This is probably just another excuse for me to talk about God’s Gift to Earth, Jennifer Lawrence—the thrust of the point I’m trying to make below turns on my interpretation of The Hunger Games movie, from this time last year—but with summer movie season kicking into gear, now is as good a time as any to talk about movie ratings. Summer movies are those that cater to the widest audiences; it’s during the upcoming season when the Big Six studios—who are producing fewer and fewer movies these days—pump their high-budget blockbusters, usually starring either the comic hero (or heroes) du jour or your kids’ favorite tween protagonists in Part Two of The Sequel in This Random Fanfic Trilogy That Makes Thirteen-Year-Old Girls Scream.
If I were in a really pessimistic mood (or were my name Steven Soderbergh), I’d have turned this post into a lament on the “sequelization” of movies and the trend towards a greater-than-one ratio of films per popular novel, or a screed against the blatant cash-grab that is 3D (which almost always adds absolutely nothing to a movie, unless you’re counting box office receipts). After all, attendance is down in movie theaters, so extending popular series into even more volumes or charging the premium for 3D (and the premium premium for IMAX 3D) are two ways to make up for fewer asses in fewer seats.
But I’m only in a slightly pessimistic mood, so I’ll highlight another primary means of compensating for the attendance gap: targeting teenagers and the PG-13 rating. Even if less tickets are being sold in the aggregate, the approach taken to sell movies sure hasn’t changed—the idea is to whip teenagers, particularly those who can’t drive yet, into such a frenzy so that their parents either take them themselves or go at another time so that they know a little something about what kids these days are up to. Even with sequels and 3D, it’s still imperative for the studios to convince people to show up, and the most likely and most excited to do so are middle and high schoolers. The PG-13 rating is an efficient marketing tool for the studios; it’s an easy way to signal, “This movie is right up your average adolescent’s alley.” Summer movies and PG-13 movies—they’re virtually interchangeable—have many common features; we’re talking explosions, witty repartee, disproportionately (even for Hollywood) attractive actors in both the hero and villain roles, and if Michael Bay is involved, plenty of swagtastic bros objectifying women. You definitely thought all this was fucking awesome when you were thirteen (especially if you’re a guy), and you could very well think likewise now.
We don’t associate summer movies with, say, Oscar-winning productions, but it’s not like the two are inconsistent, even where comic strips get the big-screen treatment. It was only five years ago that people were so pissed that The Dark Knight didn’t get a Best Picture nod that the academy felt compelled to expand the field of nominees. Here’s the catch, though: Filmmakers who want to make money (and who doesn’t) want the summer release with big-studio backing, but they might have to cede some creative control to the studio, or even if they have final cut might have to sacrifice a newborn or two at the altar of the MPAA (and its ratings board, the CARA) and the PG-13 rating. We’d like most summer movies to have the aura and the technical and actorly skills of The Dark Knight, and though that’s impossible, still we movie lovers are serviced very, very discourteously by the way the MPAA applies the PG-13 rating. Leaving aside their source material, a lot of summer blockbusters reside in some sort of purgatory between quality and unabashed appeasement of the dark-room inhabitants who dictate a movie’s rating and with it, its audience, despite directors’ obvious goal of achieving the acclaim reserved to some smashes like The Dark Knight (I’m even going to credit Michael Bay for shooting for quality from time to time.) Christopher Nolan, though, he’s an outlier.
As something of a staunch free speech libertarian (or at least that’s the extremely and supremely honorable illusion I’m trying to maintain) I’m against movie ratings in principle, but I understand why they’re there. We evaluate movies on their ability to entertain and tell a story and on the quality of their ideas and their competency in elucidating said ideas through acting, themes, images, music, editing, and camerawork. Thus, it only makes sense to give the filmmakers free reign to weave the narrative in the way they want; regardless of whether a movie belongs to a director (assuming you subscribe to the auteur theory), or also writer, actor, or whoever (assuming you don’t), the more some outside person or thing creeps on what the filmmaker is trying to say, the more that creeping inhibits the final product. But while I wish for complete artistic freedom for the filmmaker, I recognize that movie ratings are great ideas in theory, in that they operate as a suggestion device. Everybody can get behind a simple letter that tells parents they shouldn’t drop their precious sixth grader off at the 7:30 showing of Django Unchained, lest that precocious young mind have a pitch-perfect ear for uncomfortable revenge comedy that trades in racial epithets.
Ah, but the MPAA has simplified things way too much, way beyond the simplicity of the letters R, P, or G, to the point where the ratings system works less to suggest than to censor. They’ve done this through the establishment of bright-line rules that result in unnecessary censorship or practiced self-censorship by the filmmaker, which infringe on the filmmaker’s desire to fashion himself or herself an artist or entertainer. There’s a prohibition on language—ONLY ONE “FUCK” per PG-13 movie, please. There are restrictions on violence so that any killing or explosion is SICK or AWESOME and ridiculous; if the ratings board relegates some depictions of violence off-screen, you’re then left with the desensitizing extreme, which seems kind of an absurd and empty reaction on the MPAA’s part.
What’s worse, even though the rules are simple, they’re compounded by a transparency problem. Everybody knows there are strict rules because we all go to the movies every summer and have eyes and ears and basic counting skills, but these rules aren’t published anywhere. Not only, then, are we given the finger and told that there’s nothing to see here, we take everything into account before magically putting our finger on a rating, keep moving…but this lack of transparency also undermines whatever advice, suggestions, or warnings the ratings purport to provide parents. The cruel irony is that it’s supposedly “concerned parents” who make up the ratings board, even though a bunch of them either have no kids or kids who have long since flown the coop. Without more clarity in specifying to parents what makes a movie inappropriate for certain age groups, how can the ratings really serve as guidelines and not just stand-in moral pronouncements?
What the MPAA’s hard and fast rules do is form an arbitrary construct that represses some creativity even though a less-censored movie could be perfectly appropriate for kids, all so a movie can get the coveted PG-13 rating. In addition to diluting movie quality, this normative reality doesn’t give kids enough credit. With their explosions and surface treatment of sex I can’t really think of a PG-13 movie that isn’t marketed to a kid younger than, give or take, eleven—that’s what the PG and G ratings are for, after all—making PG-13 (and summer movie) fare something closer to less forceful, teenage versions of adult movies. Moreover, the existence of these rules prevent the ratings system from being an adequate proxy for what’s appropriate for kids. There are some movies out there that are perfectly fine for a twelve-year-old despite their violence or their more-than-once use of “fuck.” Sorry, Mom, but Tommy already knows about the F word and—importantly, here—knows to use it around his friends and not his teachers. There are also some movies devoid of violence or cursing that even have children at the center of their stories that are ill-suited for your middle schooler; Pan’s Labyrinth or Lost in Translation come to mind here.
I don’t blame the studios, the filmmakers, or the movies themselves for conforming to the MPAA’s rules (unless you think they have the leverage to stand up for their product) because selling tickets only grows more critical as fewer of them sell. I do blame the MPAA for fucking with a system that should work smoothly. The solution is to move away from the rote formula (one curse or one plunge of the knife equals “R”) and actually look at the whole context in which the movie was made and the audience targeted. What we need, then, is a standard less puritanical and more flexible.
My example for all this is the aforementioned The Hunger Games, which is a movie I enjoyed a lot (incredible acting, obviously) after watching a couple months ago (it inspired me to write this essay) but think would have been better if it were more violent. In the film the Hunger Games themselves begin with an annihilating massacre, with the kids not bound to strategy taking machetes and stones to each other while Katniss (Lawrence) and some smarter (or scared) players bolt for the woods; this scene utilized the super-shaky handheld camera and rendered the bloodbath incoherent, because you couldn’t really make sense of what any character’s plan was nor who died and how. (I get that they’re kids and don’t really know how to play the game, but the movie was too discordant in this scene to convey even that.) From my recollection, I don’t think any character’s mortal wounding was shown on-screen; either you heard the cannon shot that marked their death, or the spear or arrow or knife or whatever killed them would make contact just out of frame, leaving the viewer with reaction shots—surprise, then the character’s eyes closing—alone.
Of course, there was plenty of worry upon its release as to whether kids would be able to handle this potentially gory and troublesome material, but to my knowledge the only alarms were sounded by movie critics in anticipation of some sort of mass revulsion on younger viewers’ part without considering the kids’ familiarity with the source material or the filmmakers’ incentives, with little consternation coming from kids or their parents after the movie’s release. Owing to the popularity of the books, kids were going to see this movie expecting there to be violence on screen. I don’t think we needed to fret over kids younger than, say, eleven or twelve, because I doubt there are many kids under those ages or thereabouts familiar with the series.
Plus, eleven and twelve are the ages when you start seeing movies with your friends and sans Mom and Dad: This means parents are already signing off on their kids seeing PG-13 movies and handling more mature themes (even if it’s generous to label plenty of summer movies these days “mature”). There are kids who die in the Hunger Games novels (the youngest competitor in the Hunger Games is twelve, and I’ll get to her in a second), just as there are kids who die in the Harry Potter books and in Lord of the Flies, which some of my middle school peers read. I’m very sympathetic to the argument that a teenager’s death in a movie is a more visceral experience than a teenager’s death on the page (though I’ll add the obligatory reminder here that there is no proven connection between violence in movies and video games and violence or violent tendencies in real life), and yes, every kid is different, meaning some will be able to process The Hunger Games with less difficulty than others. But you know who’s a better judge of that than the MPAA? The kid’s parents; if they doubt their kid can handle The Hunger Games, they’ll hold off on letting him see it. But the MPAA is inserting itself in the parent’s role by setting up a strict formula in disregard of the fact that swaths of kids will have no issues. On another level, it’s disregarding that parents might be prepared to let their kids see this stuff and that if they’re not, wouldn’t drop their kid off at the theater no matter how benign or graphic the film’s violence.
Additionally, there’s already a built-in check that cuts against any inclination of the filmmakers’ to transform The Hunger Games into a sadomasochistic onslaught—namely that the movie is based on a book that kids like and want to see. As I said earlier, the kids know what sorts of imagery the book contains, and there’s a pretty concrete age floor on who’s familiar with the material. But crucially, no kid is demanding to see a bloodbath either; I’m not arguing that I need to see in total anatomical detail every Hunger Games tribute’s death. For example, the youngest girl’s death was—rightly so—one of the film’s emotional and moral centerpieces (it spawned a revolt in her home district) and it was the smart decision to keep the viewers, both young and old, at a distance. But what, you say, about the eighteen-year-old meathead from District 1, probably trained in the equivalent of a Chinese Olympic gymnastics camp from age three or so, who’s Katniss’ main antagonist? I get that one of the film’s themes is that this particular society is unfair to all these kids, even this gym rat, who can’t actually comprehend what they’re in for. The death of a character who’s more emotionally distant than a twelve-year-old girl not only wouldn’t detract from this point, though, but would reinforce it and would match a middle schooler’s takeaway from reading the novel. Consequently, the biggest losers are the twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who are handled too carefully; you combine kids’ expectations with the need to get them in the seats, and it’s understandable why parents were cool with The Hunger Games.
There’s, furthermore, a pure financial incentive from the movie studio’s standpoint; the studio’s in a better position than the MPAA to tailor its movies to kids, because it’ll be those kids’ parents’ money that it takes. I’m also guessing that flexibility in movie ratings that would allow movies like The Hunger Games to be a little more violent without crossing any moral or ethical boundaries would increase sales, or at least not lower them; summer already movies are already—as I pointed out earlier—violent, and even if there are some kids turned off or turned away by their parents, losing these kids would be offset by a ratings system that’s a better proxy than what we’ve got. If the ratings could be context-dependent—context, as in something as common-sensical as taking note of what’s portrayed in the book that a movie’s based on and the ages of kids reading that book—then we’re accomplishing two goals that are indispensable to the moviegoing enterprise that are not irreconcilable, despite what the MPAA would have you believe: respect for the audience, and room given to the filmmaker to take artistic chances. If we succeed in achieving those goals, then studios won’t be tailoring their movies to the rating, but to, well, people who like movies.
Certainly, because of its focus on the death of children, The Hunger Games is a bit of an outlier. I’m writing this, though, precisely because I think this movie provides a bit of a tougher case, and because if I think The Hunger Games is an exemplar for why we need to modify our movie ratings system, then it’s a no-brainer that every other mainstream summer movie—almost none of which employ the narrative and thematic quandaries that confer on The Hunger Games its outlier status within the community of summer blockbusters—satisfies the test case, too. Keep in mind that my argument has largely discussed profanity and violence in movies, with regard to which the MPAA is quixotically permissive (allowing only the biggest explosions, allowing one “fuck” when a second one wouldn’t change anything); when it comes to sexuality, though—when the decision is between R and NC-17—the ratings board’s ears for false moralism really perk up, and I could probably write another 3000 words on why the MPAA needs to stop losing its collective shit over sex, which is a perfectly appropriate (indeed, necessary) topic for high schoolers. I’ll spare you that, at least for now, and refer you to any Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park and The Book of Mormon fame) interview in which they thoroughly tackle the MPAA’s hypocrisy in this area.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got my sincerest thanks for indulging my ranting. I say ranting because I really don’t expect anything to be done about movie ratings in the near future. The recently deceased Roger Ebert was a prominent critic of the status quo—scroll to the end of his review of Y tu mamá también, a movie that chose the path of going to release without a rating, which isn’t a path paved with a lot of $100 bills—and if Roger Ebert couldn’t effectuate much change, then there’s not anyone who is influential enough to do so.
Ebert writes in that review of the need for a “workable adult rating,” and while we’re not any closer to having one in this country, we should at least be aware that are alternatives. We could look to other countries’ ratings systems; a lot of them use the same template we do but might have less chaste attitudes than us (take the UK, where cursing on the BBC—network television, that is—has advanced into an art form). Netflix also has an interesting and more nuanced system; it rates The Hunger Games as “Iffy for 13” and includes a meticulous summary of the underlying rationale. This is the opposite of the MPAA’s banal “PG-13 for Violent Content” description and is obviously more transparent. What’s stopping the MPAA from creating an online database expounding upon their ratings decisions? We’re all going to the movies this summer, so why can’t we promote artistry in movies and respect for the decisions we all make before heading to the theater? If you like the movies, then you, as a consumer should have some say in how those movies are marketed and distributed to you; it’s your money after all. It’s just unfortunate that the system and those who perpetuate it are too entrenched for us to do anything about it. Instead, we’re stuck waiting for Katniss Everdeen to shoot some arrows of truth at the MPAA.