I’m hardly the first person to say this, and I certainly hope I’m not the last, but what is up with Hollywood’s movie-rating system?
The latest installment of MPAA madness is over the upcoming film Blue Valentine, starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Reynolds in a difficult relationship. The film evidently features three fairly-explicit sex scenes, though nothing that sounds outside of what I’ve seen in plenty of other places. Which is why the MPAA’s recent decision to give it the feared NC17 rating is so outrageous.
A little primer on NC17: while “R” means the under-17 set has to be accompanied by a parent or other adult, “NC17” means no one under 18 is allowed in the movie theater, period. Because of that, it’s basically a box-office and award-season kiss of death, sending the message that the movie is just too sexually explicity to be taken seriously. (As if to prove my point, the highest-grossing NC17 film in history was the unintentionally campy classic Showgirls, which netted a paltry $30 mil domestically.). As far as I can tell, it’s almost always used to steer "kids" clear of sex, rather than violence. Which is problem number one: why is watching sex more damaging to kids than watching violence? Again, it’s hardly an original question, but it bears repeating since no one in charge seems to be interested in answering it. Is it really more damaging to young minds to expose them to two people having consensual sex than it is for them watch bloody and explict murders and people torturing other people? I… well, I can’t even construct a coherent argument about that, it seems so obviously wrong, and so clearly part of what’s creating our toxic and violent sexual culture. That the Powers That Be are more frightened of kids having access to frank sexuality than to the most elaborate scenes of violence speaks volumes about why we live in such violent and sexually repressed times.
But there’s a second issue here, which is the question of what kind of sex is acceptable, and what sexual expressions are beyond the pale. As Morning Gloria at Jezebel points out, Black Swan, the newly released critical darling, features a scene showing Mila Kunis performing oral sex on Natalie Portman — a scene which sounds awfully similar to a scene in Blue Valentine in which Reynolds’ character similarly pleasures Williams’ character — but the MPAA was just fine with that, rating it an oodles-more-respectable "R" rating, and with it, a solid shot at some Oscars. So is the MPAA OK with cunnilingus between two women, because it’s fulfilling some voyeristic male fantasy? Or, as the Blue Valentine folks have suggested, is the problem that Williams looks like she’s having too much fun? If she were enjoying it less, would the MPAA be mollfied?
There’s surely an argument to be made there. Consider the "sex" scene in Observe and Report, which is a drug-assisted rape played off as a joke. Didn’t seem to have bothered the MPAA. Because it’s much less damaging for "kids" to laugh at rape than it is for them to see a woman enjoying genuine consensual sexual pleasure?
Or, as producers have suggested, is the offending scene the one in which Williams and Reynolds have angry, messy, but realistically portrayed sex as their marriage unravels? Again, I have to ask, how is that in any way worse than films in which women are sexually tortured at great length?
(Some have suggested the rating is due to the brand-new (and shockingly sexist) category of “male nudity” (no “female nudity” category exists. Our nudity is expected, and so just called “nudity.”) But of course, there’s plenty of that in other “R” rated films, so that makes no sense, either.)
These ratings are, theoretically, meant to give parents the tools they need to make decisions about what their kids should watch, and ultimately to protect young minds from dangerous influences. Any content rating system is a set of values, at heart. Which begs the question: what are the MPAA’s values? From where I’m sitting, it seems they think sex is fine as long as women are being objectified and possibly hurt, but it crosses a line if women are whole people who have agency and don’t behave. If that doesn’t mesh with your values, here’s how to let them know.