Sticks and Stones

Film 1 is the story of a poor English boy struggling to become a ballet dancer in the face of condescension from society and fierce disapproval from his family. In a climatic scene, the boy dances for the first time in front of his stunned father.

Film 2 is the story of a notorious serial killer who eats people. In a climatic scene, the killer scalps his victim and feeds the doomed man a piece of his own brain.

As you've probably guessed, Film1 is Billy Eliot and Film 2 is Hannibal. What do these films have in common? Not much, except they were both rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). This means that in theaters that enforce the ratings code, youth under 17 need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian in order to see either one of these films.

Last month the Washington Post ran an excellent piece ("Rated S for Silent" -- April 8, 2001) on the problems with the code and the ways that the MPAA uses the code to rate films. Many theater companies have strengthened enforcement of the ratings system following the Columbine school shootings and pressure from politicians and parents groups. At the same time, the types of films that can receive the R film have broadened immensely. One can find numerous problems with this system, some of which the Post article describes, including the complete secrecy of the MPAA's film raters and the total lack of accountability to anyone but the MPAA itself. Many critics have noted that, even after Columbine, the MPAA still seems to be much tougher on sex than violence. Tackling all these concerns would require several books, so let me focus on just one problem -- language. You see, Billy Eliot contained minimal violence and sex, but got its R rating solely because of "bad" language.

Billy Eliot is an inspirational film about a boy overcoming tremendous obstacles to achieve his life's dream. It's the type of film you would think adults would want young people to see. As noted, it did contain several instances where characters used "bad" language, including the F-word. That by itself was enough to get the R rating, placing it in the same category as Hannibal and American Psycho.

I'm not arguing in favor of using profanity in front of children. If I had young children, I would probably not want them seeing films with excessive profanity. The problem is the MPAA giving language the same weight in rating films that they do sex and violence. The debate about sex and violence is complicated, spirited, and thorny. It's the subject of a separate discussion, or many discussions. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that cinematic sex or violence has very harmful effects on young people. Can anyone say the same about "bad words?"

The facts are that people use profanity sometimes, especially in certain situations that have nothing to do with sex. If you saw a Vietnam War film and none of the soldiers used profanity, wouldn't that seem strange? Billy Eliot is set in a poor British mining village. I've never been to one of these villages, but I would hazard a guess that many residents, particularly the miners themselves do use profanity in their speech sometimes. The current ratings system, vague about standards for sex and violence, is very clear in its language threshold. For instance, one use of the F-word is an automatic PG-13 rating. Two uses is an automatic R rating. The MPAA in essence gives filmmakers a choice -- either provide a "sanitized" and possibly less authentic version of your film or take the R rating. Director Stephen Daldry and the producers of Billy Eliot chose the latter. While I believe they made the right decision, the unfortunate consequence was that fewer people were able to see the film. Other filmmakers take a different route. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, with tons of sexual references, was rated PG-13 in part because the filmmakers avoided direct uses of language (e.g., "shag" instead of the F-word). Keep in mind that this is a film showing the hero drinking another man's fecal matter.

There's a simple solution. The MPAA should change its ratings rules so that no film could be rated more severe than a PG-13 based on language alone. If theaters enforce the ratings, very young children would still not be exposed to profanity in film. But by age 13, most children have already listened to profanity, if not from their parents then at school. It simply makes no sense to prevent teenagers from seeing films that they might benefit from and enjoy because of words that they have likely heard anyway. The MPAA could make clear in rating a film PG-13 that it contains profanity in order to inform parents or teenagers who are particularly sensitive about that subject.

If my first idea is asking too much, then the MPAA at least should not have such a hard line when it comes to language. Don't merely look a the number of times a certain word is used. Place it in the context of the film as a whole. Are the words used to describe actual sexual acts? Or are the words used merely to be colorful or forceful? Also, is the language used merely for the sake of shocking audiences? Or is it a reflection of the time, place and characters depicted in the film? Every film deserves to be judged in its entirety by audiences, critics, and certainly by raters.

Will the MPAA make any of the changes I just advocated? Not a chance. The isolation and lack of accountability illustrated in the Post article make the MPAA immune from any calls to reform. The MPAA can play a valuable role in helping parents and children make informed choices about what films to see. But their refusal to change, particularly when it regards to language, is a service to no one. Words don't hurt people as much as narrow-minded, short-sighted thinking.

Adam Spector
May 7, 2001

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