Functioning in its current form since 1968, the MPAA movie rating system in theory merely issues consumer suggestions based on voluntary film submissions. Thus, even its most restrictive ratings — “R” for movies requiring an accompanying adult and “NC-17” for material to which no one under 17 should have access — have no legal force.
However, the fact that most major studios submit all their new theatrical releases, and the need for theaters to comply to gain access to the new movies, means that the MPAA has a near-monopoly on admitting and excluding teenagers from cinematic art. Consequently, many directors have criticized the MPAA for effectively requiring them to self-censor if they want to distribute their movies through regular channels. Foremost among the points of contention are the facts that the ratings don’t have to be justified and neither the rating criteria nor the people responsible for the evaluations are ever made public.
However, in my opinion, the most problematic aspect of this system of content control is the sacrifice of individual liberties for dubious reasons. On one hand, there is no democratic system of accountability, or even feedback, by which the rating board might deserve to represent anyone other than itself. Consequently, the raters are likely to be wildly out of touch with the sensibilities and experiences of the teenagers concerned, who are several decades younger than them: A free society should have a strong initial presumption against such a system claiming to aid the “average” American parent in protecting their children.
And on the other hand, protecting them from what, exactly? The MPAA’s view on the world can be read from the tea leaves of its rating decisions: A 2004 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that it “may assign more restrictive ratings to films containing sex than those containing violence” which accords with a 2002 Journal of Communication study that found that the justification for a more restrictive rating for a movie was more likely to have been sexual scenes than violence.
Is this focus on sexuality rather than violence justified? With regard to the latter, a national expert panel already concluded in 2000 that there is “unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior.” However, for sexual media consumption among teenagers the main consequence found in some studies is increased sexual activity. Given the biological process which created the teenagers in question, we can see that the latter development is not inherently pathological. In fact, a review article published last month in the Journal of Research on Adolescence highlighted the increasing recognition of media, and even sexual content, as a normal part of the search for social identity by teenagers. Consequently, parents’ ability to evaluate the educational value of a movie requires a much more nuanced differentiation of sexual content based on its narrative context than the current MPAA rating provides.
Arguably, mere representations of anatomical details and narratives emphasizing the link between emotional and physical intimacy, as well as responsible sexual behavior, might actually provide a positive public health service as a supplement to often inadequate sexual education in high schools. To the contrary, the current rating framework of restricting sexual content indiscriminately leads directors to omit the offending material preemptively. Thus, the MPAA’s rating might prevent teenagers from learning about what a 2005 Adolescent Medicine Clinics survey calls “healthier aspects of human sexuality.”
This dearth of normal intimacy in movies is especially problematic given that, with the rise of the internet and video on-demand, the role of parents in providing perspective to the events seen on the screen is set to diminish even further: Surrounding sexual activity with the mystique of a forbidden “NC-17” fruit while limiting accurate information about normal sexual behavior sounds like a public health nightmare in the making. The distortion of public representations of sexuality might be part of the explanation why US teenage pregnancy rates and STD prevalence are much higher than they are in Western Europe.
If the MPAA were to be abolished, not only might artistic freedom and patronized parents benefit, but teenagers would finally be treated as the young adults deserving of accurate depictions of human intimacy that they are. Admittedly, comprehensive sexual education and open conversations with teenagers about important issues such as rape are more difficult to implement for queasy parents than delegating moral authority to an obscure board. But the merits of a free society and improved public health would make it worth the while.
Gregor Schubert is an economics major from Leipzig, Germany. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.