introduced in 1968. 22 years feels like a good cycle, and it’s time for the MPAA to not only get rid of the NC-17, it must overhaul every single element of the ratings system.
I believe the ratings system should remain. I believe it’s an important prophylactic measure that keeps non-industry censorship away from our movies. And I believe that we are living in a time of dangerous conservatism, where we’re only one bad poll number away from the hardcore right declaring jihad on Hollywood once more. As the fundamentalist grip continues to choke progressivism in America, our arts remain in danger from outside forces.
But I also think that the system as it exists today is extraordinarily flawed and that reform is the only way to save it - and most importantly to create an environment where truly adult cinema can flourish.
A Kind Of Brief History of Censorship in American Movies
The first movie censors arose at almost the exact same time as the first movies. Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896) angered conservatives with its 20 second on-screen smooch. The Victorian prudes saw the new technology of cinema as inherently corrupting, made all the worse by the fact that the men who made films for nickelodeons and arcades were seemingly obsessed with sex and violence.
Edison may have been the producer of the first movies to be censored and banned; the 1896 short Fatima: Muscle Dancer (also known as Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance) was considered so risque that the dancer’s offending bosom and hips were covered with what looks like a hand-drawn fence.
A Fatima knock-off, The Dolorita Passion Dance of 1897, was actually banned in Atlantic City, New Jersey, making it the first film to be banned in the United States. The coming years would see the growth of the movies as they expanded out of arcade machines and became theatrical presentations, as well as the growth of censorship. Many municipalities and states began creating censorship boards; at the time the dominant legal theory held that the First Amendment only applied to federal regulation of speech.
The young motion picture industry proved to be quick on its feet. When New York City sought to outlaw all movies in 1908 the owners of the city’s theaters got an injunction, but the censors still tried, and using the Blue Laws of the time banned all non-educational movies from playing on Sunday. In his excellent book Sex and Violence: The Hollywood Censorship Wars (a source for much of the pre-MPAA information in this article), Tom Pollard explains how they got around it:
The resilient owners then staffed theaters with announcers to highlight the educational aspect of each film shown on Sunday by, for example, pointing out, “these are railroad tracks” and “we are passing a mountain.”
At the time the courts were generally against the movie business. When Chicago banned two Westerns in 1908 (The James Boys in Illinois and Night Riders) the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court who ruled, in 1909, that the city could ban films that were indecent or obscene. These two films, which lionized Western criminals, were found to “represent nothing but malicious mischief.”
In response the National Board of Motion Picture Censorship (The NBC) was founded in New York City in 1909. One of the founders of the board was Marcus Loew, who was the founder of Loew’s Theaters and MGM, and it was in his best interest to head off the willy-nilly municipal bannings of films. The idea was to create a centralized industry body that could bring uniformity to the censorship of movies. The National Board of Motion Picture Censorship, by the way, still exists. They’re now called The National Board of Review and they hand out what is considered the first awards of Awards Season.
The NBC was the model for industry censorship that still stands today with the MPAA. It also has informed how comic books censored themselves (the Comics Code Authority) as well as how the music and video game industry would self-police their content.
Things remained dark for the movies, though. In 1915 the Supreme Court handed down another ruling, this time saying that movies were not art but only commerce and as such were not protected under Ohio’s freedom of speech laws (which were pretty similar to the First Amendment. Again, at the time the legal theory was that the Bill of Rights only applied to federal law).
With the constant threat of legal harassment hanging over them, the Hollywood moguls decided they had to take stronger action. They were spurred on by an escalating series of Hollywood star scandals - the Fatty Arbuckle murder trial and the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor - that created the sense of Hollywood being a place where all morals were out the window. The corrupting influence of the movies had always been assumed, but now it was being acted out by the people who made the movies themselves.
Thus was born the MPPDA - the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America - an entity that took over where the National Board of Review had left off. By 1922 there were 37 states proposing legislation to create censorship boards, so the producers knew they had to take matters into their own hands before it was too late.
Knowing that anti-Hollywood sentiment was running high, the MPPDA hired an outsider to be their head censor*. William Hays, former US postmaster general under Warren G Harding, a Republican and very serious-minded Presbyterian, was the man they found. He established a code of conduct that became known as The Hays Code, even long after he was out of the job. The Code was introduced in 1930, but it was so wantonly ignored that the years from 1930-1934 are popularly known as “Pre-Code Hollywood.” There was no enforcement method available, and while Hays worked with the heads of the studios to create a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” filmmakers cheerfully ignored them.
By 1934 discontent was rising in the heartland again. A Catholic bishop was trying to get Catholics to boycott ALL movies, and there was a bipartisan bill being prepared that would give Congress oversight of motion pictures. It was time for the Code to grow some teeth, and so a $25,000 fine was attached to all infractions.
The Code, it’s worth noting, didn’t just censor imagery, it also censored politics and themes. Crime could only be shown in a way that aggrandized the law. Religion was to always be respected. Miscegenation was not to be shown. Homosexuality was right out the window. Any depiction of a lifestyle that flaunted ‘decent’ standards of the time was heavily frowned upon.
Joseph Breen was now head censor. A severe man, Breen had been Hays’ assistant and had secretly fomented agitation among Catholics to get himself a promotion to head censor. Gone were the freewheeling days of the Pre-Code era, where risque double entendres and careful sidestepping of the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” created one of the golden eras of Hollywood filmmaking. The Breen Office was taking no shit from filmmakers, and he had the power to punish them for their transgressions.
Sourpuss Joseph Breen.
As was always the case since the beginning of motion picture censorship, it was sex that truly agitated Breen. Violence had always gotten a free pass, even from the reformers who hated movies on moral grounds. The Code prohibited certain explicit displays of death - hanging, electrocution - and banned revenge killing, but it was sex and nudity and lust that always caused trouble for the movies.
There was still some back and forth, and some movies were created and released outside of the system. Howard Hughes released The Outlaw without Code approval, and the Betty Boop cartoons were outside of Breen’s reach. There were other films that skirted the edges of decency, like 1938’s Child Bride, which has a naked 12 year old girl in it. That film was produced outside of the Hollywood system and claimed to be educational, allowing it to exist in the nascent exploitation circuit.
The MPPDA became the MPAA - Motion Picture Association of America - in the 1940s. As WWII ended and the GIs began coming home, American culture slowly changed. The soldiers had seen and experienced things that changed them, and the progressive aspects of European culture had impacted them as well. While the 1950s are remembered as the most whitebread of decades, a slow erosion of conservative moral values had begun.
Alongside the slow change in morals was a sea change in social attitudes. The Civil Rights movement began, and pushback against the Communist witch hunts brought liberals out of the closet. Many aspects of the Code were beginning to look increasingly archaic.
At almost the exact right moment the Supreme Court weighed in again. In 1952 the “Miracle Decision” came in; the Court struck down an effort to ban Roberto Rosselini’s The Miracle, a short film that made up half the feature L’Amore. The Miracle was seriously controversial stuff - a jerk impregnates a delusional woman who thinks she’s the Virgin Mary carrying the Christ fetus - that caused protests even in Paris. The film was seen as sacrilegious and New York attempted to ban it. The Supreme Court’s decision was momentous on two levels: one, it struck down all blasphemy laws and two, it acknowledged cinema as an art form covered by the First Amendment.
In the aftermath of the ruling the Code began to crumble. Some Like It Hot couldn’t get Code-approved but was a box office smash. By now it seems that the conservative witch hunters had turned their attention to the new kid on the block, comic books. Movies had been established as an American form, and in the waning days of the Code they began pursuing topics like drug addiction (The Man With The Golden Arm) and rape (Anatomy of a Murder).
It wasn’t until 1964 that the Code received its fatal blow. That came in the form of The Pawnbroker, a Holocaust drama that featured two sets of bare breasts and a sex scene. The Pawnbroker signalled a lot of firsts - it was the first film to deal with the Holocaust from the point of view of a Jewish survivor, it was the film that made Rod Steiger a star (he was nominated for an Oscar, losing to Lee Marvin role in the silly Cat Ballou) - but it was the fact that, after a lot of back and forth, the Code approved the movie with nudity that truly reverberated. At the time the film was considered a special exemption, but with the way American culture was rapidly transforming in the 1960s there was no chance The Pawnbroker would stand alone.
Four years later the Code would be done. The first crack was The Pawnbroker. Then in 1966 it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was approved with language like ‘up yours,’ ‘hump the hostess’ and ‘goddamn’ (‘screw you’ had to be removed, though). That same year Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up was released by MGM without Code Approval and it was pretty obvious that nobody gave a shit about the Code at all anymore. The Catholic groups had seen their power wane, the Supreme Court had given movies the protection of the law, and the American people had bigger problems on their minds than some tits in a movie.
Jack Valenti became the president of the MPAA in 1966, and he was the guy who negotiated the language in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Two years later he tore down the Code and replaced it with a ratings system - the earliest version of the ratings system we have today.
But that has not guaranteed freedom from governmental interference. While the Supreme Court has struck down attempts to ban films (in 1969 they allowed I Am Curious (Yellow) to be shown, despite a shot of a woman kissing a penis), the case of Miller v California establishes troubling precedent for declaring something obscene, while reiterating obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment.
The problem of obscenity has been plaguing the justice system for a while. In 1964 Louis Malle’s The Lovers became the center of an obscenity case in Ohio; while the Court upheld the theater owner’s right to show the film as it was not obscene, the ruling of Judge Potter Stewart became famous for how it codified a wishy-washy approach to obscenity:
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [of pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."
"I know it when I see it" has become something of a joke, even as the Miller Test, arising out of Miller v California, makes it clearer just what obscenity is. At least a tiny bit clearer.
Whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards", would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law,
Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
If a work violates ALL THREE of those, it’s obscene. But those guidelines remain vague, and they return the motion picture industry back to where it was in 1908, as it battled various municipal and state censorship boards. What will fly for audiences in New York may be utterly inappropriate for Ames, Iowa. And in the age of the internet the idea of parts of the country as discrete, separate areas becomes less and less realistic.
The Ratings System, And Why It’s A Mess
Which brings us more or less to today. The MPAA ratings system was established in 1968 as Jack Valenti - who lived long enough to become the villain - understood the old order was done and that the time-consuming process he had undergone on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? couldn’t be repeated again and again. From 1966 to 1968 the MPAA added an SMA (Suggested for Mature Audiences) tag to some pictures, and then in 68 debuted the rating system:
G: General Audiences – Suggested for General Audiences – (all ages)
M: Mature Audiences – Suggested for Mature Audiences – Parental Discretion Advised
R: Restricted – People Under 16 Not Admitted Unless Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian
X: Adults Only – People Under 18 will not be Admitted (changed to 17 later that year)
The G, M and R ratings were trademarked, but the X was left wide open. The reason was that the MPAA didn’t want to get into tussles with localities where adult-oriented films might yet be legally challenged. The X could be assigned by the MPAA or self applied by the producer. And with that cowardly decision the rating intended to denote films that were for grown-ups became used to denote hardcore porn (XXX, for the record, isn’t even a real MPAA thing).
Over the years the MPAA slapped a couple of movies with Xs - Midnight Cowboy, for instance, which is the only X-rated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar (although it was rerated to R in 1971 without any edits) - but it was mostly the province of pornography. Once the porn producers jumped on the rating it was completely, infinitely tainted.
For 22 years the X continued to be the bastard stepchild of the ratings system. MPAA signatories (ie, the major studios) could not release films unrated, and an X rating was a kiss of instant death, so all films had to be edited to fit within the R rating.
During that time the MPAA did play with the ratings some. They made GP PG for some reason. Then in 1984 they added a rating - the PG-13. This came on the heels of a couple of films that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in a PG movie; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins and Poltergeist all went farther than many felt acceptable for the PG. Steven Spielberg himself - the man behind all three of those films - recommended the PG-13, and the first film to get that rating was Red Dawn. The Woman in Red followed soon after, and to give you an idea of how the ratings system changes over time, that film features a shot of Kelly LeBrock’s bush, a guaranteed R-rating today.
The PG-13 is an object lesson in how the MPAA works. It’s a studio backed organization, and when the studios decide they need leniency, they get it. If we were watching a movie and in it the biggest, most commercial director in the world demanded a new rating category and got it you would think it was a touch on the nose. But that’s how it really happened.
The other object lesson here is that the PG-13 mostly covers violence. Again, the history of movie censorship in America is really a history of people getting upset about sex. I think it’s interesting that LeBrock’s pubes could get through in 1984, but that was just because everybody was figuring out how this new system worked. Language and sex are way worse than violence in the eyes of the MPAA. Look at Lord of the Rings: Return of the King for an example of a clearly R-rated movie getting a PG-13; the fact that there’s no sex and only violence helps, as does the fact that it’s a major studio release.
As the MPAA is a servant of the studios its ratings assignments often have the feeling of unfairness. The signatories get winked at but the indies get a harder time. Of course some of this, again, comes down to sex - the major studios rarely release sexually explicit films at all anymore. Violence and action are the hallmarks of modern R-rated big studio films, while it’s the indies and ‘dependents’ (Fox Searchlight, Miramax, etc) who tackle the sexually oriented stuff.
In 1990 the MPAA finally realized the whole X rating situation was a clusterfuck, and so the NC-17 was born. The idea here was to have a rating that would not be left open to the pornographers and which could denote adult-oriented material. Whatever that means, right? Except that the conventional wisdom immediately was ‘New Name For X.’ And so many newspapers would not carry ads for NC-17 movies, TV stations wouldn’t run commercials, and major retailers wouldn’t stock the home videos.
To be fair, the landscape of movie distribution has changed drastically since 1990. The NC-17 is still rarely applied, but more cities have arthouses that will play such fare, and with Wal-Mart and Blockbuster no longer having a stranglehold on home video, it’s more likely that a movie like Shame will be seen by a wider audience over the course of its extended life. Which is not a joke about how big Michael Fassbender’s penis is, I swear.
Still, the NC-17 is a stupid rating, made all the stupider by the broadness of the R rating. Consider this: The King’s Speech, Billy Elliot, Saw and Hostel are all rated R. As part of the 1990 changes the MPAA added text advisories to the ratings - explaining if films have violence, nudity, intense depictions of very bad weather, etc - but what’s the point of having a rating as massively vague as that?
How To Reboot The Ratings
Whoever wins this election, we’re in the middle of a changeover from conservative to liberal values. While right-wing politicians battle to ban gay marriage, most Americans are perfectly okay with gays getting married. The social pendulum has swung back to progressive and permissive; there are shows on television today that push the boundaries of what could even be shown in R-rated films. I’d love to see what an episode of The Walking Dead gets rated by the MPAA, to be honest, or Game of Thrones. The internet has also impacted our cultural permissiveness. It’s hard to keep kids away from risque or pornographic material. When I was 12 getting a porn movie was a major accomplishment; in 2012 it just means getting on a computer without web filtering software.
But while the cultural mores change, the small-minded censors remain, and they will only get louder in the coming years. They take turns going after music and video games and comic books and movies, and with the Aurora shooting and more films butting against the NC-17 - Blue Valentine had to fight an NC-17 for an oral sex scene - it seems likely that movies could be getting their turn back on the front lines of the culture wars.
Which is why I don’t want to destroy the MPAA’s ratings system. As stupid as the ratings are, and as stupid as the Code was, it has successfully kept the movie industry free of government censorship. Call me paranoid, but I do not believe that we’re out of those woods yet, and I like the idea of industry self-regulation.
But the system as it stands is so broken that it will only invite anger from conservatives and religious groups (side note: until 2007 any movie that espoused a religious doctrine automatically got a PG rating. That seems pretty reasonable to me - I’m more worried about kids being exposed to religious dogma at a young age than a tit. But after the film Facing The Giants earned a PG rating evangelical groups complained and started a letter-writing campaign. The MPAA has said they would no longer take religious doctrine into mind when assigning ratings - a huge mistake on their part). And it’s broken in a fundamental artistic way, where films are funneled towards the childish PG-13 and more mature ideas get left behind.
The NC-17 proved that trying to fix one part of the system doesn’t work. The world simply sees NC-17 as an artier X. Any replacement rating - be it A for Adult or M for Mature or whatever - will be seen the same way. So the entire ratings system has to be overhauled from the bottom - rebooted, if you will.
Here’s how I would recreate the ratings system:
E - Everyone. This would replace the G rating. It’s not much of a rating, as G movies are essentially death (even animated films try to get PGs so as to not seem too much like movies for babies), but changing the lowest rating signifies a shake-up of the whole system.
PG - Parental Guidance Suggested. Let’s keep this old standby.
T - Teen. Replace the PG-13 with this rating, lifted from comics and video games.
R-15 - Restricted - No one under 15 without parent or guardian. Here’s where we make the big changes. This rating applies to the softer R movies, the movies like last year’s documentary Bully or this year’s The Dark Knight Rises. These are films with some violence and sex and language, but not terribly much more than you would see in an evening’s AMC TV viewing. I think the MPAA needs to give up on the language stuff, so this rating would have all your fucks and everything.
R - Restricted- No one under 17. And now we have a top of the line adults rating that still has the same name as the old rating. Shame would be R. 300 would be R. Saw would be R. NC-17 goes away, we’ve created a middle ground for less explicit, less heavy movies, and now movie studios can make films for adults without worrying about stigma.
The actual ratings aren’t the only problems in the MPAA ratings system; there’s the secrecy, which doesn’t help filmmakers understand what it is about their movie that gets a certain rating. There’s also the big studios’ desire to homogenize everything down to the most box office friendly rating. But I think a top-to-bottom overhaul is overdue, and it could only improve things for the MPAA and Hollywood.
Looking back at the Pre-Code era you see some of the best movies ever made. The reason is simple: restrictions enhance creativity. The filmmakers of the time were playfully dancing around the Hays Code and coming up with great films, as well as new genres. Screwball comedies and the gangster film both grew up out of that. Noir was shaped by the restrictions of the Breen Office. I’m against censorship, but I do like the idea of filmmakers having to consider the best way to present their material within a structure - it leads to creativity.
But I also like filmmakers being able to make whatever movies they want, and to present whatever material they want. I think that my revised ratings system allows for both - a more nuanced teen-oriented set of ratings gives the right kinds of restrictions while the adult-oriented R rating allows for exploration of headier, sexier, deeper themes without worrying about the morality police pissing their pants.
* They got the idea from Major League Baseball, who was dealing with the fallout of the 1919 White Sox scandal by hiring an outside to be ‘League Commissioner.’