Voices of NOW NYC: Calling on the MPAA to Accurately Rate Films

bryn.jpgBryn Taylor is a member of NOW-NYC’s Women and Girls in the Media Committee. She lives and works in New York as a freelance fashion writer and stylist.
With sex and violence running rampant throughout the entertainment industry, one might think (or hope) that regulations would become increasingly more strict as the entertainment becomes raunchier. Sadly, this is not the case. In fact, Hollywood’s guidelines are becoming more lenient by the minute, and everything seems up for interpretation.
A recent report by NOW-NYC’s Women and Girls in the Media Committee (WAGM) uncovered the startling fact that a number of films in circulation today fail to accurately warn against the sexual content they contain. The Motion Picture Association of America is in charge of assigning detailed and precise ratings to films. And they are not doing their job.
In response, WAGM spearheaded a campaign aimed at the MPAA and its failure to include warnings of rape and/or sexually aggressive behavior in movies where these abominable acts are clearly depicted. The committee compiled a list of 144 films released between January 1996 and March 2006 that had received either an R or NC-17 rating with mention of sexual content, but no specific mention of rape or sexually aggressive behavior (which we have defined as “any non-consensual sexual contact/behavior… that does not result in sexual penetration�). Of the 144 films screened, 31 depict rapes or attempted rapes, and 66 contain characters that are victims of sexually aggressive behavior.
The MPAA’s method of rating is subjective at best. There are no specific definitions as to what constitutes rape, or any type of sexual content. Without standards by which to judge, each film’s rating is prone to the whims and fancies of its raters. This leads to the inevitability of biased judgments and opinion-based decisions. Where one rater might find a scene to be sexually violent, another might judge it as harmless or even arousing.

In a letter to the MPAA, our committee outlined its findings and suggested specific guidelines to follow when reviewing movies containing sexual content. Among the suggestions was a proposal to adopt specific definitions of rape and sexually aggressive behavior, and we even offered our own suggested definitions. The committee also suggested a retroactive move on the part of the MPAA to review films released on DVD for ratings clarification following these newly proposed guidelines. Finally, WAGM advised against any rating below that of an R for films depicting rape and sexually aggressive behavior.
As of December 2007, WAGM has yet to receive a response from the MPAA. In the interim, the committee has initiated an online petition with the goal of collecting 7,500 signatures by the end of the year. We are hoping for a sit-down with MPAA members to discuss the implications of such a lapse within the ratings system. We want to make clear to the MPAA that this is not a fight to cap the artistic freedom of filmmakers or fuel the fires of censorship. Rather, it is a wake-up call to an association that has been failing at the very thing it was created to do.

Join the Conversation

  • Jessi

    One, I hate the role of the MPAA entirely even outside of its standards for what is offensive (gay sex = NC17). That being said, if it’s going to exist, there should be a clear indication of rape as something that, huh, could be shocking or offensive.

  • Chickensh*tEagle

    There’s a cool documentary about the MPAA’s secretive and arbitrary rating process, available thru Netflix, called This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Worth watching.

  • UltraMagnus

    If you’ve seen This Film is Not Yet Rated then you know just how shitty the MPAA is when it comes to sex and violence and their ratings. Studio films get passes up until a certain point while independent films are punished a bit more (especially if there’s gay and lesbian content in it). It really is just a bunch of random parents (and you’re supposed to be a parent, I guess that helps you watch films or something) going through the films, counting how many times “fuck” is said and how many thrusts there are in the sex scenes. And no, there was no formal rating system they had to follow.
    After the film came out at that next years Sundance film festival they swore there was going to be a change but not really.

  • http://lawfairy.blogspot.com The Law Fairy

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention, that’s a really disturbing trend. However, just to nitpick, I think I would be just as bothered if the rape/sexual assault were billed under “sexual content.” There is NOTHING sexual about rape and sexual assault. It is violence, period, and should be treated as violence and billed as violence. Otherwise we run the risk of people concluding that rape is nothing more than bad sex.

  • EG

    I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I certainly agree that if we’re going to have the giant suckwad that is the MPAA at all, I definitely want them to give me notice when a movie contains a scene of rape or sexual violence. That is far more important to me than a sex scene–I really hate watching rape scenes, and go out of my way to avoid seeing movies with them. That means that I have, by the way, opted not to see some important movies, such as Boys Don’t Cry, but that’s a judgment call I’ve made for myself.
    On the other hand…I’m not sure what to do with some of the info in that report, and I’m not sure what NOW-NYC wants me to do with it. Their definition of “sexually aggressive behavior” involves everything from street harrassment to genital mutilation. I find it extremely problematic not to differentiate between a movie that shows its heroine negotiating daily life on the street and one that details genital mutilation. That may well be a cultural difference, but the MPAA is a culturally specific institution. Labelling all such behavior “sexually aggressive” would not help me know whether or not I could stand to see that movie. Further, I don’t like the term “sexually aggressive behavior.” There’s nothing wrong with being aggressive. The issue isn’t aggression–it’s the lack of consent. If I’m with a partner, I don’t mind if he’s aggressive; sometimes I’m aggressive. I do mind if he does something without my consent, and the two things shouldn’t be conflated.
    Further, I’m not sure what to make of the section of “anecdotal observations,” in which “the committee noted other disturbing findings.” These findings seem to be nothing more than lists of any depiction of objectionable behaviors or characters. Among these is the depiction of racism or anti-semitism. There’s no attention paid to context here, nothing to tell us whether the movie itself condemns or condones the racism. Freeway definitely portrays racism and racist characters–but the movie itself doesn’t condone that racism, and the protagonist has a somewhat complex relationship with her racism that is evident to the viewer. The Craft portrays the way that wealthy popular white girls mock a black student’s hair. You’re not supposed to be in sympathy with them–you’re supposed to understand it as one of the factors pushing her toward taking revenge. Are movies supposed to pretend that racism doesn’t exist? Does NOW-NYC want the MPAA to note when a movie portrays a racist character? If it’s the latter, that’s a complicated but not necessarily bad idea, but that’s not made clear at all in the report.
    Quite honestly, I truly object to the existence of the MPAA. I object to its subjective standards, I object to its invasive policing of what we watch, and I object to its random but nationally enforced norms. I don’t think the solution is to try and create more rules and guidelines for it to use. And I don’t agree that “one might…hope…that regulations would become increasingly more strict as the entertainment becomes raunchier.” Honestly, in a nation where reams and reams of movie reviews are available at the touch of a button, at any newstand, free newspaper, or tv show, I don’t see the need for the MPAA at all. I’ve never checked a rating to see if I want to see a movie or to see if I think it’s a good idea to take a kid to it. I’ve checked reviews. That’s how I found out that Strange Days had a rape scene in it that was played repeatedly, and I’m still on the fence about whether or not to see it.

  • RapeIsFunny

    Finally, a comprehensive list of movies depicting rape!

  • EG

    Troll alert.

  • dondo

    Check out http://www.kids-in-mind.com/ — they rate movies explicitly in three dimensions (sex/nudity, violence/gore, profanity) on a scale from 1-10. For each movie in addition to the numeric score there is a textual description of what motivates the rating (so our “RapeIsFunny” troll above can get his jollies by finding 9.x.x rated movies and reading the descriptions). And yes, rape is rated as violence.
    Note that because the ratings are much more thorough, however, there are far fewer movies evaluated.
    For example:
    Boys Don’t Cry: 9.8.10
    Freeway: (not evaluated)
    The Craft: 3.7.6
    I’ve always been intrigued that the MPAA thinks sexuality is so much more damaging to our children than violence, since I believe the opposite. I’ve used “kids in mind” for years, and I’ve been far more happy with their ratings than the MPAA.
    The MPAA is broken. Route around the damage.

  • dananddanica

    As noted above, the MPAA is really a sham organization. Also as noted above, it would be incredibly hard to base ratings on “sexual aggressiveness” as there all types of different movies and reasons for showing different things.
    How difficult rating sexual agressiveness would be only highlights the ineptitude of the MPAA and its completely bizarre attitude towards sex. I simply cannot comprehend how we hand over so much power, both culturally and fiscally, to an entity most of us know nothing about.
    That being said, if they were to add something more descriptive in the little box under the the rating (they already include rape, at least sometimes), should that push more films into nc-17 territory? that basically means that film wont get released. Its a tricky issue.
    Specific to rape in cinema, is the graphical representation so much worse than reading a story or book with sexual aggression in it? I wonder if the MPAA people, seemingly so against any kind of sexuality in film, are aware of how much there is in mass media literature. Should we convene an MPAA-like board for all written media?

  • ambidextrous amazon

    Thanks for the link, dondo. I don’t have kids but it seems like a much better alternative to the MPAA.
    Too bad “Deliverance” isn’t on the list. I think our troll would really enjoy it.

  • EG

    is the graphical representation so much worse than reading a story or book with sexual aggression in it?
    For me, yes. I have much more control over a book than I do over a movie, and films involving actual human beings enacting events has a much more visceral impact on me than imagining those same events.

  • Farhat

    I think ratings are best done away with and what movies to watch or not should be left to parents. Violence I can understand, I don’t really see why sex should be a problem in the first place. Why do “sex and violence” go together for so many people?

  • keric125

    screenit.com is also an excellent source for finding out about content. I use it all the time.

  • thenakedcat

    Some of the previous comments have already brought up This Film is Not Yet Rated. I think it’s worth mentioning that TFINYR makes the argument that the ‘alphabet soup’ ratings are pretty meaningless to begin with unless you know exactly what lead to the level of restriction being placed on the film. Thus, parents end up relying on the tiny blurbs that accompany ratings to figure out whether the R was due to multiple uses of the F-bomb or to a violent rape scene.
    I personally think that restricting movie audiences is an abuse of power, but would have NO problem with the MPAA putting detailed breakdowns for each movie of potentially offensive or inapprorpiate content (DEFINITELY including rape or sexualized violence) on their website.

  • Fenriswolf

    Oo, this is interesting. I never thought of this issue in the light of ratings, exactly.
    I’m always happy to see [i]good[/i] sex scenes in movies, and I’m a big fan of violence when it’s done right. Sexual violence, I pretty much cannot cope with. I end up having an emotional breakdown and being depressed for days – doesn’t even have to be rape.
    So yeah, I’d like a “sexual violence” tag thanks.
    Re: books. It is very different. I love fantasy books, and for example really enjoy David Gemmel’s writing style. His books almost always have rape in them. I sometimes find this depressing because I think the way it’s written is pretty true to life (ie: the rapists are not always bad people before this point), but it’s often satisfying too in that the victim usually gets to hurt some people. It’s different to movies, I don’t know why.

  • Jennifer

    I think this is an awesome initiative. In the vein of television-desensitizes-and-normalizes-violence, I find sexual violence in movies very shocking and disturbing. I suppose this is the desired effect of the film maker, but I request fair warning. And, you know, rape isn’t PG-13!

  • Ailei

    I too am not so sanguine about this. If I’m seeing a film that’s not based on a novel already published, then I really don’t want to know specifics of the plot ahead of time. I don’t really trust the MPAA at all (I’ve seen ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’, too), but if I see an R or NC-17 for violence, then I know to go in expecting badness, but I would lose something from the experience knowing that there are specific dramatic moments in the film ahead of time. It’s like writing fanfic on the interwebs (yes, geek alert!). Many forums force you not just to rate your work (talk about the weirdness of rating written words with MPAA ratings!), but to warn for EVERYTHING. Gay sex. Het sex. Noncon. BDSM themes (even consensual). Character death. Specific kinds of violence. Sometimes, by the time you’re done reading the warnings, there’s no point reading the damn fic at all. I’d had to see movies go down that road.

  • Shadow32

    Dame in the Kimono is an excellent book about the Hays Office that preceded the current MPAA rating system (which was considered a step forward at the time). Obviously of less relevance to contemporary censorship, but fascinating nonetheless–and it was the book that finally explained why everyone in one MASH episode was so excited (then disappointed) about getting a copy of the film The Moon is Blue.

  • sgzax

    EG’s long comment summed up my complicated feelings on the subject very well. Well done, EG.
    The MPAA is a mess and we’d be better off without it. I don’t think we’ll solve the problem by messing with the details, when the real issues are embedded in the structure itself.

  • http://aikenareaprogressive.blogspot.com Jovan1984

    Excellent observation, dondo. Rape is classified as violence (V), not as nudity (N) or strong sexual content (SSC).
    I am a big fan of nudity in movies. I am not, however, a big fan of violence in general. I will watch only violence if it is a badass woman being violent towards the evil men.
    Now, back to the topic on hand, which is the MPAA. I agree with the MPAA is broken remarks. This is why NC-17 movies are never, ever shown in theatres across the US. Since EG explained the probles with the MPAA so eloquantly, I’m going to leave it to her to explain the rest.
    As for the person in post #6, I hope that Jessica has some Troll-be-Gone left in the tank.

  • Pockysmama

    I agree with Law Fairy, I rely more on reviews than some silly, arbitrary rating system by people who are qualified because they reproduced. Even with PG-13 or R rated movies I either rely on reviews or I actually view it before I let me kid watch it watch it with my kid or (here’s a shocker!) view it with her. I’m tired of people deciding what is appropriate for a particular age group. You may have a child or someone not mature enough to view or read certain material but why should the rest of us suffer.
    There aren’t too many requests for petition signing that I ignore from this site but this will definitely be one of them. I think the entire MPAA should be dismantled.

  • Pockysmama

    I agree with Law Fairy, I rely more on reviews than some silly, arbitrary rating system by people who are qualified because they reproduced. Even with PG-13 or R rated movies I either rely on reviews or I actually view it before I let me kid watch it watch it with my kid or (here’s a shocker!) view it with her. I’m tired of people deciding what is appropriate for a particular age group. You may have a child or someone not mature enough to view or read certain material but why should the rest of us suffer.
    There aren’t too many requests for petition signing that I ignore from this site but this will definitely be one of them. I think the entire MPAA should be dismantled.

  • e_edwards_ellis

    In response to Pockysmama and Law Fairy:
    I am the head researcher on this report and we (The Women and Girls Committee at NOW-NYC) actually did consider the possibility of moving to have the MPAA disbanded until we discovered the reason why it was put together in the first place (to avoid the goverment regulatation that the Christian Right kept threatening to push for)…and the sheer number of political connections that many of its higher ups have…and the fact that market forces make it virtually impossible to market a movie without a ratings…and that most parents in this country actually DO want some sort of rating system in place.
    That said, we decided not to waste time pushing for something that we were unlikely to get and chose instead to reform the system by getting the MPAA to clearly define exactly what it meant by many of the terms it used.
    And quite frankly, Pockysmama, I don’t see how telling a rape survivor or the parents of a young child about a rape scene (or any other offensive material) in advance would cause suffering to others. After all, everyone else would still have the right to buy tickets to the show and to authorize their own children to watch it if they saw fit.
    If anything, this would make things easier for parents; I used to work in a movie theatre and I noticed that most of the parents who dropped their kids off at the theatre DIDN’T watch the film in advance or watch the film with the kids. Why? Because they were too busy making a living or managing their lives to sit down in a dark theatre for two hours. Clear cut and unambiguous ratings would allow parents to make good on-the-spot decisions about what content to expose their children to.
    Seeing that a revamped ratings system would not strip parents or moviegoers of their decision-making power and could serve to prevent censorship, I don’t understand your reluctance to sign our petition. I feel that you should read our report in its entirety before you decide on a course of action.