Once upon a time, the Motion Picture Association of America was so concerned about the well-being of our children that it rated film to keep inappropriate content away from their young eyes and impressionable minds.
The MPAA was founded in 1922 to monitor “offensive content” and to prevent government interference in film. The organization remains the ultimate arbiter for film ratings, which are meant to give consumers a reliable indication of the offensive material contained in a film. The goal of the MPAA is not to regulate offensive material, but to warn consumers of what’s in store.
However, the effect a rating has on a film can radically change the marketing strategy and audience, so filmmakers have found clever ways to circumvent the agency’s standards. As a result, the MPAA is widely considered ineffective today. Unconcerned consumers simply ignore the ratings system, while more conscientious consumers (particularly parents) turn to more reliable and consumer friendly sources to get a sense of a film’s content.
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Contrary to its original mission, the MPAA has earned a reputation for making political decisions that benefit Big Hollywood. Consumers are disappointed by generalized ratings that allow some controversial content to slide through; Meanwhile, independent filmmakers are often unfairly rated by the outdated system, which they complain is applied subjectively by the MPAA and its allies to control the market.
Recently, the 2016 film, “Suicide Squad,” was rated PG-13 in alignment with The Dark Knight’s ratings (which featured several violent scenes). This, in spite of the new Joker and his gang of cohorts appearing in a trailer that suggests darkness and violence equal to or greater than its predecessor. The new film’s violence is apparently overlooked because it’s the baby of Warner Bros.
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Meanwhile, independent artists are crying foul play.
A documentary, “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” revealed firsthand accounts from artists and filmmakers about the hypocritical and generally misguided attitude of the MPAA. Directors like Kevin Smith (Clerks) and South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker revealed the politics, red tape and bureaucracy behind the MPAA which has little to do with helping the general public or properly rating films.
Because the agency doesn’t want to be viewed as a censorship board, they do not officially reveal the reasons they give film a certain rating to independent filmmakers or smaller studios. This can lead to costly edits and miscommunication ,which, in turn, can lead to jumbled works of art and movies that may still contain inappropriate material despite their rating.
“It’s the big guys controlling the market and making the rules that even the little guys have to follow, and that’s what is really scary about it,” South Park co-creator Matt Stone revealed in an interview with the Paley Center for Media.
The MPAA’s hypocrisy isn’t new, and the Internet citizens of the world are responding, as parents search for alternative ratings.
Sites like PluggedIn, ScreenIt, and CommonSenseMedia.org provide detailed analyses of films and their content and themes, and give parents and individuals much more reliable ratings.
But the fight isn’t over as long as the MPAA continues to pretend to be anything but a bureaucratic machine. It feeds off of financial support from big studios and, in exchange, doles out ratings that facilitate the largest audiences for the movies they want to promote.
The result: Americans (especially youth) are overexposed to violence in film, among other sensitive subjects. Many parents have frankly given up, as movie theaters hardly enforce ratings anyway.
Some theaters have published notices that children under six are now not allowed to view R-Rated movies. The fact that six-year-olds are still allowed admission, or that three- and four-year-olds were ever allowed, is a sad statement. Whether it’s an indication that the ratings are unreliable or a sign of the zombie apocalypse (deadbeat parents taking over the world), the issue is the same: Film ratings mean little today.
The only solution for concerned parents: Do your own research. Read reviews. Watch trailers. And take responsibility for the content your family consumes.
No one else is going to.